The Hitchcock Files: Blackmail (1929)

The Hitchcock Files is a continual feature at The Kuleshov Effect.  In these posts, I take a detailed and chronological look at the filmography of Alfred Hitchcock.  It should be noted that this series does not include his early silent films, though these are probably noteworthy in their own right.

“A good, clean, honest whack over the head with a brick is one thing.  There’s something British about that.  But knives… nope, knives is not right.  I must say that’s what I think and that’s what I feel.  Whatever the provocation I could never use a knife.  Now mind you a knife is a difficult thing to handle… knife… knife… knife…” –Blackmail

If there’s one thing that can be said about Alfred Hitchcock, it’s that he was an innovator.  He first worked in the motion picture industry as a title card designer, and was so good at it he was directing silent features within five years.  Over the next five decades he would radically influence the art of filmmaking and be known as the ultimate “master of suspense.”  Through his habit of having a cameo in each of his films, appearing in marketing materials, and hosting his own television show (Alfred Hitchcock Presents), he would become one of the few film directors everyday citizens could easily recognize.   Though he never won an Academy Award for Directing, if there was a Top 10 list for Best Directors of All Time, he’d be on it. 

Even though I love the few Hitchcock films I’ve seen, and am fully aware of his larger-than-life reputation, I wasn’t expecting much when I sat down to watch his first sound film – one of the first European talkies – Blackmail.  Released in the summer of 1929, it had only been a year-and-a-half since Warner Bros. had premiered The Jazz Singer in the United States, which signaled the sound revolution.  That film, while accompanied by recorded score and a few sound effects, only had a few scenes in which sound was recorded live on set, and most of them were musical numbers.  I expected much of the same from Blackmail.

Thankfully, Hitch did not disappoint!  Though the studio had originally only wanted the film’s last reel to include sound, he stopped in the middle of production and filmed the entire thing with recorded audio, reshooting scenes when necessary.  Not only that, but he went ahead and edited together a silent version of the film to boot (since many theaters still didn’t have the capacity to play sound).  He wasn’t even thirty years old, but he already seemed destined to have a major impact on the industry.

Blackmail follows Alice White (Anny Ondra), a woman who murders a man (Cyril Richard) in self-defense.  Her boyfriend, Scotland Yard detective Frank Webber (John Longden) attempts to keep her from being arrested, but the couple soon becomes the target of a blackmailer (Donald Calthrop) who knows the truth.

It would be remiss of me not to begin by discussing the murder scene.  As far as I’m aware, this is the first time that Hitchcock actually showed a murder onscreen.  One of his silent films, The Lodger, did revolve around the search for a serial killer, but this marks the first in a long career of dramatic killings.  Right from the beginning, it’s clear that Hitchcock values suspense over surprise.  The pivotal killing doesn’t occur until 30 minutes into the film – until then, the audience is introduced to her relationship with Frank and forced to watch as she’s seduced by another man.  Cyril Richard is fantastic as the seemingly-charming Mr. Crewe, who gradually goads her into more and more of a compromising situation, usually by appealing to her sense of pride (such as by daring her to try on a revealing outfit).  He seems nice enough, but there is just enough of a hint of uncertainty about him that we start to doubt his motives.  At one point the shadow of a chandelier falls on face, making him look like a old-fashioned mustached villain.  Hitch would later call this shot his “farewell to silent pictures.”

There’s a stunning crane shot that tracks the duo up several flights of stairs to Crewe’s apartment – it’s the kind of shot that would still be cool even if done today – and at last we’re at the scene of the crime.  This sequence includes several of the elements that Hitchcock would come to be known for.  Firstly, there’s the charming villain, who would show up again in films like Notorious and North By Northwest.  Secondly, there’s the blonde female lead – Hitch felt brunettes were inherently more suspicious.  Thirdly, it takes a while to get to the payoff, which is how he kept viewers on the edge of their seats.  And finally, there’s a very interesting moment in which Alice is changing clothes behind a screen while Mr. Crewe plays the piano.  Though he is not allowed to watch her change, the audience is permitted to see her undress down to her undergarments.  The idea of audience as voyeur would play a major role in some of his most popular films, such as Rear Window and Psycho.

As for the actual murder, well, we don’t actually see it.  He starts to get aggressive, takes her behind the curtain, we see a close-up of her hand reaching for help and finding the knife, and before you know it the deed is done.  While we’ve heard a great deal of talking and sound effects up to this point, Hitchcock let the murder occur in near silence, adding an extra twinge of creepiness.  With him, the event is never as important as the build-up; it’s quick and clean and then we’re back to a constant atmosphere of unease.  In an interview he would conduct decades later with Francois Truffaut, he would outline the important difference between “surprise” and “suspense.”  To paraphrase: “Imagine there’s a bomb under the table between us and the audience is aware of it.  With surprise, it explodes.  With suspense, it doesn’t.  One lasts fifteen seconds, the other lasts fifteen minutes.”

Anny Ondra is phenomenal in the post-murder sequence.  Though her thick German accent, as heard in the sound test above, caused Hitchcock to dub her lines live on set (Joan Barry spoke the lines while Ondra mouthed them), it’s clear why she was cast before sound was a factor.  She spends the next ten minutes in a state of complete and utter shock.  Her eyes are glassy.  Her knees are wobbly.  She’s essentially a pre-Romero zombie, and manages to pull off the deer-in-the-headlights look in a way that’s sad and terrifying rather than dull or comical.  Hitchcock’s handling of these minutes after the killing is masterful, from how he has her remember to cover her tracks to the fact that she changes back into her clothes behind the screen, even though there’s no one left to see her.  She may be in a state of shock, but there’s a part of her brain that’s still remarkably composed about the entire situation.

The editing of the next sequence is superb, as she walks around the city (even though her home is apparently just “around the corner”) all night long in a daze.  Everywhere she looks she finds reminders of her crime, from a knife that appears in neon lights to the extended harm of a street bum that reminds her of that of the body.  This may also be the first time we ever see the oft-repeated effect of a scream being used to transition into a new scene, as Alice’s scream of surprise becomes that of the housekeeper finding the body.

Hitch’s expert craftsmanship continue to be on full display in the next few scenes as Alice pretends to have been home in bed all night.  She changes clothes once more, and the camera emphasizes her legs, creating a creepy semi-sexual callback to the night before.  She looks in the mirror and, whether by continuity error or intention, appears to not be wearing a top, connoting her emotional nakedness.  Downstairs she hears a neighbor – who’s dressed in a shirt reminiscent of striped prison garb – talking about the murder and soon all she (and the audience) can make out is the word “knife” repeated over and over.  It’s an ingenious use of new sound technology.  Absolutely brilliant.

The blackmail for which the film is titled doesn’t get underway until the last half hour of the movie, when a petty criminal played by Donald Calthrop discovers Alice’s guilt and attempts to blackmail her and Frank lest he reveal what he knows to the police.  Hitchcock’s mistrust of the police is on full display – Frank reveals he’s not above twisting the law for his own benefit, and a shot of the police chief dissolves into that of the blackmailer.  For Hitch, the police qualify as evildoers just as much as the actual criminals.

The ending of the film feels a bit rushed, though it’s here that Hitch begins his custom of including famous landmarks in his work.  The final chase scene occurs in the British Museum, and since he and his crew weren’t allowed inside he was forced to get creative.  By taking still photographs of the museum’s interior and combining them with the Schufftan Process, he and his crew were able to create the illusion that the action was occurring inside the museum.  Eighty years later, I was fooled, and figured that they had either filmed on location or on a well-designed set.

The main flaw with Blackmail, in my opinion, is its opening scene.  It’s silent and serves no purpose except to show Frank doing a little detective work.  Apparently it was going to tie in with the original ending of the film, but when that changed, for some strange reason they decided to keep it.  I honestly don’t know why.  Speaking of the ending, though it’s a bit lighter than Hitch originally wanted, it’s still wonderfully ambiguous with regards to its morality.  Though Alice appears to have gotten away with murder (as she arguably should, since it was in self-defense), she’s still plagued with enormous guilt.  The final shot of the painted jester pointing menacingly at her as the men around her inadvertently laugh at Truth, is chilling.

And of course, I can’t discuss a Hitchcock film without mentioning the cameo.  It’s one of his longer ones, and more comical than usual, as we find ol’ Hitch being tormented by a young boy as he rides the train.  If only children could learn to keep their hands to themselves...

Overall, I found Blackmail to be surprisingly engaging and suspenseful given its age.  If you’re a fan of early cinema, or of Hitchcock, I’d recommend giving it a watch.  Since the copyright laws regarding films this old are a little vague, the entire film is available to watch online here.  If Hitchcock was this talented this early in his career, this series is definitely going to be worthwhile!

Next on The Hitchcock Files: Juno and the Paycock