It seems the only proper way to introduce Alfred Hitchcock’s first inclusion – Blackmail. Other of his pictures prior to this may be deemed important to include; perhaps his debut Pleasure Garden or an introduction to his life long obsession with the macabre in The Lodger. But Blackmail is fundamentally essential because it foreshadows the master’s later great works, it is a British first, and a huge contribution to the budding technology of sound.
During the shooting of this picture, sound technology became readily available, much to the excitement of the producers. They asked the young Hitchcock to film certain sections of the picture with sound as a draw. The director found this idea laughable and instead filmed the remaining entirety with sound.
Aside from the opening, a ingenious sign off to the silent era, Blackmail goes on to become the first British Talkie. Or at least, the first sound-on-film talkie after The Clue Of The New Pin, released in March of the same year, used the short lived Photophore system which played 12 inch phonographs records in time with the film.
Though only at a primeval stage, Blackmail is a testament to the auteur’s experimental and masterful nature by not just including sound, but stretching its narrative and atmospheric capabilities as far as it could go.
In one scene, Alice White (Anny Ondra) walks home, utterly shaken from the murder she committed out of self preservation, and stops dead at the sight of a homeless person’s outstretched arm mimicking that of her victim. A scream emanates but carries over to the next shot to reveal it belongs to the landlady discovering the corpse.
This is a highly sophisticated technique considering how early this purely cinematic device was used. But this is Hitchcock after all who even uses sound to inject his naughty sense of humour. Tracy (Donald Calthrop), the opportunist and eponymous blackmailer, happily hums ‘The Best Things In Life Are Free’ as he polishes off his breakfast at the expense of Alice.
Of course, the transition sparked many problems throughout production, most notably concerning actress Anny Ondra’s thick German accent, highly inappropriate for her British shop girl role. Rather than recast, Joan Barry provided the speaking voice and ushered in the first case of dubbing, though not in the modern formal sense of recording after. Instead, Joan Barry stood just off camera and spoke lines in time with Ondra.
Surprisingly, this technique works rather well and even serendipitously creates an intriguing ending. Alice decides to hand herself in, but her boyfriend Detective Frank Webber (John Longden) stops her in time at the station as Tracy is to take the fall. Alice, Frank and a policeman share a final joke and the laugh carries until the end. Joan Barry’s laugh is sincere and lively, but it could not be more distant from the haunted expression of guilt and blood in Ondra’s eyes.
The tale of Alice White murdering a man in self defence and the subsequent traumatic experiences ensuing seems like a blueprint for a classic from the Master of Suspense. However, the story is not paced as effectively as would be expected and never gets deeply into the intrigue. The plot point which the title takes its name from begins too late and ends too abruptly, which is a great shame as Donald Calthrop’s Tracy is a brilliant slimy opportunist.
Though not exemplary in narrative, it is inspiring in how it is captured.
The Auteur blends cinematic styles of the time, embracing editing as intelligent as Russian Montage, and harsh venetian blinds which would make expressionists proud. but also incorporates his own ingenious eye with great flare. In one shot, villain Cyril Richard is photographed with a thick shadow caused by a chandelier to fall across his upper lip, harking back to heavily moustached villains which Hitch called his ‘farewell to silent pictures’.
The opening sequence alone is a masterclass in thrilling camerawork. In one scene, a crook reads a newspaper in bed, unintentionally shielding his view of the detectives at the door. The camera rapidly zooms to a mirror which reveals the Crook’s POV of the police. A revolver rests in reach on a bedside table and a moment of suspense Hitch would become renowned for ensues.
The Shufftan effect is also put to grand use before its retirement by blue screen and other processes. The British Museum allowed too little light into its hallways and so this process, whereby stills of the location are reflected in a mirror with certain parts of the silvering scrapped away to allow actors to be filmed through the glass and appear present, allowed Hitch to film his other idiosyncratic trait – Monument chases.
Blackmail is a fascinating early piece by a master director born at the tail end of the 19th century, who endured silence, sound, colour, a transition to another continent and TV to become one of the most beloved artists to grace cinema.
Spot Hitchcock: A young Hitch being bothered by a boy on the train, one of the first of many much anticipated cameos.