d. Alfred Hitchcock / UK / 84 mins.
With Blackmail in 1929, Alfred Hitchcock ushered in the sound-era of cinema to Great Britain. Alongside The Lodger, it is the best of Hitchcock's films before he hit his stride with the espionage thrillers that would become his trademark genre in Britain (beginning in 1934 with The Man Who Knew Too Much, including The 39 Steps, and running through The Lady Vanishes in 1938).
Stories abound regarding Hitchcock's habit of meticulously planning a film. His most famous shots were storyboarded to perfection and hardly deviated from: the shower scene in Psycho, the Statue of Liberty scene in Saboteur, the crop-duster sequence in North by Northwest. But Blackmail, with its revolutionary inclusion of sound, might top them all, because when production began in early 1929, everyone involved thought the film was going to be silent. The producer – John Maxwell, at British International Pictures in London – had seen the explosion of interest in sound when The Jazz Singer premiered in England in 1928, and he was ready to begin incrementally including sound in films. When Maxwell gave Hitchcock the green light to include small amounts of sound in Blackmail, Ronald Neame – the assistant cameraman – noted that Hitchcock had already become fascinated by the potential of sound and "was way ahead of the game." According to Hitchcock biographer Patrick McGilligan, Hitchcock had already been filming Blackmail twice – producing potential negatives for it as a silent picture and potential negatives for it as a sound picture. (It was released as both, in sound for those theaters that could play it and also silent for the rest of Great Britain.)
The screenplay, based on a play of the same name by Charles Bennett, was adapted by Hitchcock and Benn Levv, with help from Garnett Weston and a young Michael Powell (yes, that Michael Powell). Alice White (Anny Ondra) is a young London girl socializing with two men, a Scotland Yard detective (John Longden) and a lascivious artist (Cyril Ritchard). When Alice and the artist go back to his apartment, they flirt but ultimately she refuses his rather violent sexual advances, she kills him in self-defense. The detective wants to cover for her, but soon they both find themselves tortured and blackmailed by a petty criminal (Donald Calthrop) who witnessed her at the scene of the crime.
Aside from sound, Blackmail proved to be a landmark film in a different way. Furthering what he already accomplished thematically in The Lodger, Hitchcock centralized many more of the elements that would cycle through his films for the rest of his career: the dazzling blonde woman, an act of violent committed in a trance, the incorporation of a well-known and public locale (the British Museum), an extended chase sequence, and highly sophisticated and overtly artistic, detail-oriented filmmaking devices. He had done some of this exceptionally well in The Lodger, of course, including the blonde girl and the emphasis on technical superiority to tell a story in a visually compelling way. In the beginning of Blackmail, however, we are given a preview of how artistic the film will be. It opens on a scene where the police quietly enter the apartment of a wanted man who is the reading the newspaper. He looks off to his side and the camera zooms in to a small mirror, in which he (and we) can see the reflection of the officers in the doorway. Most memorably, we pause the quick pacing of the film to observe the obsessive task of cleaning a crime scene and escaping. Afterward, as Alice walks the streets of London, Hitchcock is adept at the physical manifestation of guilt through montages of repeated imagery and a brilliant fadeout where a neon-light martini shaker going up and down turns into a neon-light of a hand holding a knife, stabbing up and down.
A silent version of Blackmail exists, although the talking version is the one most commonly available. Critics have written that the silent version is a better film overall, and I'd certainly be interested in doing a comparison. (And no, you just can't mute the sound version and re-create the effect.) As it is, Blackmail isn't completely a "talkie" film, and large scenes of it (including the first ten minutes) are presented as a silent film, with little to no sound effects and only a roaring score to accompany the audience. Although I can't speak to the silent version's success or quality, one of the reasons I'm sure it must come across as cleaner is that, in silence, the trouble with Ondra is eliminated. Because the film takes place in England, and Ondra was Eastern European with a heavy accent, her lines were dubbed by a British actress named Joan Barry. However, while that sounds simple enough today, dubbing technology as we know it did not exist in 1929 and, according to the British Film Institute, Barry had to recite and record the lines standing immediately off-camera while Ondra lip-synched the words in front of the camera. The performance is nowhere near airtight, but it functions. (It is the film's most obvious "trick" on the audience, but not the only trick. During the climactic chase sequence at the British Museum, Hitchcock utilized camera tricks developed in Germany by Eugen Shüfftan, in which photographs would be taken of a setting then reflected into a mirror and filmed to create the illusion that a person was actually inside the museum.)
So the silent version might win the hearts of critics (like I said, I can't speak to it, having not seen it myself), but think of all the brilliant experimentation you would lose in a purely silent version of Blackmail. There's little doubt in my mind that Hitchcock considered sound as anything less than a legitimate and expressive cinematic device. As he did with camerawork in silent films and as he would do for color and other technical innovations later in his career, he ingeniously incorporates sound into Blackmail as an artistic element in ways that make our brains dance with delight. Hardly a decibel is spent on something that is unworthy. The sounds present themselves chillingly (like the metal of a knife clanging against a porcelain plate) or psychologically, as a way to advance the plot. After the murder, Alice returns and boils over her guilt as they talk the news without knowing she has had anything to do with it; stunned and in a trance, she sits at a table, the words of her family and friends' conversation blurring into the background by Hitchcock who suddenly allows the word knife to become crystal clear whenever it is said. All we can hear is a baseline of static, overlaid with knife ... knife... knife... knife. Hitchcock also uses sound in a brilliantly correlative way. In another scene, Alice discovers a homeless man lying in the street that she as a double for the murdered artist; just as she begins screaming, the film suddenly cuts to the landlord of the apartment complex where the artist lives, screaming as she discovers his body. (These sorts of cognitive cues would be played to an extreme in Citizen Kane years later.)
Today we see Blackmail as neither as tight nor as clean as Hitchcock's stylish, high-budget Hollywood productions. The print itself has hardly survived time, and many versions are full of dust, scratches, and static. But it is easily one of the most important films from Hitchcock's early years, and to a stunning degree, still manages to provide a great deal of entertainment to those willing to experience it.
04 October 2008
d. Alfred Hitchcock / UK / 84 mins.