BLACKMAIL

U.K.

1929

 

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Production Co.: British International Pictures

Producer: John Maxwell

Screenplay: Alfred Hitchcock, Benn W. Levy & Charles Bennett, from Bennett's play

Cinematography: Jack Cox

Editor: Emile de Ruelle

Art direction: Wilfred C. Arnold & Norman Arnold

Music: Campbell and Connelly

Music performed by: The British International Symphony Orchestra

Anny Ondra's vocal double: Joan Barry

 

Alice White: Anny Ondra

Mrs White: Sara Allgood

Detective Frank Webber: John Longden

Mr White: Charles Paton

Tracy: Donald Calthrop

The Artist: Cyril Ritchard

Chief Inspector: Harvey Braban

Landlady: Hannah Jones

Detective Sergeant: ex-Detective Sergeant Bishop

 

85 minutes

 

16 mm

Black & White

English

G Certificate

 

Donated in 1983 by the Napier Film Society

 

 

One of the most fascinating of Hitchcock's entire oeuvre, this film is unusually frank, and ironic several times over.

- The Museum of Modern Art Circulating Film Library Catalog

 

As in The Lodger, Hitchcock develops his story with a succession of felicitous, striking, or revealing touches, particularly remarkable in this instance for the ingenuity with which they exploit the new dimension of sound.

- Lindsay Anderson

 

The extraordinary plateau attained by Hitchcock's first sound film in relation to his overall development is the sum of many accomplishments: above all, a decisive mastery in moving back and forth between objective and subjective narrative modes.

- Jonathan Rosenbaum, Monthly Film Bulletin, 10/74

 

 

 

Blackmail was made first as a silent film but was later released as Britain's first sound film, in part reshot and in part dubbed.  Although largely unsuccessful commercially, Blackmail is one of the best of the early sound films, notable for its subjective, imaginative use of sound to emphasise the drama of the images (e.g. in the "knife" sequence).  The freedom of using postsynchronised sound in a previously shot silent film allowed Hitchcock to experiment with the expressive use of sound in a way not possible for films shot as original sound films.  Blackmail suggests already Hitchcock's penchant for setting his adventures of the extraordinary within a framework of actuality.  The realistic feeling for London localities is excellent: the empty streets at dawn, the police station, the little shop with the living room at the back.  Interesting also is that Hitchcock sets the scene for his story with an opening reel (as he did with The Lodger) that is almost documentary in character and has no narrative connection with the main plot.  Blackmail has sometimes been described as quasi-expressionist, but it is more likely Hitchcock was influenced by the expressive, pictorial values of the German cinema and sought to incorporate these in a more conventional narrative.

 

- Georges Sadoul, Dictionary of Films

 

 

The first British sound feature is a film about sound, about the uncommunicative tendencies of speech.  Hitch jokes about the cinema's quest for novelty.  The shadow that gives the first victim the appearance of a melodramatic moustache is famous, so I won't mention it: but it has a little known parallel.  When the heroine resolves to confess her guilt she rises into another shadow, a noose around her neck.  In both cases the point is how easily our sense can mislead us; further: there is a kind of justice loose in the accidents of the world.  There is more truth in the moments of silence and on the still faces of the god head in the British Museum, than in the speeches of the characters.  There is more stability and insight in the eloquent silence of the painted jester than in any of the human images that move and speak.  In this film, speech brings confusion and isolation rather than clarity and community.  Little wonder that Hitchcock's appearance should be as a man trying quietly to read a book, but pestered by a noisy child.

 

- Maurice Yacowar, Take One (Hitchissue)

 

 

Truffaut: This brings us to the end of 1928, when you started your first talking picture, Blackmail.  Were you satisfied with the screenplay?

 

Hitchcock:  It was a rather simple story, but I never did it the way I really wanted to.  We used the same exposition as for The Lodger.  In the first reel I show the procedure of an arrest: the detectives go out in the morning; they pick up a man; he has a gun; they take it away and put the handcuffs on.  He's taken to the police station, booked, finger-printed and questioned.  They take a mug shot and lock him up in a cell.  And then we come back to the two detectives going to the men's room and washing their hands, just as though they were office workers.  To them it was just the end of a day's work.  The younger detective's girl is waiting for him; they go to a restaurant, have a row and go their separate ways.  She's picked up by an artist who takes her to his place and tries to rape her.  She kills him.  As it happens, her young man is assigned to the case.  He finds a clue, and when he realises that his girl is involved, he conceals it from his superiors.  Then the blackmailer comes onto the scene and there's a conflict between him and the girl, with the young detective in between the two.  The detective calls the blackmailer's bluff, and the villain stands his ground at first, but in the end he loses his head.  There is a chase around the  British Museum.  He falls to his death.  Against her boyfriend's advice, the girl insists on going to Scotland Yard to tell them everything.  But when she gets there the clerk turns her over to her young man, who, of course, takes her home.  The ending I originally wanted was different.  After the chase and the death of the blackmailer, the girl would have been arrested and the young man would have had to do the same things to her as we saw at the beginning: handcuffs, booking at the station and so on.  Then he would meet his old partner in the men's room, and the other man, unaware of what had taken place, would say "are you going out with your girl tonight?" and he would answer, "No, I'm going straight home."  And the picture would have ended that way.  But the producers claimed it was too depressing...

 

Truffaut:  You used a good many trick shots in the picture, I believe.  For instance, the sequence of the chase through the British Museum.

 

Hitchcock:  That's right; we used the Schüfftan process, because there wasn't enough light in the museum to shoot there.  You set a mirror at an angle of forty-five degrees and you reflect a full picture of the British Museum in it.  The pictures were taken with thirty-minute exposures.  We had nine of these pictures, showing various rooms, and we made them into transparencies so that we could backlight them.  Then we scraped the silvering away in the mirror in certain places corresponding to a decor prop we had built on the set.  For instance, a doorframe through which one of the characters came in.  The producers knew nothing about the Schüfftan process and they might have raised objections, so I did all this without their knowledge.

 

- from Truffaut, Hitchcock