“You and your Scotland Yard. If it weren’t for Edgar Wallace, nobody’d ever heard of it.”
‘Blackmail’, directed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1929, is a British thriller and one of the first British ‘talkies’. Alice White, played by Czech actress Anny Ondra, is the girlfriend on a police detective, Frank Webber, played by John Longden. One evening they argue and she ends up being drawn to an artist. The artist turns out to be not what she thought: he rapes her and, in defence, she stabs and kills him. She thinks she has got away with it, but a man called Tracy has seen her leave the flat of the artist and the rest of the film follows his attempts to blackmail White and Longden, ending in a climatic chase scene through the British Museum and British Library. It’s a strange movie. In a way it is very familiar and all the Hitchcock quirks and preoccupations are present: the fear of the police, the hidden threat both of objects and of the motivations of dangerous characters, the finale using a famous location. Also present is Hitchcock’s inventive and innovate way of narrating his story, and his use of unexpected gimmicks, for example when one character speaks to White after the murder and their voice fades with only the repeated use of the word ‘knife’ being clear. The odd bits of the film come entirely from the way it was made. It was originally intended as a silent movie, and a significant portion of it was filmed as such. When, halfway through the making of it, the producers decided it should have a sound track, Hitchcock had to adapt his script and his approach. As such, the film is a curious blend of silent and talking scenes, which occasionally jar, but also at times curiously increase the sense of tension. The introduction of sound also has an effect on the performances, most notably the heavily accented Anny Ondra, whose dialogue is spoken off screen by anther actress force Ondra to lip-sync whilst acting. It’s an oddity, but an oddity that is required viewing as a foundation for Hitchcock’s long career of directing thrillers.
Would I recommend it? Yes – it’s pacey, engrossing and witty. It has the twisted sense of morality, the black humour and the absorbing thrills you would expect from Hitchcock. Watch with ‘Hitchcock/Truffaut’ to get a better sense of the director.