23 January 2014


Anny Ondra in Blackmail (1929)

A few years ago the British Film Institute (BFI) completed their largest restoration project to date, fully restoring the surviving nine silent feature films of Alfred Hitchcock (a tenth, The Mountain Eagle, is believed lost). During the process of preserving the films, additional footage was added and new musical scores were commissioned. The BFI sent the “Hitchcock 9” out on the road for viewers to enjoy and last summer I spent a weekend at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) watching some of these films. My favourite of the bunch was Blackmail (1929).

Set in London, Blackmail opens with a couple of detectives capturing a wanted criminal. That evening one of the men, Detective Frank Webber (John Longden), takes Alice White (Anny Ondra) out on a date. When they get into an argument Frank leaves only to return in time to see Alice leaving with a man (Cyril Ritchard), an artist she had secretly planned to meet.

Alice allows herself to be talked into visiting the artist’s studio. After admiring a portrait of a jester, Alice creates her own painting (with some help from the artist) before she dons a model’s outfit and dances around while he plays a song for her. While changing, the artist attempts to rape Alice who ends up killing him with a knife. Frightened, she tears at the painting of the jester before putting her clothes on and fleeing, leaving her gloves behind. She walks the streets until dawn all the while seeing symbols of her crime (an extended arm, a knife) wherever she goes.

Naturally, Frank is assigned to the case and when he recognizes both the dead man and one of Alice’s gloves, he keeps quiet and goes to confront her. Still in shock over the events of the previous evening, she can’t speak. The two are together when Tracy (Donald Calthrop) arrives carrying Alice’s other glove. He apparently saw Alice enter the dead man’s flat and intends to blackmailing the couple. At first they agree to his demands but when Frank discovers that Tracy has a criminal record and is wanted for questioning in the case, he calls in the police.

What follows is a chase that ends with Tracy falling to his death through a skylight above the Reading Room at the British Museum. The police consider the case closed but Alice, unaware of what has transpired, arrives at New Scotland Yard to confess. Before she can speak with the Chief Inspector, he gives instructions for Frank to deal with her. Alice, finally finding her voice, tells Frank that she did it but that it was a case of self-defense. The truth remains a secret between the two of them but at what cost? 

Hitchcock actually made two versions of Blackmail—one silent and one with sound. The film started out as a silent but with the growing popularity of talkies, the film’s producer asked Hitchcock to film the last reel in sound. Thinking the idea ridiculous, he filmed most of the scenes with sound and delivered two versions to the studio. This gave Blackmail the unique distinction of being both Hitchcock’s last silent and first talkie. 

There were issues with using sound though starting with the film’s Czech lead, Anny Ondra, who spoke with a heavy accent. Hitchcock solved the problem by having actress Joan Barry stand out of frame and speak her lines into a microphone while Ondra mouthed the words, the first time an actor’s voice was “dubbed” so to speak. When the two versions were released, the silent one proved to be more popular, most likely because many theatres at the time were not set up for sound. Having seen both, I have to say the silent version is superior to the talkie.

Even though this was only Hitchcock’s second thriller, in Blackmail we find what would become some classic Hitchcock elements: murder, a beautiful blonde, a wronged man, a chase scene involving a famous landmark, and themes of guilt and moral ambiguity. It also features one of Hitchcock’s best cameo appearances as a man being bothered by a little boy while riding the Tube.

The very pretty Anny Ondra is a standout in a cast that is fine if not a bit bland (John Longden as her boyfriend, for example, is totally forgettable). Hitchcock’s first “blonde,” Ondra turns Alice, who at first appears to be just a silly girl, into a sympathetic character even after she allows an innocent man to be blamed for a murder she committed. And without speaking a word, she's able to convey all the horror of being assaulted with just her eyes.

And then there is London as the setting. While many scenes were shot at the studio, some actual locations were used including the crowded Lyon’s Tea House and Piccadilly at night with all of its blinking lights. One of the most dramatic moments in the film involves the British Museum. Unfortunately, the light in the actual museum wasn't conducive for shooting so Hitchcock employed the Schüfftan process. This involved pointing the camera at a mirror tilted at 45 degrees in which was reflected a transparency of the museum. Some of the silvering was then scraped off the mirror so the camera could capture the actors who were on a set behind it, resulting in the actors appearing as if they were in the museum. 

The master of suspense always knew exactly how to heighten the tension in a story and Blackmail is no exception. When the artist attempts to rape Alice the event occurs behind a curtain, which the viewer sees moving, violently, before a hand (Alice’s) reaches out from behind it and grabs a knife off the table. When the curtain becomes still there is a pause before a lifeless arm (the artist’s) falls out. Alice, dressed only in her slip and her hair in disarray, emerges with the bloody knife in her hand, moving as if in a trance. Seeing the actual events taking place behind the curtain would have been shocking but keeping them hidden from our view makes them all the more horrid in our imaginations.

As for the newly restored print, luckily the BFI had the original negatives to work with as well as an early print made from those negatives before any damage had occurred to them. The result is a great looking silent, far superior to the versions that were available before.

For those of you who may have missed the “Hitchcock 9” on its first American tour, Film Forum here in New York will be showing all of them along with Hitchcock’s other films (the program is called “The Complete Hitchcock”) for five weeks starting February 21, 2014 (more info here). See Blackmail if you can along with the rest of the nine. After all, Hitchcock did say that, “silent pictures were the purest form of cinema.”

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