There are things we take for granted when we go to a movie theater. The floors will inevitably be sticky, the trailers will probably contain at least one remake, and wherever you sit the jerk with a cell phone or a baby (or both) will sit right behind you. Next time you’re there and the lights go down and the air is filled with the rising hum of the THX logo, take a moment to appreciate sound and the very fact we have it at all. In 1927, The Jazz Singer first brought it to the masses, but it took until 1929, and Alfred Hitchcock, to bring the first full length, sound on film production to the British Isles.
When production began on Blackmail, the producers intended the film to be “partial sound” with only the last reel having the spoken word. As usual Hitchcock was a step ahead of his producers, and figuring they would change their mind, he worked out the picture to feature sound throughout. He stated that after the film’s completion, “I raised objections to the “partial sound” version and they gave me carte blanche to shoot some of the scenes over.” While this decision proved to have its share of challenges, Hitch knew that the era of the silent film was over, and Blackmail, while retaining much of the flavor of the silents, would be his farewell to the format.
As Blackmail opens, the first eight minutes feel very much like a silent film as we witness a Scotland Yard detective arrest and book a criminal, but then as the detective, Frank Webber (John Longden), gets off work and meets his girlfriend Alice (Anny Ondra) the film segues into its first scene of dialog. Frank and Alice go out to a restaurant to eat, but soon they are involved in an argument and Frank storms out. Alice had another date lined up and leaves with artist Mr. Crewe (Cyril Ritchard). She goes back with him to his flat, and Mr. Crewe starts to come on a bit strong. Alice intends to leave, but Crewe throws her into his bed and intends to rape her. Reaching out for anything to defend herself, Alice finds a knife and kills her attacker. The next day, full of guilt, she is shocked to find out that Frank is assigned to the case, and he has found her glove in the apartment. Frank intends to protect her, but when the nefarious Tracy (Donald Calthrop) shows up intending to blackmail Alice, he soon finds the tables turned on him.
The script was adapted by Hitch from the playBlackmail by Charles Bennett who wrote some of Hitchcock’s best known films such as The 39 Steps and the original story which was the basis for The Man Who Knew Too Much. Bennett also wrote a few other notable scripts including 1957’s Night of the Demon and the first James Bond adaptation, the 1954 Television adaptation of Casino Royale. While the former film is a classic, anyone who has seen Barry Nelson and American “Jimmy Bond” will know that is was not an auspicious film debut for the character. (When I get around to talking about Hitchcock’s 1936 film Secret Agent there are some interesting parallels to James Bond.) While Hitchcock did the film adaptation, the dialog was written by yet another writer, Benn W. Levy, who also penned the James Whale haunted house classic, The Old Dark House.
Hitchcock felt Blackmail was a “fairly simple story, but I never really did it the way I wanted to”. I would love to go into Hitchcock’s qualms about the ending of the film, but I suppose I will avoid spoilers on this eighty year old film. Suffice it to say that the film was intended to be book ended by similar scenes, and in my opinion it would have been a much better picture for it. However, Hitchcock was overruled as the producers found the intended ending to be too depressing. While Hitch may have struggled with his ending, the film, and its new fangled sound, struggled at the box office as few theaters at the time were equipped to handle the technique. The silent version of the film was a great success and enjoyed quite a run in British theaters.
As with all his films, Hitchcock was always on the prowl for innovations, and even in this first talkie he found a way to bring a stylish new idea. After Alice has murdered her attacker, she shares a breakfast with her parents and a gossipy neighbor who is all aflutter with talk of the murder. As the girl tries to keep her composure, all she can hear is the word “Knife” as the rest of their conversation muddies into an incoherent mess. Similar devices have been in films a hundreds times since, but this first attempt is quite a stunning feat considering that sound was such a cutting edge thing.
Not content to leave his innovations at snappy tricks of sound, Hitchcock also had to use an interesting trick to film footage in climatic chase through the British Museum. I’ll let Alfred describe it to you in his own words. “We used the Shufftan process because there wasn’t enough light in the museum to shoot there. You set a mirror at an angle of forty-five degrees and you reflect a picture of the British museum in it. The pictures were taken with thirty minute exposures. We had nine of these pictures, showing various rooms, and we made them into transparencies and backlight them. Then we scraped the silvering away in the mirror in certain places corresponding to a décor prop we had built on set. For instance a doorframe through which one of the characters came in. The producers knew nothing about the Shufftan process and they might have raised objections, so I did all of this without their knowledge.” The technique had been used to great effect in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis where it was pioneered by cinematographer Eugen Shufftan, and it is still occasionally in use with the most recent example being Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.
One of the big challenges in making Blackmail a sound picture was Hitchcock’s lead actress, the lovely Anny Ondra. While she was quite a bewitching blonde, she was unfortunately also German, and spoke little English. With no way to overdub the film as would be the solution these day, Hitchcock hired British actress Joan Barry (who later appeared in his 1931 film The Rich and Strange) to stand offset and speak the dialog into a microphone. Onscreen, Ondra did the best she could to synch her lips up to the dialog, but there are several moments in the film where it didn’t quite work and the dialog and Ms. Ondra’s mouth don’t quite match. Overall, it’s barely noticeable except that her dialog is a bit louder than that of her co-stars. With the advent of talkies, Ondra, who had also starred in Hitch’s The Manxman (1929), moved back to Germany where her native tongue was no hindrance to a movie career that lasted until 1951.
Speaking of her co-stars, I can’t go on without talking about the three main male leads in the film. First there’s the boyfriend played with a stony demeanor by John Longdon. Other than during the argument in the restaurant, I found very little moving about Longdon’s performance. As a man who is romantically linked to a murderess (however righteous her reasons were), Longdon did not convey his characters motivations very well at all. As one of the first actors with his vocal performance meshed with the cinematic, I’m sure he was tredding in unfamiliar territory. However it did not hinder the performances of either of the film’s heavies.
As the artist/would be rapist, Cyril Ritchard brought the necessary menace to his performance that the role required. From the time he hits the screen, you just know that this is one slimy bastard, and by the time he lures Alice to his flat with the promise of seeing an artist’s studio (which made me expect etchings), his performance was instrumental in building suspense into the film. I especially enjoyed the lighting trick Hitchcock employed to make the artist more sinister. When they get to his flat and he convinces Alice to try on a model’s costume, he stands leering while she changes behind a screen. A chandelier above his head casts a shadow onto his face which brings to mind the wild curly mustache that silent film baddies sported (a Snidely Whiplash ’stache for you young-uns). While I was sure that he was up to no good, I was hooked into the film to see what exactly what he was up to. Ritchard would go on to enjoy quite a long career with mostly roles in TV including lending his voice to the character Elrond in the 1977 Rankin/Bass animated production of The Hobbit.
The best performance in the film comes our way from Donald Calthrop as the blackmailer. Calthrop is pitch perfect as the weasely Tracy. First he comes on all confident and strong, but as he finds himself in well over his head when matched against the Scotland Yard detective, he quickly changes his tune and becomes a sniveling little git. Oddly enough, Calthrop had some experience with sound recording. He had appeared in the 1929 film The Clue of the New Pin where sound had been added to the film by way of a phonograph recording synched up to the film. His career would last almost up to his death in 1941 with roles as Bob Cratchit in the 1935Christmas Carol adaptation Scrooge and a supporting part in the Boris Karloff film The Man Who Changed His Mind.
While Blackmail will certainly seem contrived and dated to a modern audience who almost certainly would have no qualms with Alice offing her rapist, the film was seen as quite racy at the time. This is partially due to the plot and partially due to the scandalous footage of Anny Ondra in her knickers. Nowadays you see more skin on body spray commercials, but in 1929, Hitchcock was verging on the pornographic. All in all, Blackmail is a film that fits the form of many of Hitchcock’s other films. It’s daring in style and technique, and the plot while simple is eloquent in its simplicity. For anyone interested in the earliest talkies or the formation of Hitchcock as a filmmaker would do themselves quite a service in tracking down this film.