Blackmail

UK (1929) Dir. Alfred Hitchcock

The Master of Suspense may have written many rules of the thriller playbook in his seminal films but here he makes history by making the first British full-length all talking film (although a large chunk of it is still silent)! But being a nice guy, Hitch secretly filmed it without sound for those cinemas not equipped for this new gimmick.

Based on the play of the same name by Charles Bennett, Scotland Yard detective Frank Webber (John Longden) takes his girlfriend Alice White (Anny Ondra) out to a coffee bar. A row cuts the date short but sneaky Alice had already arranged to meet another man, artist Mr. Crewe (Cyril Ritchard), unaware Frank had seen them together.

After the date, Crewe invites Alice back to his flat to show her his sketches but his intentions are not as honourable as Alice thinks and he sexually assaults her. In fighting Crewe off, Alice grabs a nearby bread knife and stabs him. The next morning Frank is at the crime scene and finds one of Alice’s gloves – unfortunately a criminal named Tracy (Donald Calthrop) got his hands on the other glove and is need of some quick cash.

Leave it to Hitch to subvert a cool new development for cinema. Not only are the first 10 minutes of Blackmail silent save for a few sound effects but where most people would have used musical interludes, Hitch uses everyday sound effects to fill in the spaces, such as birds chirping or car horns honking; in the case of the former it is used incongruously, creating a conflict with the nervous action being played out.

The plot of Blackmail lends itself to an intricate and tense game of mental fortitude between Alice and Tracy but the stage play origins instead deprives us of such deep involvement. Watching this film now does expose the simplicity and naivety of the execution, in that Tracy is upfront about his insidious ruse rather than hiding in the shadows and communicating with Alice anonymously.

But this was 1929 and times were simpler, not to mention the film’s 82-minute run time and sound being in its infancy, so keeping it simple in retrospect was perhaps a necessity. But don’t think this stopped Hitchcock from getting some mileage out of Alice’s internal battle with her conscience or using the camera to tantalise our eyes with his usual creative visual motifs.

Of course, this was in response to the fact that static microphones meant the cast had to remain sedentary when recording their dialogue so Hitch was forced to spice up the film elsewhere. In the opening scene, there is a rudimentary use of green screen techniques during a car chase while overlays are employed to depict chaos and pressure, the people passing by a distraught Alice in the street after leaving the crime scene standing out in particular.

The actual murder doesn’t occur until over 30 minutes into the film and ironically, as the most important scene, it is shot in complete silence but is still a powerful and masterful bit of filmmaking. It takes place behind a curtain with only Alice’s arm breaking through in the struggle, swiping aimlessly for something to grip on to, narrowly missing the conveniently placed knife on ht bedside table.

She eventually grabs the knife and the curtain ruffles frantically before slowing down to a halt, Crewe’s limp arm flopping out onto the table. Censorship rules at the time would have precluded an explicit depiction of the stabbing but this version is much more effective and poetic. Later Hitch does it again this time using sound to its full advantage.

Alice is at home having breakfast with her family at the back of their tobacco shop and has to cut some bread. A local gossip is there waffling on about the murder constantly using the word “knife”. This word alone is intelligible every time Alice reaches for the knife, her already frayed nerves being pushed to breaking point as the word “knife” is symbolically stabbing Alice’s conscience.

One other area where the sound threatens to undermine the gravity and credibility of the titular blackmail is with the antagonist Tracy. He looks every part the shady low life, with his unshaven appearance and shifty demeanour yet when he speaks his accent is plum perfect posh! How Hitch let this fly I can only assume was down to the novelty of sound recording but it makes for an almost hilarious parody of this nefarious crime scenario.

Ironically the issue of accents also blighted the main role of Alice, as leading lady Anny Ondra was a Czech and Hitchcock didn’t think her accent worked as a prim and proper English girl, so actress Joan Barry spoke Alice’s lines off camera and Ondra lip synced to them (this was before dubbing was developed). A very brief clip of Ondra’s sound test reveals her voice wasn’t bad and she could have pulled it off with more confidence but what’s done is done.

Performance wise Ondry’s reaction to killing Crewe is fascinating to watch, bearing the hallmarks of the stiff, melodramatic acting style of the period yet suffused with an underlining believability. Ondry moves almost robotically, in short precise movements, her eyes never blinking as if in a trance; her walking is laboured as if her legs are made of wood and her mind has forgotten how to control them.  

Under the scrutiny of modern eyes viewing this in retrospect Blackmail doesn’t stand up as an inspiring entry in Hitchcock’s oeuvre but his trademark touches are here in their nascent form – the blonde female victim, the twisting of the law, the use of a famous landmark in the climax and of course the innovative visual flourishes.

The denouement is sadly risible and bathetic but again this was when happy endings were de rigueur but to see the birth of Hitchcock as we know him, this film justifies to its historical importance.