Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Blackmail (1929)

Blackmail was Alfred Hitchcock's first sound film, released by British International Pictures, and according to promotional material was the "first full length all talkie film made in Great Britain".  The first time I saw this film I thought it actually was a silent film but was very surprised when the characters began speaking.  The first few minutes are a little misleading because there is only a soundtrack with some special effects sounds.  Speaking of soundtrack the music is provided courtesy of the British International Symphony Orchestra. 

Classic Hitchcock suspense and style is evident in the opening minutes of the film with the use of extraordinary camera angles and imagery, as a criminal sees the image of the police in the doorway of his apartment reflected off of a candlestick while he nervously contemplates reaching for a pistol.  More of the master's style is displayed as he demonstrates the passage of time during a police interrogation not with the spinning hands of a clock as any other director would, but with the accumulation of cigarette butts in an ashtray.

The heart of the story begins as "Alice White" (Anny Ondra) waits at Scotland Yard for her fiancé "Detective Frank Webber" (John Longdon) to finish his shift.  She half-heartedly accepts his invitation for a date and suggests they go to a restaurant rather than go to a movie.  What Frank didn't know was that Alice secretly wanted to meet someone else at that restaurant at the same time.  After a brief argument Frank leaves and stops outside to cool off a bit, but as he's standing there he notices Alice leave with another man, an artist (Cyril Ritchard) who lives near Alice.  While walking Alice home the artist lures her up to his apartment and tries to take advantage of her.  Alice fights back and while defending herself stabs the artist killing him.  She escapes and wanders the streets dazed before she returns home where she lives with her parents (Sara Allgood, Charles Paton).

Frank is assigned to the murder case and it doesn't take him long to determine that the man that was killed is the same man that was with Alice earlier, and that she is involved with the crime.  But a local career criminal and hoodlum named "Tracy" (Donald Calthrop) also suspects Alice's involvement and, after seeing her speaking to Frank, decides to blackmail the two of them.  Everything goes along smoothly for Tracy until Hitchcock tosses one of his trademark wrenches into the works.  Of course everything builds to a fever pitch and ends with a climactic chase through the British Museum

Anny Ondra just seems to glow when she's on screen, she is just beautiful.  She was also in Hitchcock's The Manxman (1929).  Cyril Ritchard starred as "Captain Hook" opposite Mary Martin's Peter Pan (1960).  And Sara Allgood appeared in many films including How Green Was My Valley (1941), The Spiral Staircase (1946), and Cluny Brown (1946).

This is a great film and probably one of my top five Hitchcock films.  He had made probably a dozen or so films before Blackmail and we can see that he had already begun his longtime fascination with choosing blondes as leading ladies.  Don't forget to watch for his quick cameo appearance a few minutes into the film.  If you're not familiar with Hitchcock's early work, this is a perfect film to start out with and get acquainted with the master.


  1. I was fortunate enough to see the silent version of "Blackmail" (with live musical accompaniment) in a theater last year. I was very impressed that Hitchcock was as accomplished and sophisticated a filmmmaker as he was at that early stage of his career.

    "Talkies" were coming in as "Blackmail" was going into production and the decision was made to film two versions. The silent version was the one seen by most in the early days because the majority of theaters in GB didn't yet have sound systems. Because Anny Ondra had a strong Czech accent, Hitchcock used Joan Barry (the stunning blonde star of "Rich and Strange") for Alice's voice. But dubbing hadn't come into practice yet, so Barry spoke the dialogue into a mic off-camera as Ondra more or less pantomimed her role.

    I've since seen the sound version of "Blackmail." Perhaps because the sound was rudimentary or because there seemed less ambiguity in the sound version, I was surprised to find that I preferred the silent. I hope you have a chance to see it someday, I'd love to know your comparison of the two.

    Great post on what I consider Hitchcock's best early film.

  2. Thanks for the comment and the info Eve ... I knew that Ondra's voice was dubbed but didn't know whose voice was actually used. It must have been incredible to see the film on the big screen especially with live accompaniment. I'm wondering if the score of the viewing that you attended was done courtesy of the Alloy Orchestra. I know they've toured and done scores for "The General", and "Blackmail" as well as for the latest release of "Metropolis".