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 was established which required a certain percentage of the screens to be set aside for domestic films. While this helped improve attendance and increase production, the arrival of sound film in the late twenties complicated matters still further. A contemporary report in Variety 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 quick release."
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 are silent with music and sound effects added. In certain portions of the film, 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's Metropolis (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 and Harry 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), Harvey Braban (The Chief Inspector), Ex-Det. Serg. Bishop (The Detective Sergeant).
BW-82m. Closed Captioning.
by James Steffen