Hitchmania: Blackmail (1929)
Alfred Hitchcock veers into the world of sound with Blackmail. This 1929 picture is one of his best to date, making use of tension and the ever-twisting conception of honour to weave its tale. Hitchcock shot both a sound version and a silent version. He shot the silent version first, then re-shot it as a talkie. The talkie was released first, with the silent version meant for theatres not yet equipped for sound pictures.
Word around the campfire is that the studio first wanted Hitch to shoot part of the movie in sound to capitalize on the “newfound popularity” of hearing things, but the filmmaker thought it was a ridiculous idea and went ahead to shoot the whole shebang in sound – save for the first several minutes. As a result, the first drop of dialogue isn’t heard until about the eight minute mark.
Blackmail opens with Scotland Yard detective Frank Webber (John Longden) hauling in a bad guy and doing his job. It’s all very procedural. He then meets his girlfriend Alice (Anny Ondra) and they had to a packed restaurant for a night out. There is clearly trouble in their relationship. Alice eventually breaks her date with Frank and runs off with another man (Cyril Ritchard).
Unfortunately, the other man turns out to have some serious advances on his mind. He accosts and tries to rape Alice once she’s trapped in his studio apartment, but she stabs him to death with a knife and runs away. The murder is investigated by Frank and a witness, the shady and sweaty Tracy (Donald Calthrop), finds his way into the middle of things with motives all his own.
Blackmail is a wonderful example of Hitchcock’s gift for tension. Each scene is carefully drawn to exact the maximum dosage, with things gleefully kicked off after Ondra’s character says “they got a real criminal” to direct the movie she and her beau were thinking of seeing. This cheeky, self-referential nod prefaces the manipulations and manifestations to come.
As with many of Hitchcock’s pictures, Blackmail does the dance of sexual power. The sequence inside the artist’s apartment finds Alice trapped like a rat in a cage. The fiend subtly constructs his attack, cheekily suggesting to Alice that she try on an outfit so that he might draw her. When she refuses, he plays coy and convinces her to do it without directly asking her.
The tension advances after Alice kills the guy. She stumbles in a stupor, unsure of what she’s done but positive of the moral weight on her shoulders. When a neighbour (Phyllis Konstam) starts gossiping about the crime while Alice is having breakfast with her family, the word “knife” cuts at the poor girl like the very blade she plunged into the “victim.”
And this really is where Hitch’s technical prowess starts to shine. No sooner is he in the sound pool than he tries to play around with the elements, first leaving dialogue out of the first eight minutes and then dropping the sound in and out to achieve a nightmarish quality. He haunts his poor characters with his love of the medium and, subsequently, he terrorizes his audience.
Hitchcock also turns to visual tricks. He cuts the staircase from the side while Alice and the man go up to his studio, but transforms the view of the same staircase to a downward spiral when she departs. He also showcases the shadow of the blackmailer and traumatizes Ondry with visions of limp arms that hearken back to the horrific sight of the dead artist.
The tension further escalates thanks to the gangbusters performance by Calthrop. He’d eventually appear in five Hitchcock films, with Blackmail being the first. He conducts himself like the perfect slippery opportunist, tossing a wedge in an already complicated situation and giving Frank and Alice literally no time to come to terms with the events of the night before. When he takes over the cigar shop and Alice’s home by sitting in her father’s chair, the reactions are priceless.
A final note has to be said about Anny Ondra. She was cute in The Manxman, but here her character is far more complex and far sexier. She undresses a number of times, for one thing, but it’s the way she turns slowly toward the camera holding the knife that serves as the movie’s visual stunner. It’s something right out of a modern horror film and it is bloody awesome.