Black and White Film Review: 1929’s Blackmail

Great Britain’s first completely non-silent film, directed by none other than the Master of Suspense.  Does it live up to Alfred Hitchcock’s reputation?

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Blackmail is probably the most unconventional movie – for me – that I’ve reviewed.  This is keeping in mind that anything with no Science Fiction or Fantasy elements is pretty damn unconventional for me to start with.  I reviewed this film from a DVD of Alfred Hitchcock classics.  Since I often watch movies while I am occupied with other things, I watched this as the oldest non-silent film on the disc rather than watching any of the silent films first.  I have more interest in films such as Psycho or The Birds, but to see more films like that I need to spread out and watch more films.  Blackmail is the start of that journey.

Picture this: A producer gives a twenty-something director permission to use a cutting edge technique that not all theatres are capable of displaying to audience (and probably costs a bundle to film with) for a small portion.  The director says “screw that, I’m doing the whole movie that way, because I’m going to be one of the biggest names in all of film” and then goes ahead and does just that.  I’m not saying that that’s exactly what Alfred Hitchcock said on the set of Blackmail, but I am saying that for a man who defined an era of the horror genre, I like the fact that he set his own rules.

I should come out and say this now: Blackmail isn’t my kind of film.  If it came out in theatres today, I would see the trailer, and not give it a second thought.  I would never have looked at the film if it weren’t directed by Hitchcock, and I wouldn’t give it this much attention if it weren’t his first “talky”.

Blackmail is about Alice, a woman who is frustrated with her detective boyfriend, Frank.  After the two have a fight, Alice goes to the home of Mr. Crewe, a painter and musician who entertains her as she basks in the free attention.  Things get tense when Crewe steals a kiss, leading Alice to make a move to leave.  After keeping Alice’s dress away from her (she had previously tried on a dress in Crewe’s possession), he attempts to rape her.  Struggling behind a curtain, Alice reaches out for whatever she can find to defend herself, and grabs a knife off the nearby table.

For me, this is the one suspenseful scene in the film.  While it’s pretty likely that the desperate person with the knife will win, the longer the scene drags out, the more likely it seems that the physically stronger person would have the opportunity to take that advantage.  That is, unless this movie just took a dark turn and Alice just spent the past twenty seconds hacking and slashing at her assailant.  it’s not until Crewe’s limp hand extends from the curtain that the outcome is fixed, and Alice steps out of the curtain, holding the knife and glaring at the Fourth Wall.

The next day, the news breaks about the murder, and the police begin investigating.  Frank is the detective on scene, and quickly takes the evidence of Alice’s presence there- one of her gloves, which were established earlier in the film- for himself.  It’s not too long before the couple is approached by another individual, a man named Tracy, who has the other glove, and is ready to blackmail them with it.  Frank is having none of it, and he calls Tracy’s bluff.

It’s here that the tension should rise, and the “Master of Suspense” should be keeping you on the edge of your seat.  For me, at least, there was nothing.  Things just… happened.  There was no particular score to drive up the tension, no real threats or demands, the plot just went along.  Which I find shocking, because as there are many films that were panned by critics in their day that I find hard to believe, this film was a critical and financial success.  Clearly, Hitchcock did something right, and I don’t know what it was- unless it was the establishing scenes, and the scene with the attempted rape and killing.  There are some borderline-suspenseful scenes at the end, but the awkward delivery of the dialogue (caused by a dub actress standing to the side while Anny Ondra lip-synched her lines) and the rushed pace that characterizes many films of this era, cuts the tension.  For the time, those things might have been commonplace enough not to hurt the reception, but I can’t help but watch the film after much more sophisticated methods of delivery were developed.

Not that this film has nothing going for it.  It was a pioneering work in film with sound, which meant that there was a lot of experimenting to be done.  The first ten minutes of this film are completely silent, other than the music.  It’s a great way to trick the audience into thinking they’re getting another silent film, and then when people start talking at Scotland Yard, the audience is eased into it, sort of like Wizard of Oz with color.  There’s also a lot of realistic sound effects, such as stepping onto a train and the sound of the train is so loud the characters are unable to speak.  It’s not something that the cinema world stuck with down the line, but it’s a unique method of drawing the audience into the world of the film and making it feel real.  This is done with a few other sound effects as well, such as the song of birds.

Blackmail is a pioneering and experimental film, and as a result it feels very dated.  It hasn’t aged well, and it doesn’t contain anything to hold my particular interest.  Cinema buffs should check out the film that might be the first British “all-talky” film, and Hitchcock fans wouldn’t be remiss to check out the beginning of Alfred’s career.  As for the general public, I can’t recommend it, but if the plot as I described it sounds interesting to you, you may well enjoy the film more than I did.

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