Friday, 24 August 2012

Blackmail (1929)

If there was one thing I was certain of going into the project of watching the entire 1001 list of movies to see before you die it was that I would get to see a lot of Mr. Hitchcock. His name stands as a beacon and the respect surrounding him is staggering. Even so he is still human. He still had flukes and he did have to practice to get where he eventually got. So far at this point on my quest I am only at 1939, so I have only seen his early work (beside the later classics like “Rear window” or “North by Northwest”), but what I can tell is that the beginning was as bumpy as any other later star director.

“Blackmail” I obtained as part of a box-set covering 9 movies, 4 silent, 4 talkies and then “Blackmail”, which is actually a hybrid as it was started as a silent, but later converted into a talkie. Of these 9 movies I consider “Blackmail” the best (closely followed by the silent “The Manxman”), partly because it sets the stage for many of Mr. Hitchcock’s later themes and partly because most of the others are simply not very good. One of his major problems was that he was struggling with inferior sound technology. “Blackmail” is so early that everybody dabbling in sound movies were using primitive equipment, but this does not improve until several years later (The 39 steps, 1935) for Mr. Hitchcock, resulting in unintelligible speech and annoying overload problems. If I cannot understand the dialogue I am simply lost. And who was that idiot who skipped the subtitles for the box-set edition?

That annoyance aside “Blackmail” offers a number of highlights. We get the love triangle drama, a murder (with a knife behind a curtain no less) and a terrible dilemma. Throw in a blonde female lead and a good dose of suspense and voila, we have the ingredients of a classic Hitchcock thriller.

Alice, the female lead is played by Hitchcock’s favorite Anny Ondra . She was Czech and had a decidedly non-British accent, which is fine when you a making a silent as “Blackmail” started out to be, but a bit of a handicap when she is supposed to be an average English girl in a London tobacco shop (though today it might actually be an advantage, London being one of the most multicultural cities in the world), so Mr. Hitchcock brought in a voice stand-in who dubbed her voice on Ondra’s mouth movements. This did not cease to annoy me throughout the movie as it makes the Alice character rather artificial looking. I think I would have preferred a Czech accent to this charade.

In any case Alice is dating Frank (John Longden), a Scotland Yard detective, but she is bored by him and just needs to ditch him so she can go out with the much more exciting artist Mr. Crewe. Trouble is Mr. Crewe is a rather forward acting type and before long he has invited this silly, naïve girl into his apartment and is making improper advances on Alice. Of course Alice will need to kill him instead of suffering a fate worse than death and does so in the aforementioned scene with a knife behind a curtain. Here Ondra is at her best with a shaking, panic-stricken expression holding a bloody knife. It just does not get any more Hitchcock.

Frank, being a good Scotland Yard detective knows Alice was with Mr. Crewe and as he is the detective on the case he is also in a position to find Alice’s glove in Mr. Crewe’s apartment. Evidence is building up against her, but he is the only one who knows. Or is he? When he seeks out Alice in the tobacco store her parents run she is a nervous wreck (we have an interesting play with sound as Alice hears only unintelligible sound except for the word KNIFE, which makes her jitterish). Just as he is about to get an explanation from him they are approached by a nasty gent who has found the other glove and now wants do a bit of blackmailing. What to do for Frank? Should he protect the girl who ditched him for a charlatan and protect her from this blackmailing scum? Or should he turn her in and neutralize the blackmail? Ta da, suspense.

“Blackmail” has as mentioned before all the classical Hitchcock ingredients, yet it does not work as well as his later movies and it is not only because of the sound quality and the Ondra dubbing. There is a dilettante element to all the acting and flow of the movie that makes it seem as if it is a bunch of amateurs who have decided to do a Hitchcock piece. They mean well, but I almost suspect that one of them will turn and smile at the camera: “Hi, mum!”. Of course it is just Mr. Hitchcock practicing to become MR. Hitchcock and this is a step on the way, but just so you are aware that there is a bit of way from here to “Psycho”.

I did enjoy “Blackmail”, absolutely. There are much worse movies on the list and it is an easy movie to get through. I just wish it was a bit more… crisp.


  1. Yes, this definitely feels like an early film, from the technology to the acting to the directing. But I enjoy it too. Hitchcock is fun, there's no doubt about that.

    1. Yes, this is definitely an enjoyable film, and it is interesting to see an early version of the way Hitchcock later went.

  2. I didn't think the acting was all that bad for an early talkie. Hitchcock was very clever in how he played with the silent to sound transition--especially in the phone booth scene.

    1. The experimentation with the sound technology is easily the most interesting element of the movie. I like the scene at the table with the knife theme.