For the 8th review of the our Alfred Hitchcock blogathon, we bring you a review of Blackmail by Chris from The Dirk Malcolm Alternative. If you don’t already follow his site you are missing out on some great articles related to movies including his “film school” series which is very eye opening.
Thanks Chris for being a part of this!
Let’s see what Chris has to say about Blackmail (1930)
The transformational impact of sound was considered a threat to the artistry of cinema. Chaplin argued that it destroyed ‘the great beauty of silence’. Typically, Hitchcock saw the innovation as a great opportunity to reinforce the visuals by emphasising or distorting the meaning in interesting ways. BLACKMAIL was not the first British talkie, THE CLUE OF THE NEW PIN released in the same year was probably the first, however Hitchcock’s film has the distinction of being shot in silent, then reshot with sound, and released in both versions. Many cinemas had not yet converted to sound, so the two releases were distributed simultaneously with slight differences – the silent version has a cut to a shop-bell, for example – but it is the sound version that is the most enduring.
BLACKMAIL is a peculiar melodrama based on a popular stage play that becomes a disturbing psychodrama in the hands of Hitchcock. It was advertised with the tag-line ‘A romance of Scotland Yard’, as the protagonist Alice White (Anny Ondra, voiced by Joan Barry, because of her accent) is in a relationship with detective Frank Webber (John Longden). Following a brief tiff in a restaurant Alice leaves with artist (Cyril Richard) who she appears to have flirted with previously. He takes her to his studio where the innocent flirting takes a sinister turn when the artist attempts to rape her, in self-defence, she kills him with a knife.
Alice takes cover in her parents tobacconist shop, not realising that a criminal named Tracy (Donald Calthrop) has seen her escaping the scene. Frank is put on the murder investigation and attempts to conceal the evidence of her involvement in the murder. The plot is forebodingly dark as none of the characters are innocent. Frank’s motivation for concealing the evidence is to protect Alice, but also to win her back and keep her.
Although this was not the first talkie, it was the first film to recognise the expressionistic potential of sound. In the artist’s studio there is the startling portrait of a jester that seems to point at the audience, implicating them in the crime, as they are witnesses. Hitchcock puts the sound of mocking laughter over the image. The scene in the artist studio also demonstrates his masterful use of a musical score. Elements of the music give a creepy emphasis to the action and the innocuous tune that is played on the piano becomes charged with an intensity that comes back to haunt Alice as she walks through the streets of London.
The most famous scene is the one set around the breakfast table where the gossipy neighbour relates the story of murder. The camera closes in on Alice as the sound is manipulated so that there is an emphasis on the word ‘knife’. Eventually, all other words fade and Hitch reveals Alice’s tormented mind as she is mocked by the repetitive chant of “knife, knife, KNIFE!”
It’s a remarkable scene builds up tension as the plot becomes more and more intense. Tracy makes blackmail threats to the couple. The finale features a stunning action sequence over the roof-tops of The British Museum and the reading room of the British library. The use of landmarks became something of a signature in films like SABOTEUR (1942) which concludes at the top of Statue of Liberty, or the end of NORTH BY NORTH WEST (1959) with its chase across the faces of Mount Rushmore. Unlike these later films, the conclusion is not conventional as there is very little sense of resolution.
The police decide that Tracy was guilty of the murder, however Alice and Frank are left with their sense of guilt as the jester points and laughs. Chilling.