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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 Schüfftan 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 décor 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 Schüfftan 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