Alfred Hitchcock Enters the Sound Era with “Blackmail”

21 03 2010

“It was a rather simple story, but I never did it the way I wanted to.” — Alfred Hitchcock

Whether or not Alfred Hitchcock was satisfied with “Blackmail,” his final film of the 1920s, there’s no denying the impact it had at the time. “Blackmail” has earned its place in cinema history in many ways. It’s the first British sound film, making inventive use of sound; it’s also Hitchcock’s first thriller since “The Lodger,” which I wrote about here.

Legend has it that after filming had begun, Hitch’s producer, John Maxwell, approved adding a few scenes in sound; Hitch thought this was ridiculous and switched over to sound throughout the rest of the movie, although the opening sequence is silent, with the first bit of dialogue heard just after the eight minute mark. Hitch also made a full silent version of the film, with title cards, that reportedly ran in theaters (the ones not yet equipped for sound) longer than the talking version. You can watch the silent version of the murder scene here:

As we saw in the brief camera test here, Hitch’s star, Anny Ondra, had a heavy accent. Since she was playing a Brit, Hitch got around the problem by having another actress, Joan Barry, stand offstage and read the script while Ondra lip-synced on camera.

The virtually silent opening sequence makes me think that Hitch must have known that sound was coming – the opening of the sequence takes place in a police van, with one officer wearing a headset and listening intently as he receives information. The sequence doesn’t have much to do with the plot, although it does introduce our cast and the New Scotland Yard setting. There’s a tone of modern crime detection set as the man the cops caught is booked and fingerprinted, while we see the arresting officers chatting about their evenings’ plans. (There’s something odd in that opening eight minutes, before the cops begin chatting, about the way we hear music and sound effects, but no dialogue.)

One of the officers meets his girlfriend, Alice, to go out for the evening, although she is annoyed that he kept her waiting. In a crowded restaurant, Alice spots another man she knows. She and the officer, Frank, quarrel, and Frank storms out, leaving Alice to meet the other man, an artist.

The artist talks Alice into coming up to his studio, and there he tries to seduce her by getting her to pose for him in costume. When he kisses her, she says she has to leave, but he’s hidden her own clothes. She asks him to give them back, but instead he tries to kiss her again. She turns away, and he attacks her, pushing her onto a bed behind a curtain. As she screams, we see her hand groping for a weapon – a knife. The screams stop, and his lifeless hand falls out from behind the curtain. Alice steps out of the curtain, knife in hand. She defaces one of the paintings she had praised only minutes before, then changes her clothes and leaves.

Dazed, Alice wanders the city through the night, oblivious to the crowds but horrified when she imagines a neon sign with a cocktail shaker on it having a hand with a knife in it instead. Finally, she gets home, where she helps her parents run a small shop.

Meanwhile, the neighborhood is abuzz with news of the murder. A woman hangs around the shop, talking on and on about how she could never kill someone with a knife until all Alice hears is the word “knife” over and over.

Frank flexes his fists while the blackmailer relaxes

On the crime scene, Frank finds one of Alice’s gloves and realizes what’s happened. He goes to the shop and tries to talk to her, but just then an unsavory character named Tracy enters the shop. He pulls them aside and says that he saw her at the murder scene. In not so many words, he starts demanding money to keep quiet. But Frank receives a phone call saying that the artist’s landlady has identified a possible suspect named Tracy.

Frank sees his opportunity – he’s going to pin the murder on Tracy. Alice is horrified, and Tracy tries to talk his way out of it, but when more officers arrive, Tracy jumps out a window.

"Look! A fabulous relic of the ancient world!"

This leads to the famous sequence in which Tracy takes refuge in the British Museum  with the cops hot on his trail. They weave through halls crowded with antiquities, until Tracy ends up cornered on the museum’s dome. With nowhere to run, he tries to talk his way out, but instead falls to his death.

While all this goes on, though, Alice decides to turn herself in. She arrives at Scotland Yard and is shown into an inspector’s office, where Frank is discussing the case with his boss. When the inspector gets a call, Frank is asked to take Alice’s statement. Frank leads her away, explaining what happened. Alice realizes that she won’t have to go to prison after all, but on her way out she sees some of the artist’s paintings being carried inside as evidence. The haunted look on her face speaks volumes.

“Blackmail” features plot elements that would become major themes running through Hitch’s career, including a blonde woman in danger, death by stabbing, an action sequence in a visually interesting setting, and my favorite, crooked and/or inept cops – in this case, it’s Frank, who is ready to frame Tracy for murder the moment it becomes a convenient way to save his girlfriend. Just for fun, here’s the British Museum sequence, with Hebrew subtitles for some reason…

Along with the innovations in sound, like the knife-y conversation in the shop, the camera work in “Blackmail” is terrific. There are more panning shots, shots where the camera had to have been mounted on a moving vehicle, and a powerful montage of criminals as the landlady reviews mugbooks, where wanted posters and mugshots fade in and out as the pages turns.

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Hitchcock had made six pictures since “The Lodger,” his last thriller. This was the genre that would boost him to international fame as “The Master of Suspense,” and it’s worth considering whether he chose this picture and subject matter knowing that he was at a turning point with the start of the sound era. He was already the top director in England; he certainly must have wanted to make a splash with his first sound film, and “Blackmail” did just that. Although Hitch made quite a few movies in other genres and styles in the 1930s and 40s, he would always come back to crime, action and suspense.

Anny Ondra, meanwhile, retired from screen acting after only a couple more films, a victim of the sound era and her own accent.

Hitchcock puts in an appearance toward the start of “Blackmail,” as a man being bothered by a small boy on a subway. There’s a line of dialogue at the end of the movie said by someone off camera that I’m convinced is Hitch, too – he says something like “You can come along now.”

Next up, Hitch puts aside suspense for the 1930 movie “Juno and The Paycock.”

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One response

22 03 2010
Annie

Nice post! Alfred Hitchcock is one of my favorites. He set a new style in crime movies. Great job!

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