Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Produced by John Maxwell (6, 7, 8, 9)
Screenplay by Alfred Hitchcock (adaptation), Benn W. Levy (dialogue)
Based on the play Blackmail by Charles Bennett
Cinematography by Jack E. Cox (7, 8, 9)
Edited by Emile de Ruelle (9)
Music by Jimmy Campbell and Reg Connelly, Hubert Bath and Harry Stafford (arr.), Billy Mayerl
British International Pictures
Distributed by Wardour Films (UK), Sono Art-World Wide Pictures (US)
“I wanted the pursuit to be after the girl, not the blackmailer.” - Alfred Hitchcock
Audiences watching Hitchcock’s first sound picture may have considered the opening of Blackmail a scam. We first see a close-up of a spinning car wheel, followed by a police squad van rushing through a rough neighborhood, stopping long enough for policemen to rush into an apartment house where they find… a guy reading a newspaper in bed. But there’s a gun nearby within easy reach. While this introductory scene includes a frantic musical score, no words are exchanged between any of the characters. This might easily have been mistaken for a true silent film, since no spoken words are delivered during the first eight minutes.
Yet the opening proves that Hitchcock is still willing (or perhaps determined) to use what he knows will work: suspense created by carefully crafted visual storytelling. Any dialogue during this opening would’ve been superfluous, and Hitchcock understands that this portion of the film will be stronger without it. He’s right. In a way, Hitchcock is creating even more suspense by withholding any spoken dialogue for these first several minutes. He gets our attention and keeps it all the way up until the final frame. As we will see throughout his career, Hitchcock (at least on film) knows when to be silent.
As important as the opening is, our primary story involves Alice White (Anny Ondra, whom we last saw in The Manxman). As Alice, she’s patiently waiting for her boyfriend Frank (John Longden), a Scotland Yard detective. As soon as they’re seated at a local tea house, the fighting begins. Frank wants to see a new film called Fingerprints, but Alice isn’t interested. Frank leaves in disgust, but Alice isn’t going to leave the tea room alone. No, she’s greeted by a man named Crewe (Cyril Ritchard), an artist who can’t wait to show Alice his apartment/studio.
Alice isn’t quite sure this is the right thing to do, but Crewe’s profession as an artist is interesting, and if she can cause a little jealousy on Frank’s part, why not take advantage of it? Just for fun, Alice paints a simple face on one of Crewe’s blank canvases. Frank guides Alice’s hand and helps her create a drawing, signing her name at the bottom.
Caught up in the allure of the artist and his work, Alice sees a dancing dress hanging up. “How would I do for one of your models?” she asks. Crewe feigns indifference, which removes most of Alice’s reluctance. Once Alice has donned the dancer’s costume, Crewe’s true self and motives emerge. Alice is savvy enough to understand this and is eager to change back into her clothes and escape before Crewe gets any bolder. Yet Alice finds that the clothes she came in with are now in Crewe’s hand, and he intends to keep them for awhile.
A struggle ensues (mostly off-camera), but we see Alice reaching for a knife, which will act as a visual motif for the rest of the film. (We can’t really call this a MacGuffin, since it serves an actual purpose.) In the aftermath, we see the film’s most famous shot with Alice holding the knife, stunned at what’s just happened.
Once again, Hitchcock completely understands the new element of sound in film. We hear the struggle, although see little of it. This scene would have worked in a totally silent film, but with the addition of sound, the tension is heightened. As mentioned earlier, we will see this repeated time and time again throughout Hitchcock’s output.
I’ve spent a lot of time with the set-up of Blackmail and so does Hitchcock, but it’s time well spent. The act of blackmail itself takes a backseat to the murder, but what Hitchcock does with the blackmail - and leading up to it - provides an opportunity for the audience to experience how the murder affects Alice as she begins to see and hear accusations everywhere. Her imagination causes her to see knives in flashing street advertisements and other places. During a famous scene at home, Alice’s family is having breakfast while a visiting talky neighbor goes on and on about the murder. Alice begins to block out the sound of the neighbor’s voice, making everything unintelligible except for the word “knife,” spoken over and over with an articulation as sharp as the weapon.
I’ll refrain from discussing the rest of the film, other than to say that the tension mounts, culminating in the finale, involving a chase leading to the British Museum.
You can read about the production of the film (which began as a truly silent production) here. In Hitchcock/Truffaut, Hitchcock states that “The producers decided it would be silent except for the last reel. In those days they would advertise these as ‘part-sound pictures.’” Both versions are available. (More on that in a moment.) Blackmail was recorded with the RCA Photophone sound-on-film process rather than the Vitaphone sound-on-disc process used by Warner Bros. on Lights of New York (1928), the first U.S. all-talking film. Yet the arrival of sound brought new problems. Since German actress Anny Ondra spoke little English, Hitchcock hired English actress Joan Barry to speak the dialogue outside the frame.
I have only seen the talkie version available on Kanopy, but as far as physical media options go, the only viable one is the two-disc Kino Lorber Blu-ray from 2019, which includes both the silent and two talkie versions. (See the links below.) According to Neil Lumbard at Blu-ray.com, the silent version (nearly 10 minutes shorter than the talkie version) is far superior visually to the talkie.
DVD Beaver goes into the problems with stretching the images in the talkie versions, but gives the Kino a higher recommendation than does Blu-ray.com. I plan to pick up this release at some point, but if you own it, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Needless to say, Blackmail, along with The Lodger, is a cornerstone film from the early years of Hitchcock. As mentioned previously, so much of what we see here visually and thematically will play out throughout the remainder of Hitchcock’s career. I hope you’ll join me as I continue that journey.
Next: Juno and the Paycock (1930)
All photos are from the silent version on the Kino Lorber disc taken from DVD Beaver except for the third (subtitled) screenshot, which is from one of the talkie versions.