Blackmail (1929, Alfred Hitchcock)

blackmail

!!! A+ FILM !!!

The advent of sound pictures in the late 1920s was the first sudden and complete transformation of the film industry, and thus far the last. Unlike, say, the addition of color or gimmicky effects like widescreen and 3D, sound changed the very foundation of movie storytelling, and some great silent directors (as well as a much larger number of great silent actors) had a difficult time making the transition. We don’t often think of Alfred Hitchcock as one of the great filmmakers of the silent era, and with good reason — he wasn’t. Though his silent work was often interesting, particularly when viewed in tandem with other early British cinema, his only exceptional pre-talkie success was The Lodger. This is surprising in a sense, because Hitchcock spent the majority of his life encouraging the concept of “pure cinema,” of storytelling free of dialogue constraints and born of often expressionistic silent technique. He once said that if someone insisted on taking film school, that they should be taught to make silent films first and foremost.

It’s more than likely by circumstance alone that Hitchcock produced only one outstanding silent film; in a way, that was his evolutionary film school experience. He learned his craft on those films, and that’s why Blackmail — his and (disputably) England’s first talkie — is so astounding. (The transformation was quicker in the U.S. than in other filmmaking countries; by the beginning of 1929, few silent films were still being made in Hollywood, while sound was just beginning to take over elsewhere.) Make no mistake; while there is merit to the films between them, especially The Ring and The Manxman, Blackmail is the real successor to The Lodger, and though it’s seldom credited as such, it seems to me Hitchcock’s first truly great film. Its grim atmosphere, its sense of life, its realism and its subtle depth of character coalesce into a sensory, surprisingly ageless (but also emotionally oppressive) experience. It would be impressive regardless of its own cultural context, but given that it’s the first time its 29 year-old director used sound, its energy and seamlessness are truly remarkable. The American talkies of the ’20s that I’ve seen scarcely even approach its brilliance.

Too often, discussion of this most remarkable film is confined to its technical limitations. Dubbing was not possible, and filming had already begun in silent form, so Joan Barry — who later gave a fine leading performance in Rich and Strange — stood behind the camera to read Czech actress Anny Ondra’s lines while she lip-synced. Despite numerous reports to the contrary, it’s a nearly seamless effect given the cumbersome process. It’s also been said that the dramatics in Blackmail are clearly left over from silent film technique and that the movie simply feels stilted in its present state, but the former point enhances the picture and the latter is simply not true.

One caveat in my intense admiration of this film that must unavoidably be mentioned is that I have yet to see the silent version, shot and released simultaneously (with some cast changes in minor roles) and all but universally considered superior to the much more widely available sound film. Loath as I am to make assumptions and as much as I dearly love silent cinema, I have an extremely difficult time believing this is not at least partially received wisdom. While the film’s story would be compelling regardless of its use of dialogue and music, these facets provide some of its most resonant and chilling moments, playing a large role in how completely we identify and empathize with the heroine Alice, a classic example of Hitchcock’s “Woman Alone,” an equally important contrast to his “Wrong Man” motif. Blackmail contains one of each, and part of our emotional involvement results from the way their stories intertwine.

Based on a stage play by screenwriter Charles Bennett and displaying a theatrical sense of time, whereby much of the action occurs at length in a small series of settings and all of it spans less than 24 hours, Blackmail never feels stagebound despite its effective sense of isolation, with Alice completely on her own in the midst of a bustling London and a seemingly happy family life. The story is awe-inspiring in its linear simplicity. After quarelling with her boyfriend, a police detective named Frank (John Longden), at a restaurant, Alice goes home with an artist (terrifyingly glassy-eyed Cyril Ritchard), who turns out to be depraved and, after cavorting around and encouraging her to draw a picture on a blank canvas (which she signs), attempts to rape her. In self-defense, she grabs a knife and stabs him; a derelict man (Donald Calthrop, vile but quietly sympathetic; his plight certainly resonates with Alice in particular, who wants no further guilt on her conscience) happens to see her leave the apartment, and she’s left traumatized, guilt-stricken and understandably confused. Frank, when he discovers the truth, ends up encouraging Alice’s silence, but the witness does not plan to make this simple or cheap.

Thanks to a set of lucky breaks, at the climax of the film the detective manages to pin the murder on the conniving blackmailer instead. He dies dramatically after a chase at the British Museum and Alice, at the close of the film, does not appear resolved as she stands with the deeply chauvinistic detective and someone quietly walks by, in the unforgettable final seconds, holding the rapist’s painting and canvas with her blacked-out signature and picture on the back. That last tidbit anticipates the digging up of the incriminating car in the final shot of Psycho, except that it has more resonance here because we identify so deeply with Ondra’s characterization and we don’t want her justified crime to be discovered. She’s very likely safe, having taken care to hide her name before she left the studio apartment, but there will always be that lingering thread and she’ll never truly feel free, and through no fault of her own. She feigns laughter at the sexist jokes the policemen are making but her eyes appear blank and lost.

In superficial story terms, Blackmail bears numerous resemblances to The Lodger, but Blackmail is much more visceral and bleak than its predecessor: the heroine in both films is romantically involved in some way with a police officer, and each leading lady’s strong family base provides a sense of class commentary in the two films, the potential male love interests (and explicit or implicit criminals) offering a respite of sorts from ordinary life. Unlike Alice, June Tripp’s Daisy Bunting in The Lodger is never directly victimized by the unseen Avenger. She’s a vivacious, independent exotic dancer who’s cognizant of a much broader world than Alice, who’s flirtatious and adventurous but clearly is only just venturing step by step outside of a quiet, provincal life that’s come to subtly bore her despite its respectable stimulations. She helps run a newstand owned by her kind, seemingly supportive parents; located on a busy London street, it seems from our glimpses of it something of a community gathering place, with customers wandering in and out discussing the events of the day, but still there is the strong, quiet impression that Alice longs to break away. Crucially, we don’t see exactly what leads Alice to set off on a tryst or at least an idle date with leering artist and charmer Mr. Crewe; by the time we meet her, it seems she’s already agreed to meet him, and they make eyes from across a busy restaurant while she’s still ostensibly having dinner with Frank. Typically for Hitchcock, Crewe is initially made out to be an improvement on Frank; he’s less stuffy and self-involved, but he’s also photographed in a manner strongly implying ulterior motives, and throughout his dialogue exchanges with Alice, he thinks little of talking her into things she doesn’t seem to want to do, starting with coming up to his apartment.

And Alice, understandably, comes to feel comfortable after each violation, when her further stretching against normal (for her) or “respectable” behavior doesn’t seem to kill her. But this healthy sense of self-assurance is tainted immediately by Crewe’s refusal to accept “no” for an answer, which is unmistakably nefarious since he’s extremely well-controlled when dealing with other people (such as his landlady, the memorably near-sighted Hannah Jones); the strong implication is that Alice is being lured to the home of an extremely manipulative and violent man. He leads her up several flights of stairs in an ominous shot that functions as a devastating reversal of the climb to Chico’s apartment in 7th Heaven; in that film, Janet Gaynor’s taken to the top of a building to be swept up by an intoxicating sense of freedom, a state altogether new for her. Alice’s life is poised to change permanently as well, but with far less optimistic results.

Initially, Alice plays along with Crewe’s romancing; as noted, she shows interest in his painting work, laughing at a large portrait of a jester, and he helps her draft a primitive nude figure in a few brush strokes. They share a drink and she admires a dress he’s used for his models. He all too eagerly modifies this into a proposition, encouraging her to change into the dress while he bangs out a song called “Ms. Up-to-Date” on his piano. (Ritchard was a singer and was undoubtedly hired in the interest of using his talent in this scene.) Played in a lengthy shot that uses a partition to split the screen in half between Ondra changing her clothes and Ritchard singing with his back turned, the innocuous number can seem to be an uncomfortable contrast to what’s about to happen, but then again Hitchcock would almost always use popular music ironically, nowhere more prominently than in the amusement park murder sequence in Strangers on a Train. Making a bet that he’s earned the young blonde’s trust, Mr. Crewe abruptly changes his attitude, forcing a kiss that prompts Alice to begin to try and leave. In response he steals her clothes as she tries to change back into them, tossing them across the room and engaging in an erratic, maniacal, uncontrolled reprise of his song on the piano. His behavior is manic but it’s also tragically believable; his performance has ended and his darkest impulses now operate him. The rape and murder are played in shadows on the wall and in horrendous silence punctuated by Alice’s screams, to which he never even feigns a response; in a turn that would practically itself become a Hitchcock signature, she reaches and finds a sharp object, in this case a pallette knife, and kills her attacker, with no sound or even direct visual evidence apart from Crewe’s hand stretching outward and toward the floor.

It’s no exaggeration to say the weight that falls on Alice during and after these moments, and the horrible feeling of the room after Crewe is killed and she escapes his grasp, are so palpable it’s as though the audience is living through all this rather than watching it. Hitchcock captures eerily well the turnaround of a consensual liaison into an assault, and uses the camera and lights to present Crewe as an increasingly foreboding figure; without becoming unsubtle or blunt, Hitchcock makes it completely explicit which of these characters is truly the “victim.” Part of this is because Ondra’s peformance — she feels gross and confused and scared and empty — is so phenomenal in this section of the film. Suddenly the jester canvas causes her fright and then rage, and she destroys it before departing (leaving a glove that provides the only concrete physical evidence anyone from the police discovers; luckily, it’s Alice’s boyfriend that sees, recognizes and grabs it). In a daze, she wanders the streets until dawn, seeing reminders everywhere of the sickening incident that occurred in the studio; Hitchcock’s perceptive treatment of her maddened grief would be rechannelled by Sylvia Sidney in Sabotage a few years later, during the striking “Who Killed Cock Robin?” scene.

In the morning, after Crewe’s body is discovered and has become the talk of the neighborhood but well before Alice knows of either her boyfriend’s deep involvement in the investigation and knowledge of her own role or of the existence of a witness, we come to the best and most astounding early example of Hitchcock’s immediate fidelity with sound as a tool for his craft. Blackmail overall is nearly peerless among early talkies in its inventive, untethered use of sound not as a replacement for the creative drama of silent film but as a cinematic complement to it. As in the best silent films, the emotions are projected upon the character’s face, but Hitchcock understands immediately the advantage he now has and uses dialogue in deeply ironic and unconvential ways. Faking a lie-in, Alice trudges downstairs to breakfast with her head visibly swimming. A neighborhood gossip (Phylis Konstam, another face you won’t forget) is chattering endlessly about the ins and outs of the murder, and as deepened by her dad mumbling about kitchen utensils, soon all Alice can hear is the repetition of the word “knife” in virtually every sentence. We know this because Hitchcock manipulates the soundtrack in order to gradually distort and muffle — in the fashion, years later, of the adults in Bill Melendez’s Peanuts cartoons — every word that isn’t “knife,” an already unnerving effect that reaches a climax when Konstam suddenly shouts the word, causing Alice to fling the one she’s holding into the air. More than just concentrating on the cinematic at the expense of the verbal, Hitchcock is already thinking about noise and speech the way he thinks about visuals: as an expression of his character’s inner world. A moment of this magnitude, strangeness and effective dread would only be possible with sound, and it’s a creative and technical marvel that it happens in a film from 1929.

There are many examples of such innovation and chutzpah in Blackmail; with movie music still in its infancy, the Jimmy Campbell-Reg Connelly score’s discordant, menacing variations on the song Crewe plays in his apartment lend an incredibly advanced sense of dramatic irony to the many subsequent scenes in which they figure, the closing title most of all. The earlier point about Hitchcock still thinking visually despite the intrusion of sound is equally integral. He’d fall into the same trap as everyone else in some of his early talkies, like Juno and the Paycock and The Skin Game, by relying too much on dialogue and traditional theatricality, but in Blackmail his camera is as restless and sharp as in any of his masterpieces.

There are of course those incomparable “Hitchcock touches,” moments that always signify a given film as being the work of this most singular of all moviemakers. During an early police procedural montage — one of a few intricately detailed such scenes that anticipate Fritz Lang’s M by a couple of years — Hitchcock and Jack Cox’s camera moves swiftly from a criminal’s eyes to the tiny reflection he spies of a pair of cops observing him; when they confiscate his gun soon afterward, the quick and subtle movement is tracked and emphasized directly to the audience with no visible strain. The unexpected closeups and insert shots that punctuate vital narrative moments and still look so sharp and well-defined show a director who’s hit the ground running despite the biggest change and obstacle of his career.

Blackmail seems impossibly alive given its age, much like the director’s later films for Gaumont (starting with The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1934); its excellent attention to detail, from the realism of the sets to the underplaying of the actors, completely shields it from the creakiness that marks so many movies from the transitional period, whatever affection a lot of us may have for them. Blackmail might be the only film from 1929 that would require little to no serious contextual framing or apology to an audience today; it translates impeccably in its hard, cynical emotional center, frightening (and deceptively benign) atmosphere and the breathless economy of its storytelling. Hitchcock’s knack, even in his lesser films, was to strip the story down to its bare essentials, so that every frame served a purpose and held emotional significance. This is the perfect example; Bennett’s story is so universal that it has not dated — even the conversation about movies toward the beginning is still believable — and Hitchcock had the keen sense to see past trends and stylistic barriers to create something that would survive the years.

One thing that does not seem to have changed with the addition of recorded sound and music on celluloid is Hitchcock’s way with actors; ever since his very first film The Pleasure Garden, he’d demonstrated an impeccable skill with shepherding subtle, realistic performances rivaled by Ford and Dreyer but scarcely anyone else in the ’20s. Perhaps because he so strongly advocated naturalism and what he called “negative acting” (quickly: “reactions” are generated by editing more than by the actor, who’s instructed to maintain an unbroken expression and not to excessively inflect, so to speak), the cast of Blackmail doesn’t show the normal confusion seen in many early Hollywood talkies. (For a few handy examples, watch Frank Borzage’s Will Rogers vehicle They Had to See Paris, the pessimistic Fox western In Old Arizona, or primitive Oscar-winning musical The Broadway Melody.) That disregards Ondra’s trouble with the English dialogue, but if the story of Joan Barry standing offstage and reading her lines weren’t so famous it’s hard to believe any viewer would notice it on their own. Ondra’s is a complete and striking performance at any rate; it’s not merely that she’s convincing as a restless young woman seeking thrills in the first act or a broken, battered soul after the rape, she moreover completely puts across that these two extremes are the same soul, violated through no fault of her own. One of the few clumsy touches on Hitchcock’s part comes during the famous late chase scene, when he repeatedly cross-cuts to a shot of her staring vacantly ahead as she writes a confession — out of guilt over someone else taking the fall for the perceived homicide — but even in these split-second moments of distraction, our compassion for her and understanding of her anguish are complete.

A few other roles were recast for the sound version of Blackmail, including the loudmouthed neighbor and one of the police officers, but for the most part Hitchcock’s supporting cast adapts splendidly. No other part in the film is nearly as large as Ondra’s, but Cyril Ritchard and Donald Calthrop filling in two different kinds of villainy (though the latter is finally sympathetic) are both possessed of haunting faces one struggles to forget quickly. Calthrop’s Tracey is alternately a comedic and tragic figure, hoarding knowledge of evidence in a criminal case for a good cigar, taking the rap and falling to a rather violent death because of a crime he neither committed nor understood, one that was in essence the fault of no one except the dead man.

The riveting chase sequence at the British Museum, as proficiently shot as any of its time (Hitchcock had to use mirrors because the interior of the museum was off limits), was apparently sparked by Michael Powell’s suggestion and is one of the key formative moments of the Hitchcock thriller, forecasting the landmark-backdrop action scenes at the Statue of Liberty and Mt. Rushmore in his Hollywood films. But by the time this sequence occurs, the most important action is really behind us, and in the final analysis this unjust death will serve only to build on grief and guilt already shattering the heroine. The unbearable tension in this quietly maddening little film comes from Alice’s anguish and the infuriating ambivalence of those around her, plus the suspicion that her now-shared secret will someday be exposed. Hitchcock has no reason to give us a pleasing, happy ending. He offers no one but Alice to identify with, and she is now terribly alone, her one ally too oafish and aloof to sympathize and connect deeply with her. In many ways this is a feminist movie, in its potent but tasteful exposure of both the senseless brutality of the attempted rape and the ignorant world around Alice that has no sympathy for the person who committed the crime out of necessity but plenty for the corpse. The real blackmail is the permanent silent victimhood that’s been forced on her, the way it will follow her around for good. That was and is the nature of a society forgiving toward rape, and would quite likely be true even if her attacker had not been killed; it’s meant to drive her out of her wits, and us along with her.

Blackmail deserves a critical reevaluation as we near its ninetieth anniversary. It is not the clumsy, slyly innovative film of ideas it’s reputed to be. It is the beginning of Hitchcock the genius, even if it does not fit neatly into the light suspense genre he would come to define. This movie is not North by Northwest or The 39 Steps or To Catch a Thief. It belongs in a different class, with Sabotage, Vertigo (directly predicted by a shot from above of Alice descending several flights of stairs when leaving the crime scene), and Rebecca; a class of films that exhibit the same brilliance as the aforementioned hits but are far more disturbing, and say much more (albeit much less kindly) about the world we actually occupy. Blackmail is fascinating, haunting, and still completely relevant.

[Partially revised from a shorter review posted in 2004.]

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