Director: Alfred Hitchcock. British International Pictures.
Producer: John Maxwell. Writer: Alfred Hitchock. Camera: Jack Cox. Sets: W.C. Arnold.
Anny Ondra, John Longden, Donald Calthrop, Sara Allgood, Charles Paton, Cyril Ritchard, Hannah Jones, Sam Livesey.
Young Alice (Ondra), bored with her workaholic Detective boyfriend (Longden), dumps him one night to spend a night on the tiles with an artist (Ritchard) who has taken a shine to her. Invited into his flat, he forces himself on her, forcing her to stab him in self-defence. A creepy man (Calthrop) who earwigged on their earlier conversation attempts to blackmail her.
Rarely seen (and more the pity) as this entirely silent film of Hitchcock’s more famous, semi-talkie version is a stand-alone piece itself, seen to be of better quality.
Blackmail is undoubtedly a visual binge for the eyes, one they will drink in heartily, happily suffering a celluloid hangover. The feats accomplished here are more surprising when one considers that at this time in cinema the silent camera was only just experiencing the dizzying liberation from its usually static confines. Directors such as Hitchcock, Eisenstein and Murnau were now fully confident in utilising all aspects of the art form from acting to camerawork and editing to result in the most thrilling motion pictures.
Here, Hitchcock almost knocks the viewer out with an audacious series of shots and techniques:
His frequent and innovative use of mobile camera as he swings his camera from one character to another, jumps into a ringing phone and also tracks his actors as they walk around the sets.
He performs an immaculately staged craning shot, swiftly following Ondra and Ritchard as they ascend four floors of a Chelsea townhouse with elevator smoothness. Camera wise, Blackmail outclasses most other films of this period, if not all of them.
Hitchcock had already started developing his very own mise en scene in his earlier films’ and would continue to develop this throughout his career, tickling film critics and theorists the world over, as they look ever deeper for psychosexual meanings behind ‘The Master’s’ images.
There are the visual motifs (the outstretched hands of various characters mimics the hand of the murder victim, as if he taunts Ondra from beyond the grave), the car wheels that whirl around, giving chase to not only a criminal at the film’s opening but then Ondra and her complicit lover thereafter.
There are the visual jokes of course. As Ondra walks home from committing her double sins, the sign on a theatre notes the play is a comedy; an advertisement billboard extols the virtues of a gin that is “white as purity”. Hitchcock’s trademark appearance before the camera is as a commuter harassed by a little boy on the underground.
There is also a juicy humour interspersed throughout; when Ondra comes to the police station, ostensibly to ‘fess up, the policeman is incredulous that this could see “women detectives in the yard”, the obvious anachronism not being lost on an appreciative audience.
The technical details of how the sound and silent versions cross-over and how the films came to be made in such a manner could fill a whole other review, but suffice to say contrary to legend, Hitchcock almost certainly planned Blackmail from the outset as finishing at least a part talkie. But the dual production style helped both films contrast and also complement each other in the end.
Ondra, despite her notoriety these days as one of the most unfortunate casualties of the sound transfer (her Polish accent, deemed impenetrable for British audiences, meant she mouthed her lines for the sound version whilst actress Joan Barry spoke hers from nearby on set) turns in a delicate, tortured performance as a flighty girl caught in an escalation of Hitchcockian coincidence. She also displays one the finest pairs of legs in the movies.
Allgood, playing her devoted mother who nags incessantly about doing the cleaning whilst her murderess daughter is being conned in the parlor, would go onto a successful career in Hollywood that ultimately saw her nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for How Green Was My Valley (1944).