Blackmail (1929): Hitchcock's First Sound Film

Hitchcock’s “Blackmail,” made in 1929, is considered to be the first significant sound feature made by the British film industry. The film was a critical and commercial hit. Among its awards is a citation as the best British movie of 1929.

When production began, “Blackmail” meant to be silent, but during the process, the new technology offered Hitchcock exciting opportunities, especially for the kinds of films he was interested in.

A completed silent version of Blackmail was released in 1929 shortly after the talkie version hit theaters. The silent version of Blackmail actually ran longer in theaters and proved more popular, largely because most theaters in Britain were not yet equipped for sound.

All the scenes with Alice White (Czech actress Anna Ondra) had to be reshot because of her heavy accent
English actress Joan Barry spoke Ondra’s lines, while Ondre pantomimed the words As post-dubbing was impossible, it called for repetition of the scenes for sound dialogue.

The film’s story is deceptively simple: Young Alice White and her beau detective Frank Webber (John Longden) quarrel at a restaurant, and Alice departs with a handsome stranger (Cyril Ritchard). The stranger, who turns out to be an artist, invites Alice to his studio. He persuades her to put on a circus costume so that he can sketch her, but then he attempts to make violent love to her. In response, she stabs him to death with a knife.

Assigned to the case, Webber begins to suspect that the girl is involved but he conceals his suspicion from his superiors. The blackmail occurs, when a man claims to have seen Alice entering the artist’s quarters

The detective, trying to shift blame for the killing to the blackmailer, leads to the man’s flight. A chase ensues, ending with the blackmailer’s death, falling through the dome of the British Museum (a site Hitchcock will return to in future films). The girl decides to clear her conscience but is prevented from doing so by the detective

But the conclusion is ambiguous and bittersweet at best, as the future of the couple, who now share a secret guilt, is in doubt. Visually, the expression on Alice’s face shows bewilderment and anguish.

Several of Hitchcock motifs and trademarks are evident in the movie, including a likable heroine who’s a beautiful blonde in peril, and a famous landmark (a national monument, statue) in the climactic finale (See

“Foreign Correspondent,” “North by Northwest”).

Thematically, the movie deals with the inevitable disparity between appearance and reality–the significant notion that physical appearances should not be confused with reality, and the constant reversal of normative expectations.

The figures who represent law and order are themselves corruptible. In “Blackmail,” as in future films, the apparent righteousness of the police is completely undermined

The movie examines the dilemma of love versus duty, which is manifest in three movements. After the opening close-up of the spinning wheel of a police van, we see the police arresting a man who is then fingerprinted and thrown into jail. The prints dissolve over his face, an indication of how the police regard a man’s identity

During the arrest, the detective acts as if the procedure were the most routine event. He washes his hands afterwards, and remarks casually to a colleague that he has a date.

The film then moves from theme of duty to theme of love. The second movement shows the detective’s relationship with Alice White, leading to the quarrel in the restaurant

Alice doesn’t want to go to the movies, claiming that she has seen “everything worth seeing” (A good, inside joke by Hitchcock about movies as mass entertainment). But Frank wants to see the film “Fingerprints,” which, not surprisingly, is about police work.

They argue over their plans, and Frank leaves. Alice then accepts an offer from an handsome stranger who asks her, “have you ever seen an artist’s studio?”

Alice, like other Hitchcock heroines, is ambiguous toward sex: She both wants and rejects it. Even so, they go to his place, climbing five flights, and the ever-meticulous Hitchcock utilizes objective side-view crane, which follows them as they go up the levels. It’s a dizzy height to which the couple ascends.

Tension is continuously present—and building up. Thus, once inside the studio-bedroom, suspense builds up steadily. The shadows that fall across the artist’s face are mustaches, fingerprints and skulls

The sexual innuendo is strong but the artist does not force himself upon the girl until she has changed costumes. He lays the piano and they together sketch a crude drawing of her at his easel

Hitchcock’s cameo, a signature occurrence in most of his films, shows him being bothered by a small boy (Jacque Carter) as he reads a book on the Underground. This is the lengthiest of Hitchcock’s cameo appearances, about 10 minute long.

Two future directors worked on “Blackmail”: Ronald Neame operated the clapperboard and Michael Powell (“The Red Shoes”) took still photographs.

Cast

Alice White (Anny Ondra)
Mrs. White (Sara Allgood)
Frank Webber (John Longden)
Mr. White (Charles Paton)
Artist (Cyril Ritchard)
Tracy, the blackmailer (Donald Calthrop)
Joan Barry recorded the dialogue of Ondra.

Credits

Produced by John Maxwell
Screenplay: Alfred Hitchcock, Nbenn W. Levy, Charles Bennett, from the

play by Bennett
Camera: Jack Cox
Sets: Wilfred C. Arnold and Norman Arnold
Editing: Emile de Ruelle
Running time: 86 Minutes.
Released: October 6, 1929.
DVD: October 12, 2004