Adapted from the play by Charles Bennett, Blackmail (1929) was a picture produced on the cusp of the sound revolution. Hitchcock, sensing the shift towards sound, sneakily shot a version with dialogue alongside his silent feature. Critics generally agree that the silent feature is the most engaging of the two cuts and certainly no dialogue is required to appreciate the taut, visually resplendent climax at The British Museum.
When young shop girl, Alice White (Anny Ondra) rows with her police constable boyfriend Frank Webber (John Longden) she takes revenge by going home with a local artist named Crewe (Cyril Ritchard). Events take a turn for the worse, however, when Crewe attempts to rape Alice and she responds by showing him the sharp end of a bread knife. Although her evil deed was in self-defence, Alice is wracked with guilt and, unfortunately, her presence at Crewe’s apartment did not go unnoticed. A local criminal by the name of Tracy (Donald Calthrop) was lurking in the shadows outside Crewe’s studio and decides to use this information for personal gain.
This film is an intriguing addition to Hitchcock’s filmography. The influence of filmmakers such as Lang and Murnau are apparent in his use of long, lingering shots on menacing characters and intricate shadow work, particularly the silhouettes that desperately grapple during the attempted rape scene. Hitchcock furthermore, clearly worked closely with cinematographer Jack E. Cox (who also worked on The Ring) to create visually striking sequences throughout – London is a city of vibrant light even in black and white; Tracy runs through labyrinthine bookshelves and corridors of the British Museum scattered with forgotten, ancient faces.
Anny Ondra delivers a deeply layered performance throughout, from her delectable sulking during her spat with Frank to her frantic post-murder misery, her doe-eyed, bow-lipped face fills the screen and bewitches the audience. It’s a great shame that in the sound version her lines were dubbed by the cut-glass accent of Joan Barry. Ondra was originally from Poland and foreign accents were not deemed widely acceptable on screen, according to BFI archive curator Vic Pratt however, who introduced last night’s screening, the dubbing diminished Ondra’s performance and simultaneously ended her acting career.
Blackmail is not a perfect film. At times the pacing is slow and there are certainly some unnecessary intertitles. Still, the film is aesthetically dynamic and indisputably tense. As an early entry in the Hitchcock canon it is well worth watching; film buffs and Hitchcock junkies will definitely want to look out for the director’s cameo in a bygone tube carriage and the actor-swap that goes on with the police inspector: due to other commitments Sam Livesey is transplanted in a later scene by Harvey Braban who played the police inspector in the sound version. The print has been beautifully restored by the BFI and the accompaniment at last night’s performance by Costas Fotopaulos provided an immersive and at times thrilling experience.
Both the silent and sound cuts of Blackmail are showing as part of the Genius of Hitchcock season at the British Film Institute .
Helen has awarded Blackmail (the silent cut) 4 Torches of Truth.