‘Blackmail’ signals the start of classic Hitchcock, following the dry run of the earlier – mostly successful – ‘The Lodger’. The action starts fast, and there is an immediate and urgent pace to the film throughout. A full frame spinning police car wheel is the first image we see and we’re straight into the action as Detective Frank Webber (John Longden, who will go on to appear in a further four Hitchcock’s) and his partner go to arrest a typically slime-ballish villainous type, guv.
The pace is continued as Frank takes his blonde girlfriend Alice White (Anny Ondra, from ‘The Manxman’) out for the evening – she eventually leaving with another man after a minor tiff with Frank. The other man is simply called ‘The Artist’ (Cyril Ritchard) – although eventual blackmailer Tracy (Donald Calthorp) calls him what sounds like ‘Mr. Crew’ in the early scenes, as does his landlady when filing her police report. Attempted rape and bloody murder occur (both offscreen, discretely behind a curtain) and the plot thickens as the fled Alice leaves a glove behind, Frank finding it as he starts the police investigation. Recognizing the glove as Alice’s (she had mislaid it in the earlier restaurant scene, he had retrieved it) Frank proceeds to pocket it in order to cover up for her – leading to the titular blackmail at the hands of the scurrilous Tracy, who has found the other glove and is out for a quick buck. There is some relationship between Tracy and The Artist, clearly the latter is not all squeaky clean even though he states of Tracy: ‘that chap’s nothing but a sponger – always pestering people up and down the street’. Remove thy plank, Artist. By the way, Cyril Ritchard must have had some painting training as he produces a pretty impressive line art rendition of a naked girl live on camera when flirting with Alice prior to the murder. He also seems to genuinely be playing the piano shortly afterwards – what a talented chap.
There is a great use of fluid camera movements and some neat visual trickery – the early scene as Frank and his co-cop enter the guy’s bedroom features a neat dolly move to a mirror so the guy can spot them before he lowers his newspaper. Good dramatic lighting here also as the two policemen gaze at him as he is thinking whether to go for his gun.
As crook-man is fingerprinted (a dissolve from his face to a full frame thumbprint suggesting this is what he has been reduced to), there is another lovely dolly move back to reveal the process.
The best camera move, however, is the dolly forward as the attempted rape is occurring – the camera closing in on the knife as Alice’s hand clutches at it from behind the curtain.
Anny Ondra does some great acting after the murder – she’s almost robotic in her movements as she tries to figure out what to do next. Very believable in her representation of shock as she walks the streets at night, surrounded by bustling strangers and seeing The Artist’s dead arm everywhere she looks – and knives appearing on neon lit cocktail signs.
When she gets home in the morning, sneaking into bed just before mum brings her a cuppa, she is also great – Ondra giving a very real sense of how a young girl would feel after such a traumatic event. She is about to make a phone call to Frank but can’t face it, Hitchcock establishing that the phone booth in the shop is sound-proofed by blocking out the chatter of a local gossip (this will come to the fore later when Frank quizzes her in the same booth for privacy – great use of sound, silence and secrecy). Talking of phones, the post-murder telephone conversation as The Artist’s landlady calls the police is interesting also – the landlady to frame top left but mostly out of shot barring the telephone, the policeman bottom right, just the back of his head visible. No cross cutting here – the director just combines them both into the same frame in an elegant and simple device.
He also does a nice ‘zoom through the mouthpiece’ trick shot at Scotland Yard to get through to the mugshot books in their search for Tracy.
Alice’s abandoned phone call is followed by one of the greatest moments in the film, and in the entire Hitchcock canon. Most directors would be happy to be able to use sound in any capacity, just happy to make the new technology work. What does he do? The gossipy woman is rambling on about the choice of murder weapon and Hitchcock fades all her chat bar the word ‘knife’ – pan to c/u of Alice as she goes to cut the bread, the tension rising, the ‘knife’ word piercing until she jumps and it falls to the floor. Really, really great.
Tracy is a good baddie, Calthorp playing him as a swaggeringly confident wannabee-sophisticate as he takes his time choosing the most expensive cigar in the shop, then slowly revealing his dastardly plans to Frank and Alice. He coolly helps himself to a nice cooked breakfast, whistling his way through eggs and bacon and tea whilst wheedling cash out of them. Of course, when it all turns bad he’s as cowardly as a cold bowl of custard and very rapidly loses it – but Calthorp is just as good as portraying this side of Tracy: sweaty, unshaven and weasely.
There are some great ‘staircase movements’ throughout the film. A nice shot as Alice enters the Artist’s place – her p.o.v. up the stairs anticipating what may occur in his studio. This is wildly surpassed by the superb vertical crane move upwards as the pair of them go up to his place. This wonderful move is innovative, imaginative and fantastic. And then Hitchcock tops himself by doing one of his great ‘camera above the staircase’ shots as Alice leaves the murder scene (it’s exactly like ‘Vertigo’ without the stretch effect). Absolutely wonderful stuff.
Soundwise, it’s very interesting. The film was apparently shot mute and, with the advances in audio technology at the time, post-synched. Some door clunks and sound effects are added to begin with and then dialogue starts as Frank and his partner walk through the police station – very impressive. Anny Ondra was dubbed by the English actress Joan Barry (who will later star in ‘Rich and Strange’) as she was German and too strongly accented – it’s all pretty crude but impressive, Barry’s voice being perhaps a little posh for the daughter of a London small shopkeeper.
The film’s denouement, the celebrated ‘British Museum chase’, is still, 80 years later, an impressive set piece. Tracy darts in as he is cornered by the chasing cops, pausing rather curiously to have a drink of water, and the chase commences against a backdrop of impassive statues and ancient relics, intercutting with increasing rapidity to Alice awaiting news.
Tracy’s eventual falling through the glass domed roof is a great end to a nasty piece of work, and you feel no sympathy.
Lest we feel any umbrage against Alice, she has already drafted a letter saying she is going to give herself up. When she rises from her writing desk the shadow of her window falls across her neck and she stands stock still and steady, awaiting the inevitable gallows.
At New Scotland Yard, Frank takes over her statement from his boss and she tells him it was in self-defence, they walk away together…but their hands slip apart. The final laughing between Frank and his jolly colleague is not shared by Alice, who gazes at the laughing jester painting from Crew’s studio as it is taken away – can she ever live with what has happened and hold all the guilt inside…
The finale British Museum setpiece stands amongst the very best of Hitchcock, the use of classic famous locations against which the transitory problems of man seem small and petty. I cannot recommend ‘Blackmail’ highly enough.
Anyone familiar with Hitchcock’s later work will have seen his tendency to use back and rear projection systems – the vast majority of it, even on the later movies, very creaky and glaringly obvious. The opening shots of the flying squad dashing to capture the crook, are the first time I have noticed rear projection in his films – the police wagon being jiggled around fairly convincingly. Ultimately though, these sequences (and they will become a big bug bear to me) are sometimes laughingly bad and actually become quite distracting. More on this in later weeks and months.
Hitchcock’s personal appearance pops up at about 10’30” in – aboard an Underground train being hassled by a small boy yanking at his hat.
Various profile shots of Anny Ondra, particularly in the later scenes when she goes to confess.