Monday, August 2, 2010


Title: Blackmail
Year: 1929
Studio: British International Picture Ltd
Screenplay: Adapted by Alfred Hitchcock, dialogue by Benn Levy
Source Material: A play by Charles Bennett
Running Time: 82 minutes
Britain's first "talkie", shot in black & white.

Monday 2nd August, 9:30am
Another long-weekend booked in for me. I just felt the need to get some quality 'me' time in as I have been a little busy of late. Naturally, Sod's (or Murphy's) Law came into play and toward the end of last week, I developed a sort of bug. Nothing drastic, just one that provided me with symptoms including lethargy, sore throat, dizziness and a bit of a fever. So, although I had the time off, I couldn't do much with it other than lay around on the settee watching DVDs hour after hour (*sigh* - what torture!)
So, this Monday was a day of laundry and drinking plenty of fluids. I knew a good way to keep my mind positive would be to continue with the project. Thankfully, Blackmail is a film I am familiar with and rather fond of, so it didn't necessitate any extreme concentration on my part. However, this DVD edition (from Studio Canal's 'The Early Hitchcock Collection') has been wonderfully reproduced and the clarity is a wonder to behold.

Alice White - Anny Ondra (voiced by Joan Barry)
Mrs White - Sara Allgood
Mr White - Charles Paton
Detective Frank Webber - John Longden
Mr Tracy - Donald Calthrop
The Artist - Cyril Ritchard
The Landlady - Hannah Jones
The Chief Inspector - Harvey Braban
The Detective Sergeant - Ex Detective Sergeant Bishop (late C.I.D. Scotland Yard)

We enter the scene following a police squad van on a mission. The policemen arrive at their destination and find their suspect in his bed, smoking a cigarette and reading a paper. The man spies the officers in a small mirror and goes to reach for his gun - they are quick enough to wrestle it off him and take him away to the station where they interrogate him, prosecute him and lock him up.
Frank is one of the detectives and as he leaves for the day, his girlfriend, Alice, is waiting for him. She has been waiting for half an hour and is visibly peeved.
The two make their way to a local restaurant and battle with other customers for a spare table. The first table they find is claimed by another couple and they instantly find another, however Alice has left her glove behind. Frank goes to retrieve it and notes how he was able to recognise it because of the two holes in the fingers, made by her sharp nails. Frank is growing impatient for some service and goes to order from a waitress. Alice looks into her bag and retrieves a note she has had for a while. It reads;

I'll be here on Tuesday at 6:30 - will you?

Alice returns it to her bag when Frank returns, having ordered.
The two discuss their plans - Frank wants to go to the movies, but Alice is being frustrating. One moment she wants to go, the next, she does not. We know why after she spies her lover in the room. Frank has had enough of Alice's fickle nature and leaves some money for her and storms out. He stops in the foyer and tries to cool down, but as he regains his composure, he sees Alice has met up with this other man. Frank is not happy.

Alice is walking home with her lover. they arrive at his home and he asks he up to his studio. Before they enter, a shadowy figure pesters the artist for something, apparently this man is a sponger and always trying to get money from people.
Once inside the lobby, the artist checks the mail left for him, there is a note from his landlady - he goes to speak to her - the strange man has apparently been asking for him. He dismisses it and heads up the stairs to the top floor with Alice.

In the artist's studio, he makes some drinks while Alice looks around. She is amused by his recent 'Laughing Jester' painting and she attempts to hold a palette at the easel. The artists shows her how to do it properly and helps her paint the figure of a woman. Joyed by the result, Alice signs her name at the bottom. She then spies a tutu hanging from a dressing screen, she suggests she could model for him - he urges her to do so - initially, she plays it coy, but he persuades her through a bit of reverse psychology.
Once she is wearing the tutu, he tries to pose her - he lowers the straps off her shoulders, places her arms behind her back, adjusts her hair... and then forces a deep kiss on her. She struggles and pulls away. She suggests that she ought to leave. As she returns behind the screen to change, the artists steals away her normal clothes and flings them across them room, telling her to come out and get them - she is now only in her under garments.
He pulls her out by her arms and she struggles some more, the two of them fall onto the bed behind the curtain - she pleads with him to stop, but he is insistent.
During the struggle, she reaches out to the bedside table where a plate of bread and cheese stands alongside a large kitchen knife. She grabs for it and withdraws it behind the curtain. The struggle continues but for not much longer. The curtain stops moving and a lifeless arm falls into our view. It is his.
Alice steps nervously out from behind the curtain and looks at the knife in her hand - she places it back on the plate and stares around the room. The laughing jester is no longer amusing, more macabre. She slashes at it with her sharp fingernails.
She returns to the screen where she feels the need to dress in order to retain some dignity. She switches off the lights and leaves, but not before painting over her signature on the painting.

Alice creeps down the stairs and out of the building. As she leaves, the shadowy figure watches.
She spends the whole night walking through the city of London, haunted by images brought on through her paranoia. An electric sign advertising Gordon's Gin White for Purity! animates a cocktail shaker, but her vision imagines a hand holding a dagger in a stabbing motion. In this deluded state, Alice continues her walk through the city.

By Dawn, she returns home and the landlady has found the body and has called the police. Alice creeps up to her bedroom just in time for her mother to come in and find her under the covers. Mrs White tells Alice about the murder. Alice gets up once her mother has left the room, gets out of her dirty clothes and puts something cleaner on.
Meanwhile, Frank is at the crime scene, he is disturbed to find one of Alice's gloves amongst the victim's property. He palms it, realising what must have happened.

Back at Alice's home, she is with her parents at their newsagent shop, which leads onto their own parlour. It's breakfast time.
Various customers come into the shop and everyone has the murder on their lips, particularly a local gossip who can't seem to shut up about it. During the gossip's rambling monologue about the nature of murders, all Alice can hear is the word 'knife' piercing the cloud engulfing her head. Again and again it stabs its way through until she becomes so jumpy, she flings the bread knife onto the floor.

Soon, Frank arrives, he takes Alice into the sound-proof phone booth and shows her the glove of hers that he found.
Then, that same shadowy figure from the night before enters the shop. He has spied the glove and saunters into the scene with an air of pompousness. He hints at his knowledge with a boastful manner and even shows that he found Alice's other glove at the scene. He indicates a suggestion of blackmail and invites himself into the parlour for breakfast, much to the bemusement of Mr and Mrs White. However, Alice and Frank play along. The man introduces himself as Mr Tracy and he makes himself very comfortable.

Meanwhile, the landlady of the artist's apartment block is speaking to the police and she describes the man whom she has seen hanging around the building and the same man from whom she took the note the previous night. After some time of looking through pages of images, she identifies the man who has a criminal record already...

Back in the White's parlour, Frank has given Tracy some money and he is enjoying the food and beverages provided. Frank receives a call from the police saying they may have found their man - this gives Frank the upper hand.
Frank stands up to Tracy and states categorically that it will be their word against his - and an officer of the law has more weight than a man with a criminal record.
This unnerves Tracy and he tries to wheedle his way out of it, but to no avail. Eventually, more coppers turn up and Tracy makes a break for it - he leaps out of the window and takes a taxi which is thusly chased by the squad car. When the taxi is held up by a traffic cop, he makes a break for it and heads into the British Museum. The police are hot on his heels and they race through the exhibits and through the library. He attempts to escape by climbing onto the roof, the team of policemen are hot in pursuit. Atop the dome of the museum, he is silhouetted against the morning sky.

Tracy: "I say - it's not me you want. It's him! Ask him! Why, his own - "

With this final statement, he slips and falls, crashing through the glass in the dome and plummeting to his death.

Meanwhile, back at the Whites', Alice has written a note to Frank saying she is going to confess. She walks calmly to New Scotland Yard and is taken to the Inspector where she is about to tell the truth - Frank is there and tries to stop her. Before she manages to confess, the Inspector's phone rings and has to take the call - Frank ushers Alice out and away. She tries to confide in him everything that has happened, but he doesn't need her to talk - they walk hand in hand out of the office and down to the reception area. As a colleague jokes with Frank about the premise of women in the police force (!) Alice spies the evidence of the Laughing Jester and it mocks her as it is taken away.


Great Lines
Firstly, let us note the very first piece of dialogue heard in a full-length British motion picture:

Frank: "Well, we finished earlier tonight than I expected!"

Sure, not the most astounding piece of dialogue ever and it does take 8 minutes into the film until it is heard, but still, it is a piece of history.

In the restaurant scene where Frank and Alice are debating going to the cinema, Frank says he'd like to go and see 'Fingerprints' as it is about Scotland Yard but he is wary of the poetic license that may be taken:

Frank: "...they're bound to get all the details wrong."
Alice: "I don't see why, I did hear they got a real criminal to direct it so as to be on the safe side."

Could this be a private joke Hitchcock is making about himself?

Other great moments of dialogue are uttered by the gossip in the shop whilst Alice's family are trying to have their breakfast in the parlour:

Gossip: "...a good clean honest whack over the head with a brick is one thing - there's something British about that. But knives..?"

She continues...

Gossip: "...I can't stand here gossiping like some people. 'chatter, chatter, chatter' - give 'em a chance to talk about other people's business and they'll take it!"

One other sweet line which may or may not be a deliberate joke is when Tracy and Frank are debating their positions - Alice tries to offer her opinion, but Frank won't have it. The next line could be a private joke:

Tracy: "Why can't you let her speak?"

Anny Ondra, although capable of speaking English to a degree, had a very strong Czech accent and could not sound cockney (frankly, I know which accent I prefer!) Joan Barry stood off camera with a microphone and said all of Alice's lines whilst Anny mouthed them. One can only think of Lina Lamont in Singin' in the Rain...

And so, the next era begins! Talking pictures have arrived and this was Britain's very first talkie.
Hitchcock was very aware of the arrival of the new technology and was wise enough to film this movie twice, back to back, in order to have a copy available as a silent for those cinemas who could not play talkies.
He uses the new toy of sound to great advantage, particularly showing how distracting it can be; the artist's piano playing which becomes more aggressive as his libido increases, the frustrating birdsong which epitomises the confusion in Alice's head as she dresses the morning after having not slept a wink, the stabbing nature of the word 'knife' as it punctuates Alice's dreamlike state...

Other touches throughout the film are standard Hitchcock motifs, the shot of the spiralling staircase as Alice exits the crime scene, the shadows on walls which symbolise foreboding or prisons and the repetition of signs and symbols that act as reminders of the horror - the sight of an arm only triggers fear in Alice's eyes as it recalls the lifeless limb of her victim.

Although Hitch has made a number of cameos already in his films, this is his first most blatant cameo. He is sat on the train with our heroes and he is being pestered by a young boy. He admonishes the boy's mother, but she does not punish him. Hitch's look of wariness and displeasure towards the boy is absolutely classic.

My Verdict
One of my favourites, despite our anti-hero literally getting away with murder.
It's dark, moody and with sprinkling doses of black comedy. Perfect ingredients for classic Hitchcock.

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