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