Hitchcock, now with added sound! Yes, we’ve moved on from Hitch’s silent pictures (until I can find the ones I’ve had to skip) and onto his first to use audible dialogue, as well as the first I’ve seen that doesn’t appear to have been filmed entirely on a set, although knowing the director built the entire apartment block set of Rear Window inside a studio, you never can tell with Hitchcock.

Blackmail focuses on a young couple, John Longden’s Frank, a Scotland Yard detective, and Anny Ondra (yep, her again) as Alice, the daughter of a shop owner. Alice has become bored of Frank’s obsession with his career, and has eyes for another man, the irrationally posh artist Mr. Crewe (Cyril Ritchard). Crewe invites Alice back to his studio apartment one evening, and things don’t necessarily plan out how either of them would have expected, so Frank gets involved to try and help Alice out of the sticky situation she finds herself in.

This is the first film that I think follows many elements of a classic Hitchcock template, apart from perhaps The Lodger, but I haven’t found that one yet so it doesn’t count at the moment. For starters, the title of Blackmail sounds like a Hitchcock film, along the lines of Secret Agent, Sabotage, Murder and Suspicion. The plot involves nefarious deeds and their consequences, including at least one act of homicide, and then plays on the guilt of the crime’s committer. The genre of the film makes a swift diversion about halfway through, there’s mention of a cinema (Alice has apparently seen every film worth seeing) and a climax set around a lofty national landmark, in this case the domed roof of the British Museum. Tonally, I was most reminded of Dial ‘M’ For Murder (which I love and can’t wait to see again), as there are only a handful of characters and most of the action revolves around a mid-film murder, taking place in small rooms and focusing on the killer and the investigating officer.

Hitchcock originally recorded the film as a silent, without dialogue, but after the release of the wildly overrated The Jazz Singer in 1927 most of the film was re-recorded with audible dialogue, making this one of the, if not the, first British ‘talkie’ to be released. The problem with recording the dialogue came with his leading lady, the Czechoslovakian Ondra, whose thick accent and limited English required Joan Barry to speak Alice’s lines just out of shot, whilst Ondra mouthed along to the words. This is convincing for the most part, but Barry’s voice is intolerable, particularly her snooty, high-pitched cackling laugh. The film’s first 8 minutes have for some reason been retained as a silent, and the first conversation is almost inaudible, as Frank and another man walk down a corridor, their dialogue all but lost. Personally, I think this is an early sign of Hitch being devious to his audience, releasing his first film with sound, but making sure the sound cannot be heard properly.

We finally have one of Hitchcock’s famous cameos on our hands – here he plays a man harassed on a train by a boy fixated on his hat. It hardly stands out amongst his cameos, my favourite of which is just missing the bus in North By Northwest, but finally seeing Hitch on screen after four films without him made me almost punch the air in delight. 

To be honest, I wasn’t overly impressed with this film, nowhere near as much as I’d hoped. The story is good, but there isn’t enough to fill an hour and a half, with Alice’s dithering around in the first half becoming somewhat annoying. It picks up in the second half, but at present I’d still class it as a lesser Hitchcock. When she’s with the artist, Alice is asked if she’ll put on a dress so he can sketch her, but she asks him at least three times if she should put the dress on or not.  Still, it’s a minor niggle, and there are very few scripts that don’t have those. And just how Alice managed to make a silent escape wearing high heels on a parquet floor I’ll never know.

There were a few nice touches – time passing in an interrogation is shown by the build-up of ash in an ashtray – and a struggle takes place in shadow and behind a curtain to keep the outcome hidden for as long as possible. I also liked the notion had by a gossiping woman in Alice’s father’s shop, who believes that there’s something British about bludgeoning someone over the head with a brick. I don’t think I can really disagree with that.

Choose film 6/10

7 thoughts on “Blackmail

  1. Well, I did recommend it, so I take the blame it is was not entirely what it was expected to be. But I actually agree with you a long way. My excitement with Blackmail was mainly due to the many Hitchcock elements that finally appear here. This is where it started. Having said that I also agree that it is a bit thin and not really "good" enough to be good. And of course the annoying voice dubbing…I am guessing you found the same boxset I also went through. If so you will now come to a number of sound movies with the sound quality so poor that the dialogue is often lost. In that light Blackmail really standout since it for the most part is audible.

  2. Thanks for the heads up. It probably is the same boxset (9 films?), so expect some scathing reviews in the near future. I can't relly say there's any titles coming up that I'm looking forward to until The 39 Steps, which I've owned on DVD for ages but have never seen yet.

  3. I've liked most Hitchcock films I've seen, but I have to ask did the book really need 18 different films from the man, while leaving off some at least equally deserving candidates from other directors? This film is one of the ones I feel could probably go. Yes, it's Hitchcock's first sound film, but that seems to be the biggest, and maybe only, reason it made the book.I didn't dislike it, but I didn't think it was anything that spectacular, either.

  4. Agreed, he's a brilliant director, but I didn't realise he had 18 films on the List! I knew there were a few, hence my choosing him as the first director to watch all their films of, so I'd cross a lot off the List.This definitely didn't need to be included, but I think it was for the same reasons as Jazz Singer, being an early talkie and Hitchcock's first picture with sound. I'd have happily swapped it for, say, Hitch's foray into 3D, Dial 'M' For Murder, in my opinion an underrated classic.

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