At a restaurant, a young woman, Alice (Anny Ondra, The Manxman), has a huge argument with her boyfriend, Frank (John Longden, Juno and the Paycock), and decides to take off with an artist (Cyril Ritchard, Half a Sixpence). Alice accompanies the artist to his apartment, and after he tries to rape her, she stabs him to death. Alice returns home and doesn’t tell anybody about the incident. After the artist’s body is discovered, Frank, a Scotland Yard detective, is assigned to the case.
Reaction & Thoughts:
“Detectives in glass houses shouldn’t wave clues.”
Blackmail marks Alfred Hitchcock’s return to some of his favorite themes: the connection between love and duty, sex and violence.
In his very first sound film, The Master of Suspense explores, intelligently and fascinatingly, what happens when laws are enforced by flawed people. Hitchcock was intrigued by human frailty and does a fantastic job toying with things like guilt, loyalty and personal responsibility. For example, the cop finds himself in a difficult moral conundrum: Does he have the courage to arrest the woman he loves? When push comes to shove, who will win the battle, duty or love?
Based on Charles Bennett’s (The 39 Steps) stage play of the same name, adapted by Hitchcock, Michael Powell (The Red Shoes and Peeping Tom) and Benn W. Levy (The Old Dark House), Blackmail was prepared as a silent movie, but halfway through the shooting the director’s bosses told him to turn it into a talkie. Hitchcock had to re-shoot many sequences, adding sound here and there.
It’s pretty amazing to see how well Hitchcock mastered the use sound during his first attempt. He didn’t just record sound, he utilized it to enhance scenes. A direct comparison between Blackmail and early Hollywood sound movies — Frankenstein, Dracula, etc. — will make you realize how shockingly original and inventive this movie really is — Hitchcock pretty much invents the concept of merging scenes with sound, a technique adopted much later by filmmakers Jean-Luc Godard and Robert Altman.
The greatest challenge Hitchcock faced came from his leading actress. Anny Ondra, who is playing a cockney girl, had a thick Czechoslovakian accent and dubbing wasn’t possible yet. Another actress was hired to say the lines while Ondra mouthed the words. Ondra did such a good job that you don’t notice the trick unless you pay close attention. I paid careful attention to Ondra, but I was unable to catch her making a mistake!.
Anyhow, Blackmail has one of Hitchcock’s bleakest, most disturbing endings. The original ending was even darker. However, the producers forced Hitchcock to come up with a lighter ending. But cynics out-there, there’s no need to worry, the new ending is ugly enough to leave viewers sad and disturbed.
This is also the first Hitchcock film to end with a chase in an iconic location. In this case, the bad guy is pursued across the British Museum of Art. Future filmmaker Michael Powell claimed to have given Hitchcock the idea, and if that’s true, Powell pretty much invented one of Hitchcock’s most famous trademarks. Hitchcock wasn’t allowed to shoot inside the museum so what you see is a clever combination of miniatures, mirrors and ingenious camera angles — the visual effects are great!
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
Blackmail remains a stunning masterwork; a deeply felt and personal work. It is, more than eighty years later, a thought-provoking thriller, every bit as diverting and multi-layered as Hitchcock’s most popular masterpieces. Highly recommended! P.S. There is also a silent version of the movie. B&W, 85 minutes, Not Rated.