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The Cool Channel DVD Review: Blackmail

July 6, 2006 | Posted by J.D. Dunn

Blackmail (1929)

D: Alfred Hitchcock
W: Alfred Hitchcock, from a play by Charles Bennett
Starring: Anny Ondra, Sara Allgood, Charles Paton, John Longden and Harvey Braban.
Runtime: 84m.

The Film:

Oh, Anny Ondra, you scatterbrained, naïve woman. Trusting someone in a Hitchcock film? Well, perhaps you can’t be blamed. It is, after all, Hitch’s first signature sound picture and Britain’s first sound picture ever! Maybe you just didn’t know any better.

It never fails. With every new technology, overzealous directors find some way to exploit it to the hilt. When color first became a technological possibility in film, we saw directors and art designers drape their actors and sets in lavish oranges and yellows, bright reds and vibrant blues. To help tell the story? No, silly. Because they could. The same thing happened with 3-D in the 1950s. Suddenly, everything was thrown at the camera to take advantage of this new process.

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So, it should come as no surprise then that directors started throwing in as much sound as possible to exploit the new sound recording process. Music? Definitely. Birds chirping? Why not. Steam engine roaring? If you say so. Gunshots? I shouldn’t even have to confirm it.

Thankfully, Britain had “the Master” to guide their first talkie, and the combination of Hitchcock’s shy reserve and his directorial acumen meant that the first British talkie would use sound in a sensible and artistic way. Of course, Hitch’s trademark visuals and storytelling are on display as well.

“There can be no denying the genius on display here, even if the experimentation with new technology is not always successful.”

We open with Scotland Yard getting a call to a rundown apartment building where they find their target enjoying a cig and a paper in bed. He resists arrest, but they haul him in for questioning (with the time passage brilliantly rendered as a montage of ground up cigarette butts piling up in an ashtray), and toss him into a cell.

It’s a hard day’s work, but Detective Frank Webber (Longden) doesn’t mind because he has the love of a good woman (Ondra) behind him. Like all flapper girls, Alice White just wants an exciting and interesting relationship. Her straight-laced copper just ain’t getting the job done, so when The Artist, Mr. Crewe (Cyril Ritchard, ) proposes a clandestine meeting after Alice spends her dinner bickering with Frank, she agrees to go home with him.

Intrigued by the idea of “an artist,” Alice goes against her judgment and accompanies Crewe up to his studio. Hitchcock, ever the one to ring out suspense from any moment, takes us each and every step as Alice and Crewe scale the stairs to Crewe’s apartment.

Crewe is a smooth player, though. He invites her to try her hand at painting and modeling, both of which Alice is perfectly willing to participate in. When he makes his move, though, Alice rebukes his advances. Crewe persists, prompting a violent confrontation hidden from us by a drape. Alice reaches out, desperate to avoid being raped, and what does she find? A knife. It’s Hitchcock, so you can probably figure out what happens next.

Alice, still in shock from the ordeal, leaves the body in the apartment and wanders home, unaware that she was spotted going in and out of the building by Tracy (Donald Calthrup). When the body is found, that gives Tracy an opening to squeeze some money out of her (hence the film’s title).

Much of the rest of the film plays on Alice’s fear and paranoia. The advertisements seem to accuse and mock her. She even imagines a shaking cocktail as a stabbing knife. Hitch puts his skill on display, using the repetition of the word “knife” emerging from a series of gibberish to depict White’s obsession and guilt over what she’s done.

Frank, despite being a stand-up cop, tries to pin the murder on the blackmailer himself, turning the tables and leading to a grandscale chase atop the British Museum.

Shot both as a silent and as a talkie, “Blackmail” stands as Hitchcock’s first signature sound thriller. There can be no denying the genius on display here, even if the experimentation with new technology is not always successful. There were a number of things going against the film, not the least of which was the fact that the film began shooting as a silent, but when the studio got wind of the success The Jazz Singer was having in the states, they decided to make it a sound film as well. According to rumor, though, the studio wanted only the final reel in sound.

Perhaps it was this studio interference that caused Hitchcock to get frustrated and turn in a film that, while a solid little suspenser, doesn’t exactly hold up to his best work. A number of scenes or shots go above and beyond what his contemporaries were doing (the shot through a mirror, the changing advertisements, the paranoid breakfast), but you get the sense of a film that collapsed under the weight of too many changes.


In the film, there is a certain Victorian hypocrisy wrapped up in the fact that Alice kills a man who tried to sexually assault her and then is punished for it by being left on the brink of insanity by the end of the film. Is she being castigated for the mere fact that she went up to his loft (as, some would argue, Tess of the D’Urbervilles was)? That will be a running theme throughout Hitchcock. Everyone has issues, I guess, and punishing women for sexual freedom is one of Hitch’s peculiar fetishes.

Besides sexual repression, the usual Hitchcockian themes are on display — a healthy-but-muted distrust of the justice system, family politics, and paranoia all get their little moments, the latter in the form of a nightmarish painting of a clown pointing and laughing at the heroin in the moments in which she feels most guilty.

Every Hitchcock film has at least one scene that defines it, whether it is Cary Grant sprinting away from a cropduster, Jimmy Stewart standing helplessly on the edge of a church, or Janet Leigh settling in for a nice shower. In Blackmail, it is the breakfast scene. Only Hitchcock would have had the artistic temerity to experiment with Expressionism with a technology that hadn’t even been used before. As a result, Hitchcock became the first director to explore a character’s inner thoughts through sound.

The second scene that deserves mention is the rape scene, certainly risqué for its time. How does one render such a scene without being able to display overt sexuality? For Hitchcock, the answer was simple. He cloaked the entire scene behind a large sheet hanging from the cad’s four-post bed. Once again, he uses the sounds of the struggle as a storytelling device, not as mere ear candy.

The 411Blackmail may not be prime Hitchcock, but it's an interesting launching point for "The Master of Suspense" to take off in this new era, and a precursor to his later masterpieces. A worthy precursor to his later signature thrillers. B
Final Score:  5.5   [ Not So Good ]  legend

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J.D. Dunn
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