Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail
Considered by most to be the first true British talkie, as well as Hitchcock’s first sound film, Blackmail is a historical film in the British cannon of cinema. My thesis will compare and contrast the silent version of Hitchcock’s original creation to the “new” sound version. I will examine the film and discuss whether the sound version improved upon the original with the scenes featuring sound as well as its influence on the British cinema and Hitchcock’s career.
Hitchcock began his early film career with Gainsborough Pictures under Michael Balcon. He learned aspects of the trade including spending some time with German filmmakers in Germany before getting his first attempts at directing in 1925, at the age of 26. He utilized aspects of what he learned from the German expressionists. In 1926, he directed The Lodger, a film loosely based on the Jack the Ripper legend. The film was a hit and in 1927 Hitchcock left Gainsborough for the larger British International Pictures, and his new contract made him the highest paid director in Britain. Blackmail was his first assignment there which eventually became the first British talkie. “At the time, many cinephiles thought that 'talkies' would reduce cinema to being only 'pictures of people talking' but Hitchcock's inventive and expressionist use of sound demonstrated that the new technology actually opened a new realm of possibilities.” (14)
In the late 20’s, the British industry was having a difficult time competing with the more refined cinema being produced in Hollywood. Film production in Britain dropped from 136 features in 1921 to 37 features in 1926. This caused the British film industry to analyze their situation and see what they could do to turn their studio system around. In 1927, a quota system was established which required a certain percentage of the screens to be set aside for domestic films known as the Cinematograph Films Act. “It introduced a requirement for British cinemas to show a quota of British films, for a duration of 10 years. Initially this was 7.5% for exhibitors, which was raised to 20% in 1935. It was later blamed for the emergence of the 'quota quickies.’ ” (12)
While the Cinematograph Films Act helped improve attendance and increased production, the arrival of sound film in the late 1920’s further complicated matters. A report that ran in Variety in 1929 stated that "13 out of 14 first run London houses have American talkers or synchronized pictures." A major problem that the British studios had was that their films often sat on the shelf for about a year before finally being released. Since the introduction of sound in the late twenties and early thirties involved such a major technological change for both studios and exhibitors, the films that Britain was producing became in danger of becoming obsolete before they were even released to the public. Even today, most films that the studios shelve appear dated once finally released. In addition, the expense of converting to sound drove many exhibitors out of business. (9) 1929 was a big year for films. The first animated sound cartoon was produced, Steamboat Willie and the first feature length film in color was also filmed. However this was all going on across the Atlantic in the USA. The British had some catching up to do.
When Blackmail went into production, the film was planned and initially filmed as another British International Pictures silent film. The movie was produced at Elstree Studios. It was just two years earlier in 1927 that Warner Brothers produced The Jazz Singer, considered the first sound film feature. History tells us that sound films were initially thought to be just a passing fad, but this was not the case. Since the industry’s conversion to sound was gathering so much momentum, management at British International Pictures decided to add some dialogue to make the film a “part-talkie”, which was becoming increasingly common for films at that time. British International Pictures’ competition, Gaumont, was trailing behind in their conversion to producing sound pictures. BIP produced twice as many sound films at Gaumont from 1928-1931. (12) They were able to use this to their advantage to keep Hitchcock on board with them until Hitchcock reconnected with Michael Balcon later 1934 at his new studio Gaumont-British.
The original source material for Blackmail was a play by Charles Bennett; Tallulah Bankhead, incredibly, played the leading role on the stage. Bennett assisted Hitchcock in the construction of the film adaptation but did not write any of the dialogue. The first film he actually wrote for Hitchcock was the original The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1933. He went on to write several more films with Hitchcock. Benn Levy actually wrote the dialogue for Blackmail.
With Blackmail, starting in pre-production Hitchcock had been careful in his crafting of the film that with some reshooting and reworking, he was able to produce a version of the film that could actually be released as a “full talkie” which had scenes of dialogue throughout the picture. What many are not aware of is that the silent version of the film also was released into theaters. However, this version did not go out until two months after the sound version. It was exhibited mostly to suburban and rural areas where sound equipment had not yet been installed into theaters.
The silent version of the film is widely known to exist within the archives of the British Film Institute, but has been seen by few. In the USA, the silent version is not available on VHS or DVD. A DVD copy of the sound version of Blackmail that includes the silent version was tracked down on Amazon.com – Germany. It is in PAL format and cannot be played on Region 1 DVD players. This DVD was obtained in order to screen the silent version for this paper. It also includes the famous sound check between Hitchcock and Ondra, showing her what her Polish accent sounded like on screen.
Hitchcock cast his film with Anny Ondra, his first blonde leading lady. She began her film career in 1920 in Czechoslovakian films as a comedian. John Longden was the leading man. In 1929, he appeared in one of the first films about the Titanic, Atlantic. He also went on to star in several more of Hitchcock’s films, including his last British film, The Jamaica Inn. The role of Mr. Crewe, the artist turned rapist, was played by Cyril Ritchard. He would go on to be well known for his musical theater performances, especially that of Captain Hook opposite Mary Martin’s Peter Pan.
Another film, Kitty by Victor Saville was being made with British International Pictures. It was started several months prior to Hitchcock’s Blackmail. Kitty was shot and released initially as a silent film in 1929 and then withdrawn only to have its last two reels reshot with sound. The replacement of a reel with sound was common method for creating some “part talkies” of that time. In the case of Kitty this ruined the film by taking away from the melodramatic storyline to drawing the audience’s attention to the novelty of the talkie section of the film. The rest of the film was unchanged except for music which was also synchronized with the silent reels. The added scenes took away from the fluidity of the film and seemed out of place. Hitchcock was able to avoid this mistake by making the sound scenes incorporate smoothly with what had already been shot for the silent version. (3) While there were other films from Britain that began to use partial sound, like Kitty, Blackmail was the first to be considered a “full talkie” and therefore considered the first British talking picture.
It is often assumed that much of the dialogue-free scenes in the sound version of Blackmail were taken straight from the silent version. Upon watching the two films many of these scenes seem identical. But as Barr points out in his book, English Hitchcock, it was common in those days for films to shoot two good takes of each scene so that they could provide a negative for a local release of the film as well as one for overseas. It would appear that Hitchcock may have foreseen the adaptation of his film for sound and actually shot two good takes of each scene. The similar scenes in both films often bare slight differences between one another when closely compared. For example, when Alice is sitting along in the restaurant after Frank steps away, she pulls out a small slip of paper telling her when Mr. Crewe plans to meet her there. In the silent version she looks at her watch to see that its 6:49, while in the sound version the same shot of her watch shows the time being 6:52. There are other subtle differences throughout the film but are they are virtually undetectable.
“Hitchcock integrated documentary-like presentations of the mechanics of crime, detective, and legal work in many of his films: the best early examples are Blackmail and Murder’.” (7) The opening of Blackmail features an exercise in this documentative style. We follow the police as they are sent on a call to track down their criminal. He is captured and brought to jail where he is interrogated. Then he is placed in a line up where he is identified by a witness, fingerprinted and then locked up. While this scene has nothing directly to do with the storyline, it does let us know that we are going to be watching some sort of crime drama as well as illustrating the impersonal power of the police.
Hitchcock is famous for using pretty blondes and putting them in compromising situations. With Alice, she is apparently unhappy in her current relationship with Frank, decides to spend time on a fling with Mr. Crewe, the artist. She seems to use the excuse of him getting off work late as a reason to be upset with him. She agrees to go to dinner at a restaurant that she had already planned on meeting Mr. Crewe at. Once she sees that he has arrived, she becomes indecisive in her plans with Frank. This eventually angers Frank enough for him to leave. He is outside the restaurant as Alice and Mr. Crewe walk out arm in arm. Hitchcock then begins spinning his web of danger. Mr. Crewe invites Alice into his apartment so that he can see his art studio. Alice agrees to be led into his trap. Once inside he convinces her to try on a skimpy dress and pose for him. In the sound version, he plays a funny little tune on his piano that is best summed up as creepy. She comes out in the little dress and playfully poses for him. She then returns behind the changing panels to take off the skimpy dress, meanwhile Mr. Crewe takes her dress and makes her come out in her underwear. He then forces her to his bed where he attempts to rape her. It is there that Alice manages to reach a bread knife to stab him to death with. A bread knife is not known to be much of a lethal weapon but it is mentioned later that she got him in the jugular vein.
After Alice kills Mr. Crewe she goes into shock. Exhausted, she leaves his apartment in a zombie-like state. Her conscious immediately begins to affect her as her mind starts to play tricks on her. She becomes startled as she sees arms that are similar to the arm of dead Mr. Crewe. The arms are all reminders of the murder she just committed. As she stumbles along through the city, she sees a sign advertising “Gordon’s White Purity” with a flashing animated neon sign of a martini shaker that she starts to envision as a hand with knife in a stabbing motion. The arms and the neon sign allow the audience to experience what Alice is feeling at that moment.
Hitchcock also uses his first “shock cut” in this sequence when Alice screams at the arm of a beggar the scene cuts to the scream of the landlady discovering Mr. Crewe’s body. This is yet, another example of Hitchcock’s creative use of the new medium of sound in his movies.
Hitchcock again finds a strategic new place for sound inside Alice’s bedroom. After stumbling through the streets she makes it home and crawls into bed. Within a short time, her mother comes in to wake her up for the day. One of the first things the mother does is to remove the birdcage cover which prompts the finches to begin chirping away disturbing the silence. This is the first of many uses of bird noises that Hitchcock will employ throughout his career to coincide with a character in a distressed state. The bird noises in Blackmail act as an annoyance to Alice. The birds were notably missing in the original silent version of the film. Hitchcock letter said, "There have always been occasions when we have needed to show a phantasmagoria of the mind in terms of visual imagery. So we may want to show someone's mental state by letting him listen to some sound--let us say church bells--and making them clang with distorted insistence in his head."
The scene which follows features Alice going downstairs for breakfast. This is a famous scene in the film that has been addressed by many authors on the topic. Alice sits with her family for breakfast. A pest of a neighbor stands there talking about the murder and knife. The word “knife” itself seems to lunge out at Alice. This all builds the audience for what comes next when the blackmailer, Tracy, shows up and essentially takes over the house. The growing tension mounts until the moment when the parlor window shatters, and Tracy flees. This all represents the sort of 'crucible' situation that Hitchcock would sometimes make the subject of a whole film, such as Rope. (10) Mogg believes that a misconception about the famous scene on the morning after the artist's killing, in which a gossipy neighbor repeatedly uses the word “knife”, is merely a clever use of sound by Hitchcock. The repetitive use of the word “knife” appears to jump out at Alice. Striking the scene may be, but it works for other, deeper reasons. It draws attention to itself for a purpose, being a study in the psychology of Alice, who has gone all night without sleep. She walked the streets in a virtual comatose state. It is in these times that the mind plays tricks. The silent version is just as effective without the verbal “knife” references. Alice’s father asks her to cut the bread. Alice slowly reaches for the knife. We see the shadow of her hand crawl over it as she slowly grabs it. The blade of the knife glimmers in the light. Then someone walks in the door of their store, ringing the bell which startles Alice causing her to drop the knife. This is followed by a title card of her father saying, “You should really be more careful with knives dear.” The silent version of this scene fares better since the humor of the chatty neighbor is non-existent allowing the tension to build and it provides a much more dramatic moment.
The sound version of the film carries some of Hitchcock’s signature light moments. The scene with the neighbor mentioning the knife also has a very comical line which further pushes Alice’s nerves over the edge: “A good, clean honest what over the ‘ead with a brick is one thing. There’s something British about that. But knives. No, knives is not right.” This is one of a few light moments in the film. Another is when Mr. Crewe’s landlady describes to the police the blackmailer. She describes his hair as not blonde nor brunette but “mousey.” She also mocks the slightly deranged expression on his face. It is timed perfect as the film builds toward Alice’s impending doom of being discovered. This is one of the few scenes that are actually improved by having sound.
In addition to being known for being the first sound film, Blackmail also features many of the first Hitchcock trademarks. While his brief cameo in The Lodger was his first, Blackmail features what was probably his most prominent cameo, as well as longest. He is seen sitting on the London Underground facing the camera in a way that forces the audience to notice him. He is pestered by a small boy while attempting to read the newspaper. He is shown yelling at the parents of the child as if to say “control your child!” In the sound version, the only noise heard is the loud sound of the train rolling along. No dialogue is discernable. Hitchcock also features creative shots of staircases as he does in later films like Vertigo and Psycho. (2) When Alice and Mr. Crewe first arrive they climb several flights as the camera follows them straight up with a boom shot in a cut-away fashion of the staircase. This shot, however, is not seen in the sound version of the movie. Also, there is an overhead shot looking down several flights of stairs within Mr. Crewe’s apartment when Alice makes her escape after his murder.
Another first in this film is the use of a prominent location for the climatic finale of the film. For Blackmail, Hitchcock chose the British Museum where the blackmailer is chased by Frank. The blackmailer climbs to the roof and just as he is about to give himself up, he falls through the glass ceiling. “The British Museum climax was suggested to Hitch by Michael Powell, who was familiar with the Reading Room and its glass dome.” “Hitchcock develops still further his trademark emphasis on subjectivity, an emphasis both technical and thematic. It had featured in practically every one of his silent films, and by now was capable of yielding profound effects and commentary”. (10)
This final scene in the museum also utilized early special effects. The rather complicated effects were done in a way known as the “Schüfftan Process.” It was named for the cinematographer who invented the process while shooting Metropolis. Schüfftan placed a plate of glass at a forty-five-degree angle between the camera and the miniature buildings. He used the camera's viewfinder to trace an outline of the area into which the actors would later be inserted onto the glass. This outline was transferred onto a mirror and the entire reflective surface that fell outside the outline was removed, leaving transparent glass. When the mirror was placed in the same position as the original plate of glass, the reflective part blocked a portion of the miniature building behind it and also reflected the stage behind the camera. The actors were placed several yards away from the mirror so that when they were reflected in the mirror, they would appear at the right size. Overall, it achieved a very realistic result. (13)
In his own words, Hitchcock explained how he liked how the standard plot of Blackmail could adapt into a film. The basic theme is love versus duty. Both versions of the film open with Frank doing his duty by arresting the criminal. Once his day ends, he then tends to Alice, his love. Later, when he realizes that she is implicated in the murder, he becomes torn between love and duty. The audience immediately can make this connection and is brought into the film. (7) According to Hitchcock, he originally wanted to end the film with Alice being pursued by the police, bringing the young detective's moral conflict ("love versus duty") to a head. This ending, he claims, was turned down by the producers for commercial reasons. Alice could not be left to her own fate because audiences want a conclusion. However, the ending as it was made, with its ingenious use of a clown painting to symbolize Alice's lingering feelings of guilt, is if anything darker and more subtly ironic than the ending Hitchcock originally had in mind. (9) This clown painting is used in both the silent and sound versions of the film and is just as effective in both. The ending leaves an eerie feeling, since it is not a happy resolution. Alice and Frank must now spend the rest of the lives with the guilt of her crime.
The title of the film comes from a character within the film named Tracy. He was the only witness to see Alice go up to Mr. Crewe’s apartment. Tracy shows up at the home of Alice the morning following the murder to harass Alice and Frank, who by now knows that she was with him last. Tracy’s character is a minor one, at best. His plans fall apart when the Mr. Crewe’s landlady picks him out of a mug shot book. The police believe him to be the murder. They give chase to him and wind up at the British Museum. Incidentally, Hitchcock had him heart set on the museum and when he found out he could not shoot there due to the lack of lighting, it was decided to use the special effects instead. Tracy tries to explain that he is the wrong man when he meets his untimely death by falling through the glass domed ceiling. He is essentially a red herring to the situation of Frank having to split himself between being a detective investigating a murder and his girl friend being the person who committed that murder. Only a couple of scenes for the chase sequence were reshot for sound. Namely the scene of Tracy attempting to explain his innocence just he falls through the ceiling.
Hitchcock’s was known for being a dirty old man which is further supported by a screen test of Anny Ondra, apparently done so that Ondra could hear why her thick Polish accent would not work for the sound version of the film. In that screen test he interacts with Ondra and asks, “Have you been a good girl?” To which she responds laughing, “Oh no!” Hitchcock responds, “Oh no? Have you slept with men?” She responds that he is making her nervous and moves away from the microphone. Hitchcock then directs her, “Now come over here, or it won’t come out right – as the girl said to the soldier.” (1) Hitchcock was never shy about sex or his flirtatious nature with his leading heroines.
Due to Ondra’s unusable voice, Hitchcock devised an ingenious way to provide her a British voice. Since post-synchronization had not been devise, Hitchcock had the actress Joan Barry stand just off camera and speak the lines into a microphone while Ondra mouthed the dialogue in sync. In most scenes, this is virtually undetectable. Most, without knowing this, would problem never even notice the fact. Ondra’s performance in the silent version is arguably better than that of the sound film, due most in part to the fact that she relied on her physical acting and facial expressions to convey her character with very little dialogue via the titles. In the sound version she comes off much more as a whiny, self-centered female. Without actually hearing her verbalize her expressions, she is much more likable. The audience can relate more to the silent version who just seems like a simple female who makes one big mistake. In the sound version she comes across as being much needier for the help of Frank, the man she cheated on to begin with. Had she stayed faithful to him, she would not have gotten herself into the problematic situation. Critic Robin Wood points out, “Blackmail introduces the motif of the "guilty woman" that made for some of Hitchcock's most profoundly resonant films: Rebecca, Notorious, Vertigo, Psycho, The Birds and Marnie. The latter two, both featuring Tippi Hedren, who it seems was born to be “the damsel who caused her own distress.” (15)
Hitchcock enjoys depicting consequences for the actions of these guilty women. In Alice’s case, she was forced to defend her virtue in a situation that she brought upon herself to begin with. Of course, a virtuous woman would never have gone up to the apartment of a man she barely knew. Hitchcock plays it as if this flirtatious woman gets what’s coming to her. This scene involving Alice is consistent with sexual scenarios in which Hitchcock enjoyed placing his lovely leading ladies. Virtually ever movie he made has a scene where a woman is placed into precarious circumstances due to her sexuality and often punished for it.
Critically, the Blackmail was well received, due mostly to the fact that the film featured sound. On June 24, 1929, a reviewer for the Daily Mail said the film was “the best talking film yet – and British.” A reviewer from Variety noted that the film “silent would be an unusually good film; as it is, it comes near to being a landmark.” Mind you those all-talkie films were still relatively a new format, especially in Britain. This would explain such raving reviews. However, this positive reaction from both critics and moviegoers is what propelled Hitchcock into being a first rate, top notch director in Britain. It was the first film that the British felt could compete with the quality of films coming from the foreign competition.
When Hitchcock was later in his years, he looked back on Blackmail with negative criticism. He felt the dialogue did not flow and that it sounds more like spoken titles than natural speech. Actors in the early days of talking pictures referred to saying their lines as “speaking their titles.” On the same token, since the film was made in the early days of sound in film, the dialogue scenes are used only when it seems useful. (5) Hitchcock could have been a little kinder to himself if he remembered that the use of the apparatus of sound was a new medium that still did not know if it belonged.
While Blackmail showed that Hitchcock and British International Pictures could produce successful films with sound, it did not being any immediate help to the British film industry. Their studios still could not afford to pay their actors what the Hollywood studios were playing. Plus in Britain, movies were still considered entertainment for the working class. Subsequently, most British actors still preferred working in the theatre, where the upper-class went for their entertainment. (2) It would be many years before Britain would become the “it” place for cinema.
Even though the silent version of the film was stronger, once sound was added, Hitchcock was able to add a new dimension to the film and pioneer techniques that he and other film makers would use, even to this day. While the sound additions did not necessarily improve the film, Blackmail left an indelible mark upon the face of British cinema and changed its future. The film was a huge success not only for British International Pictures but for the British film industry as a whole. At last a film was made that could stand up to all those films coming out of America. The rest of the British studios could comfortable settle into the fact that sound was here to stay. Additionally, the success of Blackmail propelled Hitchcock into celebrity status as a director that knew how to make a financially successful sound picture. Even with the few road bumps that he faced immediately following this production, Hitchcock galvanized his career in this film. The face of British cinema would never be the same after the 30 year old Hitchcock made this contribution. It was now proven that sound could be utilized in a creative and productive way that brought more to a film than just the novelty of voices talking on the screen.
1. Spoto, Donald. The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, New York: Anchor Books, 1992.
2. Spoto, Donald. The Dark Side of Genius, New York: Plexus, 1994. p. 136.
3. Barr, Charles. English Hitchcock, Scotland: Cameron & Hollis, 1999. p. 81-82
4. Condon, Paul and Sangster, Jim. Hitchcock, Virgin, 1999.
5. Taylor, John Russell. Hitch, New York: Berkeley Publishing Corporation, 1980. p. 87.
6. Auiler, Dan. Hitchcock’s Notebooks: An Authorized and Illustrated Look Inside the Creative Mind of Alfred Hitchcock, New York: Harper Paperbacks, 2001.
7. Gottlieb, Sidney. Early Hitchcock: The German Influence, Hitchcock Annual [1999-2000] p. 100-130.
8. Barr, Charles. BLACKMAIL: SILENT AND SOUND. Sight and Sound 52:2 [Spring 1983] p. 122.
9. Steffan, James. “Blackmail.” October 2005. http://www.turnerclassicmovies.com/ThisMonth/Article/0,,103555%7C103556%7C18625,00.html.
10. Mogg, Ken. “McGuffin.” 30 November 2004. 3 December 2005. http://www.labyrinth.net.au/%7Emuffin/mcgilligan2_c.html.
11. Telotte, J. P. “The Sounds of BLACKMAIL: Hitchcock and Sound Aesthetic - Critical Essay.” Journal of Popular Film and Television, Winter, 2001.
12. Murphy, Robert (ed.). The British Cinema Book (2nd edition), BFI Publishing, 2001 pg 30-31