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Alice White is the girlfriend of Frank Webber, atalented young detective in Scotland Yard. After the couple quarrels ina restaurant, Alice naively flirts with and later goes home with Crewe,an artist who wants her to "pose" for him. When he attempts to rape her,Alice stabs Crewe with a knife and flees the apartment. Webber, who is assigned to the case, soon discovers that Alice is the murderer. He plans to hide an incriminating piece of evidence--one of Alice's gloves--in order to protect her from prosecution. Tracy, a petty criminal, is in on the secret and wants to blackmail Frank. However, Crewe's landlady witnessed Tracy leaving the apartment that night and now he, rather than Alice, has become the main suspect.
The first artistically significant sound film produced in Britain,Blackmail (1929) is a key film in the history of British cinema.During the mid-to-late 1920s, the British film industry proved ill-prepared to compete with the more polished and financially successful American studio product; production in Britain declined from 136 features in 1921 to 37 features in 1926. In 1927 a quota system wasestablished which required a certain percentage of the screens to be setaside for domestic films. While this helped improve attendance andincrease production, the arrival of sound film in the late twentiescomplicated matters still further. A contemporary report inVariety stated that "thirteen out of 14 first run London houses have American talkers or synchronized pictures." One problem was that British films typically sat on the shelf for a year before being released to the general public. Since the introduction of sound in the late twenties and early thirties involved extraordinarily rapid technological change, British films were thus in danger of becoming obsolete before they were even released to the public. In addition, the expense of converting to sound drove many exhibitors out of business.
While Blackmail may not have been the very first talking film in Britain (a few part-talkies were produced around the same time) it was one of the few British films at the time that could compete to any degree with American product. The reviewer in Variety writes: "At this stage of talkers, mighty near the best yet. But with the certainty of quick developments in talking technique, it needs a quickrelease."
Many of the first sound films were hybrids; Blackmail, which was initially planned as a silent, is no exception. The opening prologue and other portions of the film aresilent with music and sound effects added. In certain portions of thefilm, dialogue was apparently added to shots that were originally filmed silent. In addition, the voice of the lead actress Anny Ondra was dubbed. Ondra was a Polish-born actress who made films in Czechoslovakia, Germany and Austria before moving to Britain; she had previously worked with Hitchcock in The Manxman (1928), a beautifully filmed and often underrated melodrama. Because of Ondra's heavy accent (and according to some, a "reedy voice"), Hitchcock hired the actress Joan Barry to read the character's lines off camera while Ondra mouthed the words. While this technique may seem crude by today's standards, it apparently convinced at least some viewers at the time; a critic in the New York Times wrote: "Anny Ondra, a Czechoslovakian actress who does not speak with any noticeable foreign accent, officiates as Miss White. She has a well-defined personality and does creditable work. The failing in her acting in some scenes is due to the direction."
In fact, a silent version of the film was produced alongside the far better-known sound version. Today the silent version is rarely seen, though it does surface occasionally at retrospectives of the director's work. Charles Barr, in his essay in Sight and Sound, points out that two versions use different takes even in the sequences which supposedly correspond shot-for-shot. He hypothesizes that Hitchcock, anticipating the need to make both sound and silent versions, deliberately filmed at least two acceptable takes for each shot in order to create two separate negatives for the sound and silent versions. Today some critics even prefer the silent version, though few would deny that the sound version was ultimately more influential.
Today Blackmail is regarded as an important work in Alfred Hitchcock's artistic development as a director. Together with the silent film The Lodger (1927), it helped establish Hitchcock's critical reputation as a director of thrillers. While the quality of sound recording in the film may seem dated to contemporary audiences, Hitchcock's use of sound for dramatic purposes is still striking. Hitchcock once wrote: "There have always been occasions when we have needed to show a phantasmagoria of the mind in terms of visual imagery. So we may want to show someone's mental state by letting him listen to some sound--let us say church bells--and making them clang with distorted insistence in his head." Accordingly, in several places the film uses sound to represent the psychological state of the protagonist. The most famous example is when Alice's gossipy neighbor describes the murder and the word "knife" is emphasized while the other words become increasingly blurred. Another example is when Alice is in her family's shop and the bell attached to the door begins to ring ever more insistently, drowning out everything else. These devices betray the influence of German Expressionist cinema on Hitchcock's work, as do visual motifs in the film such as stylized shadows and the frequent use of stairs.
From a thematic standpoint, as critic Robin Wood has pointed out, Blackmail introduces the motif of the "guilty woman" that made for some of Hitchcock's most profoundly resonant films: Rebecca (1940), Notorious (1946), Vertigo (1958), Psycho (1960), The Birds (1963) and Marnie (1964). The original source material for Blackmail was a play by Charles Bennett; Tallulah Bankhead, incredibly, played the leading role on the stage. According to Hitchcock, he originally wanted to end the film with Alice being pursued by the police, bringing the young detective's moral conflict ("love versus duty") to a head. This ending, he claims, was turned down by the producers for commercial reasons. However, the ending as it was made, with its ingenious use of a clown painting to symbolize Alice's lingering feelings of guilt, is if anything darker and more subtly ironic than the ending Hitchcock originally had in mind.
Blackmail also establishes the classic Hitchcockian convention of staging the climax at some famous landmark. Here the final chase takes place in the British Museum. Other examples include the use of Albert Hall in both versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934 and 1956), the Statue of Liberty in Saboteur (1942) and Mount Rushmore in North By Northwest (1959). During the British Museum sequence, the Schufftan process was used extensively (due in part to insufficient lighting in the interiors) to depict Tracy and the Scotland Yard detectives running through the museum and over the dome of its reading room. The Schufftan process was developed by cinematographer and special effects pioneer Eugen Schufftan, who was best known for using the process in Fritz Lang'sMetropolis (1927). It involved scraping away the silver on part of a mirror and placing the mirror at a 45-degree angle to the camera. The action was then photographed through the clear portion of the mirror while the silvered portion reflected the artificial background, combining the two into a single image. That the British Museum sequence works so well today is tribute to the technical ingenuity of the crew and Hitchcock's unparalleled skill as a director.
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Producer: John Maxwell
Screenplay: Charles Bennett, Alfred Hitchcock, Benn W. Levy and Garnett Weston, based on the play by Charles Bennett
Photography: Jack Cox
Set Design: C. Wilfred Arnold
Music: Campbell and Connelly, arranged by Hubert Bath andHarry Stafford
Editing: Emile de Ruelle
Cast: Anny Ondra (Alice White), Sara Allgood (Mrs. White), Charles Paton (Mr.White), John Longden (Detective Frank Webber), Donald Calthrop (Tracy),Cyril Ritchard (Crewe, The Artist), Hannah Jones (The Landlady), HarveyBraban (The Chief Inspector), Ex-Det. Serg. Bishop (The Detective Sergeant).
BW-82m. Closed Captioning.
by James Steffen
The 1929 British made silent version of Blackmail from director Alfred Hitchcock features Czech actress Anny Ondra as a young woman whose casual flirtation turns into a nightmare of murder, guilt and blackmail. Also starring John Longden, Cyril Ritchard and Donald Calthrop, Blackmail is a beautifully crafted early exercise in nail-biting suspense from Hitchcock's pre-Hollywood canon.
There were actually two versions of Blackmail created and released to the public in 1929 - this silent version (the lesser seen by today's audiences) and another with sound. The late 1920s was a turbulent time of unknowns for the motion picture business due to the rapidly approaching advent of sound, which threw a wrench into a well-oiled machine that had been making silent films exclusively for nearly two decades. Studios, whether they liked it or not, were being forced to confront these new technological challenges and expectations head-on. As a result of the two versions that were ultimately created, Blackmail has the unique distinction of being both Hitchcock's last silent film as well as his first talkie.
Blackmail had first been a hit play on the London stage in 1928 written by Charles Bennett. John Maxwell, the head of British International Pictures with whom Hitchcock had signed a multi-picture deal in 1926, quickly bought the rights for his star director. Hitchcock was looking to make a good thriller, and Blackmail fit the bill perfectly.
When production began on Blackmail, it was initially intended as a purely silent picture. However, with the inevitable expectation of sound technology beginning to creep into the film industry, the brass at British International Pictures decided that it might be a good idea to put sound with the last reel of the film to enhance the climactic chase sequence at the British Museum. Hitchcock embraced this idea, but he was also thinking ahead. "In those days they would advertise [certain films] as 'part-sound pictures,'" Hitchcock told Francois Truffaut in an interview documented in the 1983 book Hitchcock. "But since I suspected the producers might change their minds and eventually want an all-sound picture, I worked it out that way. We utilized the techniques of talkies, but without sound. Then, when the picture was completed, I raised objections to the part-sound version, and they gave me carte blanche to shoot some of the scenes over." Among the changes Hitchcock made for the sound version were the addition of music, sound effects, dialogue and a complete dubbing of Anny Ondra's heavily accented voice by another English actress.
Hitchcock also had a few special effects tricks up his sleeve when it came to shooting the complicated chase scene at the British Museum. Since there was very little light available in the actual locations around the museum, he utilized a technique called the Schfftan process to create the illusion of the actors actually being at the museum. "You set a mirror at an angle of forty-five degrees," Hitchcock explained to Truffaut, "and you reflect a full picture of the British Museum in it. The pictures were taken with thirty-minute exposures. We had nine of those pictures, showing various rooms, and we made them into transparencies so that we could backlight them. Then we scraped the silvering away in the mirror in certain places corresponding to a dcor prop we had built on the set. For instance, a doorframe through which one of the characters came in. The producers knew nothing about the Schfftan process and they might have raised objections, so I did all of this without their knowledge."
When both silent and sound versions of the film were completed, both were released to theaters simultaneously. However, during this transitional period for motion pictures, many theaters were not yet equipped to handle the technology to play sound films. Therefore, the sound version played only in the few state-of-the art theaters that existed at the time, making Blackmail the first officially credited British feature sound film. The silent version played in all the remaining theaters that had not yet caught up with the technology.
Blackmail was a strong critical and commercial success for Alfred Hitchcock, which helped solidify his rapidly growing reputation as one of England's top directors. The film, cited by many critics as one of Hitchcock's earliest masterpieces, gives a fascinating glimpse into the emerging signature style of the Master of Suspense.
Be sure to watch for Hitchcock's trademark cameo, which comes during a scene on the London Underground where he is annoyed by a cheeky and persistent little boy.
By Andrea Passafiume