star2 star1 star1

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Writers: Alfred Hitchcock and Benn W. Levy

Main Cast:

Anny Ondra – Alice White

John Longden – Detective Frank Webber

Sara Allgood – Mrs. White

Charles Paton – Mr. White

Donald Calthrop – Tracy

Cyril Ritchard – Mr. Crewe

Hannah Jones – the landlady

Harvey Braban – the Chief Inspector

Phyllis Konstam – the gossiping neighbor

Running time: 84 Minutes

Rating: N/R

Year of Release: 1929 

To sum up: 
A young woman goes home with the wrong man. Sure, it seems innocent at first. But the next thing she knows, she's being blackmailed for his murder!

“And as I was saying and always will say, 'Knives is not right!'”


         Clarification: This is both a review and a film history analysis. As a result some spoiler information, not related to the resolution of the plot, may be contained herein.

        For this review, we're going to take a journey in the Wayback Machine to eighty-six years ago; all the way back to the year 1929. Believe it or not there were films made before 1980 (a lot of good ones, too). This is a little film called Blackmail directed by a pre-legendary Alfred Hitchcock. Originally slated to be a silent suspense film, not long into the production, it was decided to take advantage of the newly available sound technology, and turn this picture into a “talky”. So, a film that may have gone down in history as merely a footnote on the early resume of a soon to be great director, instead became notable for being one of the first British sound films. And unlike it's American counterparts, which were often designed from the beginning to include sound, and were already flooding the British film market, it was decided that a good portion of Blackmail would not be re-shot because part of the film was already “in the can”. Hitchcock went one step further and essentially filmed two versions of the movie at the same time, one that was silent and one with sound; though the sound version did include silent footage that was post-dubbed with sound. Both versions were released at the same time, so those theaters that were not equipped with sound would still have a version to show. But if you have to produce one of your first sound pictures, you could do worse than to have Alfred Hitchcock at the helm.

        Alice White (Anny Ondra), a young twenty-something, is in a relationship with Frank Webber (John Longden), a detective at the local Scotland Yard precinct. Unfortunately for Frank, Alice views him as serious and boring. Alice yearns for a man who is more romantic, more sensitive, more exciting, and she believes she's found it in Crewe (Cyril Ritchard), an aspiring young artist. So one night, while on a date with Frank, she ditches him for a romantic evening with Crewe. Later, though hesitant, she takes Crewe up on his offer to join him in his apartment. Needless to say, things take a turn for the worse when, after drinking, sketching, and playing the piano for her, Alice forgoes his sexual advances, and Crewe then attempts to force himself upon her. During the attempted rape, Alice frantically reaches out for anything that can save her and finds a knife, which she uses to defend herself, thus depriving Crewe not only of his sexual conquest but also of his life. In a daze, she hurriedly leaves the apartment, but not before leaving behind a vital clue. Then, when a man named Tracy (Donald Calthrop) appears at her home, determined to blackmail her with proof of her guilt, Alice is forced to turn to Frank for protection.

        The plot is fairly simple and straightforward, but that quickly became of secondary interest for me while watching this film. Though the story is enjoyable enough, with some interesting twists, what makes Blackmail significant is that we get to see the clashing and attempted merger of two different cinematic styles right on the screen during the same film, as the structure of the silent film must give way to the new demands of sound.

        It is clear which scenes were originally filmed as silent. They feel and play out like a silent film. One of the techniques for silent films was the penchant to play a scene longer; exemplified early in the film where a thief is about to be arrested and slowly reaches for his gun. It was often necessary to do this in order to allow the audience time to read the expressions of the actors, what they were trying to convey, as well as give a sense of what the scene was trying to accomplish, thus enabling the film to get the acting and emotional points across. With sound, what was once conveyed with expressions could easily be said with a word or simple phrase. This would lead to even more naturalistic acting as the dialogue now came into play and the need to emote would begin to be minimalized.

        The writing of dialogue very quickly became a necessary tool and that dialogue would need to say something. This is interesting to see in the film where, many times, because it was felt that it was necessary to infuse a scene with dialogue, sometimes that dialogue amounted to uninteresting, trivial conversation.

        Another issue of sound was the need to produce ambient noise and dialogue for scenes that were originally silent. So during a ride through the city in a police truck, sound effects had to be inserted, including the running engine and the creaking of the vehicle. And when two officers are walking down a hall, having a conversation with their backs to the camera, it is clear that the dialogue was inserted later. That scene more than any illustrates what I was saying about the need for dialogue to have something relevant to say, as the two detectives' conversation never rises above the trivial. It is dialogue that is used to fill the silence of the screen and not to forward the plot.

        Another issue common to early sound films was that many of the actors that performed wonderfully during the silent era didn't have a voice that would translate pleasingly to sound. Many actors would soon find themselves out of work because of this. Anny Ondra, who plays Alice, was born in Poland and started her career making films in Germany and Czechoslovakia. Unfortunately, her heavily accented voice did not make for a convincing Brit. The solution? Hitchcock had actress Joan Barry read the lines into a microphone off camera while Ondra mouthed the words. I've heard of overdubbing, but even I didn't catch this (color me embarrassed)! It is a wonderfully creative tidbit that I was pleasantly surprised to learn since so many current films are re-dubbed during post-production.

        Unlike early American talkies, in which sound was essentially utilized to enable the audience to hear dialogue (and lots of singing), Blackmail experimented with the use of sound for dramatic exposition and the enhancement of scenes. In a scene, shortly after the murder, Alice is walking the streets in a daze. Something startles her and she lets out a scream. While the scream continues, the film then cuts to the landlady, who has discovered the dead body. It's a quick moment, but also a nifty one, as the scream started by Alice is finished by the landlady. So, what we are presented with is a very clever audio match-cut. Later, when Alice is home, a gossipy neighbor is talking about the murder and the knife that was used. As the scene plays out, the specifics of her comments are dialed down but the word “knife” is increased on the audio. Eventually, all that is heard is a murmur except when the neighbor says “knife”. Although a Knife was used in the murder, besides the Knife, there is more going on. But the Knife is all the neighbor can focus on, and the Knife is all that Alice hears. She loves that KNIFE! Again, it's a clever idea and it illustrates how sound can be used to reflect the psychological state of a character in a film; in this case reminding Alice of her guilt.

        But, most importantly, if there is anything conclusive that can be derived from the introduction of sound into British cinema, it's that either by coincidence or decree, all sentences uttered by anyone from England must begin with the words, “I say!”

        Also enjoyable is seeing the development of a young Hitchcock finding his cinematic voice, exploring the themes and techniques that would eventually define his films. One of his most pervasive themes involves the innocent victim who is drawn into circumstances that could be their downfall. Blackmail's Alice is a key example. Through her naïve actions, she gets herself in over her head with disastrous results. In many ways she's an early Marion Crane from Psycho or Melanie Daniels from The Birds.

        Another example is the symbolic dark humor that Hitchcock came to be known for. In Blackmail, one of the artist's paintings is the portrait of a mocking clown. Painted with a laughing expression and his finger pointing directly at the viewer, he serves as an accusatory stand-in for the audience, the director, and Alice's conscience. After the murder, the artist's dead hand hangs limply, palm up, as if pleading for life. Through her wanderings, the film ensures that Alice (and the audience) is constantly reminded of that hand, and therefore the crime, as many of the people she encounters happen to have their hands in the same position.

        And, of course, Hitchcock liked a good climatic chase; preferably one where the person ran up a building (it's easier to get trapped that way) instead of down (in which the odds were better to get lost in the crowds and alleys). He also liked his chases to be in well known landmarks. Through the years, we would see climaxes in the London Palladium (The 39 Steps), atop the Statue of Liberty (Saboteur), and Mount Rushmore (North by Northwest). This film has both and, again displays that these interests were there almost from the beginning.

    So, if you get a chance, take a trip back in time and see this film. At worst, you'll get to see an enjoyable early Hitchcock thriller, and root for the young girl who's gotten in over her head. At best, you'll get to see an enjoyable early Hitchcock thriller, and root for the young girl who's gotten in over her head, and at the same time come away with an appreciation of the challenges of early sound cinema and learn a bit about the evolution of the modern film craft.

Don't make me blackmail you into watching it.


(2015. Reviewed by Frederick Holbrook)


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