WEEK 9: Blackmail (1929)

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Hello once again, and welcome back to Weekly Hitch. This is a film studies project sort of thing in which I watch all of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, in chronological order, and then analyze them to the best of my meagre ability. It’s sort of like I’m going to a very weird film school, and you have to read all my homework.

This week, our last week in the twenties, also brings us our very first film with actual synchronized sound – and brings Hitchcock back to form (and to murder) with a morally ambiguous and rather startlingly raw thriller with 1929’s Blackmail.

The Film:

The very first totally “talkie” feature film made in Britain, Blackmail represents a significant step forward for Alfred Hitchcock in terms of becoming the filmmaker we come see him as, and a pretty fascinating step forward in his story and craft as well. All that, and it’s a pretty good movie as well.

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Blackmail begins with a very detailed sequence depicting a police car arriving to arrest a suspect, interrogating him, and then booking him… fingerprints dissolving into his face. This is very much at the heart of the film – hands and faces. Guilt and evidence.

Now we meet Frank (played by John Longden) who is a policeman at Scotland Yard, and his girlfriend Alice White (played again by Anny Ondra – though not with her own voice). Alice has been waiting for Frank to take her out, and she’s not happy about it.

Later on, at dinner, Frank and Alice argue and Frank leaves in a huff, only to then see Alice leaving the restaurant with some mystery guy! He watches them go, obviously upset.

Alice and the mystery man – who turns out to be an artist (played with handsome charm by Cyril Ritchard) – stop at his apartment and the artist manages to talk Alice into coming up to see his studio, in spite of her reluctance. She’s not that kind of girl after all – though she is the kind of girl who blows her boyfriend off for another guy.

Soon, Alice is learning about the artist and being coy, and he plays a catchy song on the piano.The artist grows more and more sinister (at one point stepping into a shadow which cleverly looks like a villainous moustache on his face) and then suddenly kisses Alice against her will – drags her behind a curtain and tries to rape her!

Struggling, unseen behind the curtain, Alice reaches out and grabs hold of a bread-knife. Soon, the artist’s dead hand falls out, and Alice emerges – stunned and holding a bloody knife. She stares at the hand, at the knife, then covers her tracks before running away.

A hand in the after math

A hand in the after math

Wandering in the night, Alice sees the artist’s dead hand everywhere she looks – even a billboard becomes a stabbing knife! She eventually wanders until sunrise, going home and sneaking into bed just in time for her mother to come tell here that there’s been a murder around the corner.

And back at the scene of the crime, Alice’s boyfriend Frank (who is on the case) discovers a glove left behind by Alice and then recognizes the victim as her mystery man! Putting two and two together, Frank hides the glove and immediately decides to cover up Alice’s involvement in the death. That’s right. Frank the police officer just up and chooses to lie for his girlfriend, who killed the man she was two-timing him with. What a guy!

Donald Calthrop, looking evil.

Donald Calthrop, looking evil.

Back at her parents’ news agents / house, Alice obsesses over her crime (Hitchcock clever uses sound here to hammer home her guilt – innovator that he is) and then is shocked to find that Frank turns up and knows what she did. But he’s not the only one! A low-life stranger named Tracy (played by Donald Calthrop) saw Alice with the now dead artist, and he shows up looking for a little incentive to keep his mouth shut.

That’s right. Here we are about 50 minutes into the movie, and we finally get to the Blackmail. Tracy first wants food, then money, and so Alice forces her parents to cook him breakfast just to keep the man happy. Every step of the way, Tracy threatens to tell the police about Alice committing murder and Frank covering it up… and then Frank gets a call from his friends at Scotland Yard.

It seems that the dead man’s landlady saw Tracy lurking around, and Tracy has a criminal record. Suddenly it seems the tables have turned, and Frank tells Tracy that they’re going to pin the murder on him! It’s their word against his, and Tracy knows that won’t turn out in his favour. Soon the police are on their way, and Tracy makes a run for it!

Tracy busts out of a window and Frank is right behind him. The only man who knows that Alice killed the evil raping artist is on the lamb, and Frank pals to pin it all on him. Alice stays behind, anxious and worried.

Egyptian Room, British Museum - Blackmail (1929)

On the streets of London, Tracy runs from the cops – eventually finding himself outside the British Museum. He runs into the museum. On the inside, Hitchcock uses some pretty awesome trick-photography to film Tracy running through the museums various rooms – including climbing down a rope past a big cool statue head (reminding me of North By Northwest).

In the end, Tracy climbs up to the roof of the museum and then falls to his death through a glass ceiling! Alice is never suspected of the crime, and she and Frank walk off into an uneasy sunset – both trapped by the secret they share.

The Result:

Both challenging in its perceptions of guilt and innocence, and deceptively simple in its narrative form – Blackmail is a curiously modern movie for Hitchcock. A leap forward on some levels, and a big step backward on another.

But is it a good film? Absolutely, yes. It’s fantastic.

The first film-noir?

The first film-noir?

After an opening reel that foreshadows the best of film noir (shadow cutting across faces, dark corners, police action, guns, squalor), and a rather slow first act – Blackmail lures you into a false sense of normality as you follow Alice (Anny Ondra) on her little melodramatic turn from the (seemingly) upstanding policeman Frank, to the handsome and mysterious artist.

This is Hitchcock controlling his audience. He strings you along with a slow burn, and then just as you forget about crime and punishment, almost before you know what’s happening, there is sudden violence and the shocking twist of a hand on a knife, and a wicked man left dead. (A twist that Hitch would play again in Dial M For Murder many years later)

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However, it’s the aftermath of death that serves as the playground for Hitchcock’s imagination this time. It’s all in Anny Ondra’s face after that killing – her performance (when she’s not talking at least) is incredibly evocative. She was a wonderful actress, and the pleasure of seeing her stand in shocked silence, holding a knife and completely unable to grasp what’s just happened is unmatched in all of Hitchcock’s films so far.

An unusual frame...

An unusual frame…

Not that Blackmail doesn’t have its downsides; The film doesn’t look nearly as pretty or cinematic as his previous works. The camera work is stilted – as a result by having to place it in a giant box. And the performances, Ondry aside, aren’t nearly as dynamic or rich as in his other films. That might have something to do with the loss of Eliott Stannard – or perhaps it was just the introduction of sound into the mix.

Reviews for the movie would end up being very good, especially praising Hitchcock’s technological mastery and the exciting story – and I have to agree.

Blackmail is a fun crime drama, has some remarkably clever uses of sound, and – like The Lodger – would seem to be an incredibly important and formative step toward the quintessential Hitchcock film.

The Production:

Adapted from a stage play by future Hitchcock collaborator Charles Bennet (The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps), Blackmail began production in February of 1929 as just another silent film, until producer John Maxwell decided to try something new.

Hitchcock and Anny Ondra and sound!

Hitchcock and Anny Ondra and sound!

Maxwell had imported a synchronized sound recoding system from America for British International Pictures, and he asked Hitchcock to film the final reel of Blackmail with sound. This was fairly typical of the time, as talkies were seen as something of a novelty – and so only the final reel would be filmed with sound as a sort of surprised for the audience.

On the set of Blackmail.

On the set of Blackmail.

Hitchcock thought the idea was absurd, and instead decided to rework several scenes of the movie to include sound dialogue – and turn a ‘part-talkie’ picture into Britain’s very first ‘all-talkie’. It was a ground breaking moment for Hitch, but the decision would cost him more than a few headaches.

The first casualty would be, unfortunately, Anny Ondra – or more specifically her voice. Ondra had a thick Czech accent, and so Hitch had to replace her voice on film with that of English actress Joan Barry. Ondra would soon return to Germany, unable to continue on in English films.

Camera in a box.

Camera in a box.

Unfortunately, over-dubbing, or dialogue replacement hadn’t been invented yet – so the only way to replace Ondra’s voice was to have the English actress standing off scree with a microphone and speaking live while Ondra mimed the words. This makes for a somewhat awkward performance from the otherwise brilliant Anny Ondra in scenes where she has to talk.

And the last problem sound brought Hitchcock was in forcing his camera to sit still. Cameras at the time were very loud, and so to get useable sound they had to be encased in large boxes with glass windows. This rather hindered the cinematic freedom which Hitchcock had enjoyed up until now – and makes the dialogue scenes very static and mundane in comparison to the rest of the movie.

But sound also gave Hitchcock opportunities to find new ways of telling his story. In one brilliant moment he has Alice sitting at breakfast with her family – having just stabbed her attacker to death the night before – and hearing a neighbour talk about the killing. The neighbour repeats the word ‘knife’ over and over – until Alice can only hear that one word again and again, drilling into her guilty mind like an ice-pick. It’s really a very clever use of a new medium. Hitchcock at his best.

Hitchcock filming at the British Museum.

Hitchcock filming at the British Museum.

But it was the final (mostly silent) chase sequence through the British Museum where Hitchcock’s cinematic talents really shine. Using a very clever technique for trick photography (called Schüfftan process), he made it look like the villain Tracy and the police run through nine different parts of the museum – while never having the actors set foot in the building.

Filming on Blackmail also included the first substantial and purposeful Hitchcock cameo – showing the director being annoyed by a small child on the London underground. This style of cameo would go on to become one of Hitch’s most famous trademarks.

Hitchcock's cameo

Hitchcock’s cameo

Interestingly enough, a silent version of Blackmail was also shot and released, and I watched it this week as well – but in truth, and in spite of what others might say – I don’t think it’s as good a film. There are too many inter title cars and while the longer dialogue scenes don’t slow the film down as much as they do in the sound version, the silent Blackmail just doesn’t have the same appeal once you’ve seen and heard Hitchcock.

By June of 1929, Blackmail was finished and screened before critics – and was very well received. Some called it a return to form for Hitchcock, though a return from what, I’m not sure.

The Legacy:

So where does Blackmail fit in the with once and future Hitchcock?

Well, obviously, this film is incredibly important, and – like The Lodger – is packed full of Hitchcockian goodness and primordial cinematic style. But also, I think its success hobbled Hitchcock in a way and further cemented his path towards being the master of suspense.

Blackmail is Hitchcock’s 10th film, but only his 2nd thriller/suspense picture – which means that up until 1929 Hitchcock was 80% not a director of suspense pictures. Even when he had the chance to do whatever he wanted, he wound up doing a boxing movie – but with the success of Blackmail reenforcing the past success of The Lodger, Hitchcock must have started to see a pattern.

Make a suspenseful thriller in an expressionistic style with strong cinematic and narrative drive – and you find success.

Hitch loves hands.

Hitch loves hands.

That’s what Blackmail must have taught Hitchcock, because this film became the template for what he would always go back to in times of uncertainty. This movie, I think, represents his home base. And what a great base it is.

Blackmail has it all – from a Hitchcock-nerd sort of way. A beautiful blonde in danger, a man wrongly accused, obsession with hands, a vile person eating eggs (Hitch hated eggs), inept police, focus on procedure, a spiral staircase, minor characters talking about how to best commit a murder, a woman killing her attacker, a final climax at a famous location… I’m sure there’s even more that I’m missing. But that’s kind of the point.

Time and time again, Hitchcock would return to these themes and ideas – some were things he loved, others personal, some were just things he knew audiences like – but more than perhaps any other filmmaker, Hitchcock paid attention to what worked.

Hitch once compared the audience to an organ that you play with cinema. You make them feel emotions by playing certain keys – and in these formative years Hitchcock was learning those keys. And with Blackmail he got the chance to try more keys than he’d ever pressed before.

And then there was sound.

Special sign made for the film

Special sign made for the film

Hitchcock never had much love for sound, it was just the one thing occasionally missing from his otherwise purely cinematic pictures. But, he also saw it as a dangerous lure – something to be respected and feared. Many filmmakers would rush to sound to the detriment of image, but Hitchcock would forever remain a silent filmmaker in an insolent world. Even Psychomade 33 years after this picture, spent 40% of its screen time without anyone saying a word. That’s pure cinema.

But also, Hitchcock saw potential in sound – in its potential for contrast and commentary. He has Frank and Alice laughing throughout the first act, and then reminds us of that laughter with a painting of a laughing jester later on in the artist’s apartment. He plays the sound of a knife on a plate against the quiet tension of the blackmailer and Alice’s family. And he makes the word knife into a knife itself.

Hitch may have been new to sound, but he wasn’t new to innovation and invention.

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Perhaps we could argue that Blackmail trapped Hitchcock slightly – success can do that – but it also lit a fire in him, showed him new ways and methods, and while it would be a few more years before he realized the potential of the genre, it was at least a big step up toward the man we’d come to know and fear.

So come back next week, and we’ll break into the 1930’s with one of the most famous plays in Ireland, Juno And The Paycock.

Until then, you can watch this video of Anny Ondra’s sound-test, and watch a young Hitchcock being inappropriate. (though I think he is talking about her character, not the actress herself) Enjoy!

 

 

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