Director’s Spotlight: Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929)

Blackmail (1929)Synopsis:

At some point during dinner at a restaurant, a young woman, Alice White (Anny Ondra, The Manxman), has a huge argument with her boyfriend, Frank Webber (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, she stabs him to death. Shocked, Alice returns home and doesn’t tell anybody about the incident. Later, the artist’s body is found and Frank, who is a Scotland Yard detective, is assigned to the case. He slowly realizes that his girlfriend is the murderer he is looking for. Things get complicated when a seedy criminal (Donald Calthrop, Fire Over England) begins blackmailing Alice.

Reaction & Thoughts:

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, Hitchcock explores, intelligently and fascinatingly, what happens when laws are enforced by flawed people. Hitchcock was, of course, always intrigued by human frailty and he does a fantastic job toying with things like guilt, loyalty, and 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 would win the battle, duty or love?

Based on Charles Bennett’s (Reap the Wild Wind and Night of the Demon) stage play of the same name, adapted by Hitchcock, Michael Powell (The Red Shoes and Peeping Tom), and Benn Levy, 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 any early Hollywood sound movie — 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 Jean-Luc Godard, Robert Altman, and David Lynch.

The greatest challenge Hitch faced came from his leading actress. 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.

This is also the first Hitchcock film to end with a chase in a most unlikely place. In this case the bad guy is pursued across the British Museum of Art. 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. The chase is every bit as exciting as the chase at the top of the Statue of Liberty in Saboteur and the one at the top of Mount Rushmore National Memorial in North by Northwest.

Hitchcock wasn’t allowed to shoot inside the museum so what you see is a clever combination of miniatures, mirrors and ingenious camera angles.

Blackmail has one of Hitchcock’s bleakest, most disturbing endings. The original ending was even darker, and Hitchcock was upset with the studio-imposed ending, but needed not to worry — what was shot is ugly enough to leave the audience disturbed, sad, shocked.

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 like Vertigo and Psycho. P.S. There is also a silent version of the movie, but I haven’t seen it. B&W, 85 minutes, Not Rated.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929)

Hitch’s cameo

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2 responses to “Director’s Spotlight: Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929)

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