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Week 9: Blackmail (1929)

blackmailposter.jpg“Frank, I’ve lost one of my gloves. I think I left it at the other table.”
“Still, it’s about Scotland Yard. Might be amusing. They’re bound to get all the details wrong.”
“What do you think? There’s been a murder last night around the corner!”
“A good, clean honest whack over the head with a brick is one thing. There’s something British about that. But knives — No, knives is not right.”
“My dear, you ought to have been more careful. You might have cut somebody with that.”
“By the way, you’re a detective, let me give you a tip. Don’t wave important clues in telephone boxes. They’ve got glass doors. You know, detectives in glass houses shouldn’t wave clues.”
“Did she tell you who did it? You want to look out, you’ll be losing your job, my boy. I suppose we shall soon be having lady detectives up in the Yard.”

Blackmail

By early 1929, it was obvious to Alfred Hitchcock (as to most of the British film industry) that the addition of sound to motion pictures was just around the corner. Sound seemed so close, in fact, that he prepared in advance for his latest silent, Blackmail, to incorporate scenes of dialogue, ordering the shooting schedule to save talking scenes for last. As a result, he was quite prepared when, in April, British International Pictures announced that they had set up a sound studio. They asked the director (and advertised the request alongside announcements about their equipment) to add sound to the last reel of the film.

Hitch, of course, thought this was a perfectly ridiculous idea, and secretly made almost the entire film with sound, re-shooting a few key sequences where necessary. Knowing that not all theaters would be wired for sound, he cut a silent version of the film as well. Unfortunately, Blackmail starred Anny Ondra (of The Manxman), a central-European actress with a thick accent (as revealed by an early sound test, in which Hitch’s ribald sense of humor quite overshadows Miss Ondra’s broken English).

annyondra.jpgIt was promptly decided that the accent simply wouldn’t do, however, Anny was rather well-liked in the industry and no one wanted to simply cut her out. So, in a move startlingly reminiscent of the plot of 1950s musical hit Singin’ in the Rain, Hitchcock simply had Ondra mouth her lines while proper British actress Joan Barry spoke them off-screen (uncredited, of course). Of course, in what would become a recurring pattern throughout the film world, in England as well as Hollywood, Ondra’s career in English-language movies was effectively over. After Blackmail, she returned to Germany, where she continued to enjoy a highly-successful career that lasted for the next few decades.

johnlongden.jpgIn Blackmail (adapted by Hitchcock from Charles Bennett’s original play), Alice White (Ondra) is the daughter of tobacconist in London, and dating a Scotland Yard detective, Frank (John Longden, who, along with the majority of the cast, was making his first of several appearances in Hitchcock films). One evening while they dine out together, the couple has a row and Alice ends up leaving with another man, an artist named Crewe (Cyril Ritchard).

donaldcalthrop.jpgThe two wind up in Crewe’s flat, where he attempts to seduce Alice. Failing that, he attempts to rape her instead, and she stabs him to death in the midst of the struggle. Fortunately for her, Frank is assigned to the investigation and (although he immediately links her to the crime) seems inclined to cover for his girlfriend. Unfortunately, a Mr. Tracy (Donald Calthrop) can also link Alice to the crime, and is more than happy to take financial advantage of the situation.

The film begins with a completely irrelevant (and completely silent — but brilliantly-shot) opening sequence, in which some Scotland Yard detectives apprehend, question, and book a suspect. The suspect in question never appears again, and the entire sequence seems to have nothing whatever to do with the plot, but it is a neat little bit of early police procedural. According to the director himself, the original intention was to have his main character arrested for the murder at the end, and to repeat every shot from the opening as a sort of “bookend.” However, he was forced to insert a happy ending instead, which does indeed feel quite forced and anti-climactic.

slygun.jpgThere is a particularly Hitchcockian moment when the detectives quietly enter the criminal’s room as he sits in bed reading the paper. The crook’s eyes shift to the left, and the camera pans and zooms in on a small mirror in which he can see the detectives at the door. His eyes then slide to the right and we see him eyeing a gun on the bedside table. Later, Hitchcock indicates the passage of time during the interrogation by the number of cigarette butts in an ash tray. Finally, there is an interesting little montage including a brief look at how police line-ups were conducted before two-way mirrors.

funnycouples.jpgThis sequence showcases some interesting techniques, but contains nothing of interest to the story. Similarly, the next sequence introduces characters and sets the stage for the rest of the film, but contains very little of interesting technique beyond the novelty of spoken dialogue, chiefly between Frank and Alice as they converse at the police station, on their way to dinner, and at the restaurant.

Hitch slips his cameo (the first since 1928’s Easy Virtue) in here. At 19 seconds, it is one of the longest of his career, and one of the most amusing. As the main couple rides the train to dinner, Hitchcock can be seen reading a book on the left side of the screen. A small boy climbs onto the seat and yanks his hat down over his eyes. Hitch yells at him and he retreats, then climbs up again, and the two eye each other suspiciously.

jester1.jpgOf far greater interest, however, is the memorable sequence in the artist’s flat. Alice is very reluctant to come up, due to the lateness of the hour, but Crewe pressures her until she agrees. When she first enters, she is clearly concerned, but, looking out of the window, she sees a Bobby patrolling in thesignature.jpg street and this seems to allay her fears. Glancing around the room, she almost immediately spots a rather creepy looking painting of an old jester, who looks out at the viewer, pointing and laughing. She flirts with Crewe, asking him to show her how to hold the paints and brush, and together they sketch out a crude portrait of a woman on a blank canvas, on which Alice signs her name.

immodest.jpgShe spots a small, frilly dress and Crewe deftly manipulates her into trying it on, saying he’d like to sketch her in it. He plays a light-hearted song as she changes into the dress, not bothering to try and catch a glimpse of her. The camera, however, is not so modest, and the audience gets an eyeful. Sheindiscreet.jpg flounces about a bit with the dress on, but the atmosphere quickly turns awkward when he forces a kiss. Clearly upset, Alice goes to change back into her own dress, but as she’s taking off the other one, Crewe takes her clothes and throws them across the room.

moustache.jpgJust before he does this, he is pacing about in agitated manner, and then he pauses, staring over at the screen she is standing behind as though an idea has just come to him. A shadow from a weird light fixture falls across his face, making him look almost as though he hadbobby.jpg a large, sinister moustache reminiscent of those worn by the villains of early melodramas. Hitch later referred to this shot as “my farewell to silent pictures.” Crewe grabs Alice and drags her over to his curtained bed. As they disappear behind the curtain, we see the shot of the patrolling policeman again. Far out of earshot, his presence seems to be of little use or comfort now.

The struggle on the bed can only be seen by way of the violent rustling of the curtain. Alice’s frantic hand emerges, groping about on the bedside table before coming to rest on a large knife sitting next to a loaf of bread. She grabs it and the struggle behind the curtain subsides very gradually. Then, suddenly, the artist’s lifeless hands flops stiffly into view and Alice backs out, the knife still in her hand. Her eyes seem glazed over, wide open with shock, and her movements are clipped and jerky.

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She replaces the knife and looks dazedly around, as though completely unsure of what to do. Her arms are held out awkwardly and stiffly, as though she is afraid to let her hands near her body. Finally, she spots her dress where Crewe had flung it, hung over on of his canvases. When she pulls it down, she reveals the painting of the laughing gesture, who now seems to be mocking her. She lashes out with her hands, tearing the canvas violently.

trance1.jpgtrance2.jpgtrance3.jpg

shadows1.jpgAs though coming out of a deep sleep, her movements slowly gain speed and purpose. She pulls her clothes back on, picks up her purse and glances frantically around the room. Has she left any clues? She snatches up a brush and blots out her name from the canvas she and Crewe collaborated on, thenshadows2.jpg turns out the light and creeps down the long flights of stairs. The rigid lines of the stairs and their rails cast harsh shadows like prison bars across the walls. As she flees into the street, the shadow of an approaching man falls ominously across the doorway she has just exited.

The scene is one of the most memorable movie murders Hitchcock ever staged, and definitely a worthy centerpiece to this film. The scene starts off light-hearted with barely a hint of menace, then suddenly and unexpectedly turns ugly after the slightest of foreshadowing (with actual shadows, in this case). The struggle is prolonged, but all the more frightening because it takes place off-screen (Hitch knew quite well the power over the imagination of that which we cannot see). The aftermath is affecting because the heroine herself is so obviously affected that she can barely even function.

scream1.jpgWalking aimlessly around London, everywhere Alice looks seems to hold a reminder of what just happened. A neon sign depicting a martini mixer shaking up and down suddenly becomes a stabbingscream2.jpg dagger. She walks silently all night long, until finally, the sight of a bum passed out in a doorway, his arm extended lifelessly, prompts her to scream in terror. The scene shifts quickly, merging Alice’s scream seamlessly with that of Crewe’s elderly housekeeper, who has just discovered the body.

Frank arrives at the scene of the crime and examines the room. Once again the painting of the jester is noted; he is laughing at the detectives and their fruitless search for clues. Almost immediately, he finds and recognizes one of Alice’s gloves, which he quickly stuffs into his pocket. Now the jester is laughing at something else entirely.

gossip.jpgMeanwhile, Alice makes it home and sneaks into bed just in time for her mother to come in and “wake” her. The poor girl pulls herself together and gets into a fresh outfit before descending for breakfast. A gossipy friend has stopped by the White’s tobacco shop to chat about the big news of the morning: the murder that has happened just around the corner. As the family sits down to breakfast, she stands in the doorway and goes on and on about it. It is clear from her expression that each mention of the word knife makes Alice feel as though she has been stabbed.

knife.jpgAfter a few seconds, the camera focuses in on Alice’s face and the gossip’s words become indistinguishable, except for “. . . knife . . . knife . . . knife . . .” which punctuates her droning speech likeknife2.jpg a shot, wearing Alice’s nerves away. When her father asks her to cut a slice of bread, she picks up the knife just as the friend says the word again, and drops it like a hot poker. “You might have cut somebody with that,” her father observes, much to her discomfort.

evidence1.jpgFrank arrives and draws Alice into the phone booth in her father’s shop for a private word. He shows her the glove he found, but before she can explain a man raps on the glass andevidence2.jpg interrupts them. His smarmy manner immediately rubs the couple the wrong way, and he makes insinuations that set them both on edge. After a few seconds of conversation, he reveals that he, too, knows what Alice did last night. And furthermore, he has her other glove in his pocket (how careless of her!).

This Mr. Tracy (as he introduces himself) oozes about the shop with a maddeningly self-satisfied air taunting the other two with innuendo that Alice’s father, minding the counter, doesn’t understand. He has Frank buy him a fine cigar, and soon makes it apparent that this is only the beginning. Before long, he has himself and Frank sequestered comfortably with the leavings of the White family breakfast so that he may gauge just how deep his targets’ pockets are.

Little do the blackmailer and his sweating victims know that Crewe’s landlady had spotted him hanging about the house the evening before, and she is currently ratting him out to the police. He had been there in an attempt to extort some money from the artist before the more lucrative opportunity arose. Since he has a criminal record, she is able to point to his picture in a book of mug shots, and the police begin their search. Eventually, Frank learns of this when they call the White’s shop looking for him, and he summons the cavalry.

escape.jpgSwaggering confidently back into the breakfast room, he bullies and blusters Tracy into a reasonable certainty that the murder can and will be pinned on him rather than Alice. Just as the police burst in, Tracy crashes through the back window and escapes over the rooftops. The chase across London is on, and the fugitive grows increasingly desperate as the police close in from all sides. As it happens, he finds himself cornered at the entrance to the British Museum and slips inside with a contingent of plain-clothes detectives in hot pursuit.

This is the first time Hitchcock would make use of a famous landmark as the scene for a climactic chase or final battle. It was a tactic which would serve him well many times, often with quite memorable results. In this case, the chase begins slowly, with a bit of cat-and-mouse as the crook creeps carefully among the displays. Before long, though, the police have spotted him and he begins a mad dash through the museum, including a scramble down some sort of rope or chain past what appears to be a gigantic artifact from Egypt.

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The chase continues into the library, and Tracy (either incredibly foolish or left with no other choice) winds up climbing onto the roof and scaling to the top of the dome over the library. Here, he pauses and turns to loudly proclaim his innocence to the approaching detectives, but his revelation is cut short when the skylight he is standing on shatters and he plummets to his death far below.

chase4.jpgchase5.jpgchase6.jpgchase7.jpgchase8.jpgchase9.jpg

At this point, the film should dwindle very quickly to a close, and it almost does. However, there is one more sequence of nail-biting (though frustrating) suspense. While the chase was going on, the scene has occasionally shifted to Alice, sitting anxiously at home. After Tracy falls, we return and find her writing a note to Frank, declaring that she cannot bear to see another man accused of a crime that she committed and is resolved to turn herself in. Oops.

laughter.jpgShe goes to Scotland Yard and gets into the chief inspector’s office, where Frank is waiting. He tries to interrupt her confession, but she seems determined to blurt it out when a phone call catches the inspector’s attention and he instructs Frank to take charge of hearing whatever she has to say. Hejester2.jpg draws her out into the lobby and, as the desk sergeant has a good laugh over Alice’s claim of knowledge about the case, the painting of that accursed jester (the only remaining witness to Alice’s crime) is carried past. The last laugh is truly his. The ending is appropriate enough in its way, but certainly not as good as Hitchcock’s proposed darker ending.

It is interesting to note the rarity in early films of a main character being allowed to get away with murder (or any other crime, for that matter). In fact, the American Production Code would officially legislate just a few years later that crime, at least in movies, must never pay. In any case, while we are obviously meant to have more sympathy for Alice and Frank than for Tracy, it is difficult to feel that his slimy blackmailing deserved death, or that Frank should keep his job as a policeman when he is obviously a bit corrupt (willing to withhold evidence and present false accusations when it suits his purposes). Though Hitchcock often seemed to want the heroes of his movies to come off as a bit underhanded, if not downright evil, this is one of the rare occasions where they actually kind of do. The need to suit the convention of the happy ending trumped the moralistic necessity of having the real killer behind bars.

Then again, beneath the surface Blackmail presents us with an examination of the mechanics of guilt as they operate on Alice. We repeatedly witness her agony at being unable to express the guilt she feels for what she has done, beyond the outlet of the scream early on. From that point, her feelings are noticeably suppressed, whether by her own choice, or by the presence and instruction of Frank. The ending, despite the fact that it is ostensibly a happy one, is uncomfortable because we see in Alice’s nervously smiling face that she is still carrying the guilt inside of her and may never be rid of it.

Blackmail was a hit, praised for its innovative and expressionistic use of sound (which is artful even by today’s standards) even among those who still primarily favored silent films. One writer for The London Times, in a lengthy 1929 article on the possibilities and potential pitfalls of the rise of sound, expressly praised Blackmail as an “instance of the right use of sound as an enforcement of silent technique.” This could well be said to generally describe the style which made Hitchcock so wildly famous and successful. His best films are most notable in the way he continued to employ a highly-developed sense of “silent technique” for several decades after the talkie had sounded its death knell.

Meanwhile, Blackmail marks a highly successful return to the thriller genre for Hitchcock, featuring a director cameo, a blonde heroine, his first chilling extended murder sequence and that exciting climax at a famous location. The 1930s would see Hitchcock deviate less and less often from the genre for which he had clearly exhibited the greatest talent.

Next Week: Hitchcock returns to the stage

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~ by Jared on February 27, 2008.

One Response to “Week 9: Blackmail (1929)”

  1. Another amazing review (wish there was a site index but Google is my friend). I would take issue with the characterization that the protagonists are evil. Remember: Alice is innocent of any crime. Self defense is not a crime. On the other hand, society at that time may not have considered it justified in the case of rape. The rape was horrifically portrayed. Her only chance was to avoid prosecution — as you said, it was the gallows for her. Her beau was protecting her. It appears he had inferred the circumstances from his knowledge that Alice would not do this without clear provocation. Alice was a good person. She knew that she would be prosecuted. Wise of her and I would argue morally justified not to turn herself in given the absurd legal state of affairs concerning rape. Should she take action that would result in her death when she was faultless? But when she saw that a man innocent of the crime would be prosecuted, she rose to the occasion until the point became moot.

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