Blackmail (1929) / Thriller
MPAA Rated: Not rated, but probably PG for thematic material
Running Time: 85 min.
Cast: Anny Ondra, John Longden, Donald Calthrop, Cyril Richard, Joan Barry (voice)
Cameo: Alfred Hitchcock
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Alfred Hitchcock (adapted on the play by Charles Bennett), Benn W. Levy (dialogue)
Review published December 12, 2013
Anny Ondra (The Manxman, The Affairs of Julie) plays Alice White, who ends up killing a man (Richard, Half a Sixpence) in self defense when he gets a little too rough with her. Her boyfriend, Frank Webber (Longden, Young and Innocent), happens to be one of the Scotland Yard detectives called to the murder scene, who finds evidence that she may have been involved and hides it. Meanwhile, Alice is racked with guilt over the incident, while Frank does what he can to keep her from suspicion. Things take a turn for the worse when a two-bit criminal (Calthrop, Scrooge) shows up with evidence of his own against her and tries to blackmail the would-be suspects.
Blackmail is the first 'talkie' by Alfred Hitchcock (The Ring, The Man Who Knew Too Much), and according to many, the first full-on talkie from Great Britain altogether. Though it finds him a bit unsteady in the transition, his masterful visual manner of storytelling still makes this another of his solid British thrillers. It actually hadn't been intended to have sound, as the technology for it emerged on the scene in Great Britain while the film was well into shooting phase. The studio requested, in order to increase its appeal, that Blackmail should have at least one reel with sound, but Hitch found it awkward to suddenly introduce it late in the film, so he immediately went to work to re-shoot many of the early scenes to have spoken dialogue, as well as inject a few new ones.
However, there was a pretty sizable catch: the film's star, Ondra, had a very thick Eastern European accent, and couldn't be well understood in the still-primitive sound process. In this era in which looping had yet to be invented, Hitch found a clever way around this by having Joan Barry (Rich and Strange, Rome Express) speak the words aloud while Ondra 'lip-synched'. It's somewhat noticeable at first, but Ondra develops better rhythm as she goes along, and the film ends up working quite well.
In addition to this being Hitchcock's first sound film, there were also a couple of other things introduced that one can famously find in many of his later works. It is credited as being the first of Hitchcock's films to cast his archetypical 'cool blonde' as a leading lady. It is also the first film to use a landmark location, here, The British Museum, as the setting for the film's big climax. It also captures several shots that are evoked in some of his later work, including the infamous shot looking down a spiral staircase, so iconic in his masterpiece, Vertigo.
While the film gets going in a big way once the actual murder takes place, Blackmail does have some pacing issues in its first half hour. Some of this is due to the silent-movie style in the first few scenes, while the setting of the murder victim's apartment takes a great deal of time to get going, as Hitch explores putting on-screen music into his film (a novelty), and engages in a bit of early voyeurism in finding ways for Ondra to try on some sexier attire (for its time, anyway). Hitchcock adapted the Charles Bennett play of the same name himself, though he may have been coerced by the studio into changing the play's downbeat ending in favor of more of a crowd pleaser (though, ironically, decidedly amoral).
Nevertheless, Hitchcock's visionary skills are able to kick this contrived story into something gripping and compelling. Freudian inserts such as Alice's obsession/repulsion with knives (her murder weapon) are injected in clever ways. One involves a neon-lighted advertisement in which a cocktail shaker in motion becomes, in Alice's mind, a knife with similar stabbing motion. Another utilizes his new sound technique in which Alice tries to drown out another person's conversation, but the word "knife" still comes through loud and clear, as if stabbing through.
While its historical significance often rivals its content for film historians, this early Hitchcock work is still a very solid choice for Hitchcock fans looking to explore his older work, especially in seeing one of his early films exploring his oft-used themes of murder, guilt, and implication of the audience into siding with the killer.
Also, if you're going to give this a watch, the restored print from Studio Canal/BFI is the one of choice. They have also included the rare, original silent print of the film, which had been released later for the many theaters that still hadn't converted to the sound process, as a bonus feature on at least one of their DVD releases.
©2013 Vince Leo