Many cineastes remember Alfred Hitchcock as the auteur behind such golden-age classics as Rebecca, Notorious, and Vertigo. As great as these films are, they tend to make one forget that before all the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, Hitchcock was an ocean away in England, helming a plethora of films to entertain and disturb the masses in his mother country. True, many of these early movies were potboilers that time has justly relegated to the compost heap. A notable exception is Blackmail, a solid early film that marks the director’s first foray into the world of sound. Though sometimes weighed down by a tawdry melodrama characteristic of Hitch’s early work, Blackmail is memorable for its unabashed experimentation with blending sound and image to create suspense.
That Blackmail should be Hitch’s first talkie is tacit in the film’s very title: a blackmailer’s irony would be difficult to capture solely through facial expressions and intertitles. The opening scene, however, initially seems a preamble to a silent film. It commences with typical Hitchcockian energy, a hustle-and-bustle approach that presages Rich and Strange or North by Northwest. The film’s first image is a wheel spinning like a top, the nuts and bolts of the spinning wheels of a police car on a high-speed chase. The musical accompaniment consists of scampering passagework on stringed instruments, a hectic prelude to establish the scene’s fast pace. Sound isn’t forthcoming until Hitch takes us inside the police station, where conversation breaks out among the detectives. The effect is jarring, almost like a technical glitch that was resolved but never edited out—novel, but rather awkward. It’s an awkwardness that could have been avoided if the producers had decided from the outset whether Blackmail should talk. My vote would have been to wholeheartedly make it a silent movie (a separate silent version actually was released for non-sound-equipped theaters). Some of the film’s over-the-top melodrama and the characters’ wide-eyed facial expressions may have had greater effect without the complication of words.
Notwithstanding the film’s ambiguous medium, Blackmail is a compelling early example of Hitchcock’s masterful manipulation of suspense. For the duration of the film, we wonder whether a pretty, young blonde girl named Alice White (Anny Ondra) is going to get caught for killing a man who attempted to rape her. It all began with a ruction between her and her bland boyfriend, Scotland Yard detective Frank Webber (John Longden). Alice decides to leave the restaurant they were dining at and step out on Frank with a dashing painter and musician known only as “Mr. Crewe” (Cyril Ritchard). She accepts Mr. Crewe’s invitation to visit his studio. Bad decision, babe. Good thing that bread knife was on the table.
The plot has some superficial similarities to Dial M for Murder, in which blackmail is also the backdrop for a crime and a blonde kills a man in self-defense. The difference is that there’s no witness to the murder in Dial M, while in Blackmail a witness to the rendezvous between Mr. Crewe and Alice emerges from the shadows. It turns out to be a little weasel-faced guy named Tracy (Donald Calthrop), and he’s one of Hitchcock’s more comically delightful villains. Hitchcock probably had fantasies about being this type of guy in real life: a string-puller who tosses off witticisms amid veiled hints about what he knows as he watches his victims squirm.
Calthrop’s sly, understated portrayal of Tracy is made all the funnier by Alice’s paranoid histrionics in response to his insinuations. Ondra is Hitchcock’s archetypal blonde bimbo, antedating the likes of Grace Kelly and Kim Novak, and performs her role admirably. Alice’s catatonia in the aftermath of the slaying reminded me of the extreme expressionism of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Her frozen terror gives way to fleeting remembrances of the ghastly deed she was compelled to do, as images of Mr. Crewe’s lifeless hand dangling over the bed fade into and out of her thoughts. The technique of double exposure employed by Hitchcock almost makes it seem as though her runaway imagination is a character in the scene with her.
Blackmail is one of Hitchcock’s most voyeuristic films, perhaps only outstripped by Rear Window in this respect. Despite a script that often wallows in the banality of platitudes, its success lies in its inviting the viewer to be an easvesdropper. After watching Blackmail, you may wonder which is the guiltier pleasure: seeing or knowing?
Joe’s Grade: B