Blackmail, perhaps the greatest British silent film, was the work of a young director firing on all cylinders. As well as this masterful silent movie, Hitchcock made an acclaimed and pioneering talkie version, Britain’s first. It’s the silent Blackmail that concerns us, though, and it’s a fitting finale to Hitch’s silent years.
Anny Ondra is back, as Alice White, a young woman who rows with her dull policeman boyfriend in a Lyon’s Cornerhouse and wanders off with a dashing artist instead. When the dauber tries to take advantage of her in his studio, Alice defends herself, lethally, with a breadknife …
Here, as in The Lodger, Hitchcock’s London is superbly seedy. The opening scene of Blackmail shows the arrest of a shifty crim, holed up in bed in a tenement flat, and from the gossip who torments our heroine in her parents’s shop, to the blackmailer himself, everyone in the city seems to take an unnaturally keen interest in murder.
The way that Blackmail muddies a police procedural thriller with sex, moral compromise and guilt (and splashes of earthy humour) is a classic Hitchcock manoeuvre. Alfred was definitely hitting his stride here. However, one reason that Blackmail feels so much like the Hitchcock thrillers we know and love is that Charles Bennett, who wrote the play it is based on, went on to collaborate with Hitchcock on films from The 39 Steps to The Man Who Knew Too Much. Together, they created much that we think of as classic Hitchcock.
The question is, with a celebrated sound version available, why bother with the silent Blackmail? Of course, you don’t need to choose – they both have moments to recommend them. The finale at the British Museum (future shades of North by Northwest) is one of those great Hitchcock sequences that was conceived, and succeeds, visually. Sound adds nothing. Elsewhere, Hitchcock uses the freedom of a microphone-free set to set up some more experimental camera shots, where the sound film is a little more constrained. You won’t want to miss the famous “knife” sequence in the talkie Blackmail, but the silent version is unsettlingly creepy in its own way. I’d also like to champion Anny Ondra’s silent performance here – Joan Barry’s dubbed RP accent is just bizarre.
Grocer’s daughter Alice White kills a man in self-defence when he tries to sexually assault her. Her policeman boyfriend covers up for her, but she has been spotted leaving the scene by a petty criminal who tries to blackmail her. (BFI Screenonline)
Hitchcock moment: Here’s the pivotal, and supremely Hitchcockian, murder scene. With Neil Brand’s score to boot.
Watch out for: That gruesome painting of a jester.
Links worth clicking:
- Nightwaves: Blackmail, with Matthew Sweet, Neil Brand, Nathalie Morris, Michael Eaton and Camille Paglia
- Neil Brand on Blackmail for Sight and Sound
- BFI Screenonline
- Why Anny Ondra was dubbed
- Hitchcock’s hidden gems (by me, including five of his silents)
Blackmail (both versions) screens this summer as part of the BFI’s Genius of Hitchcock season. More information here. There’s also a gala performance featuring Neil Brand’s live score at the British Museum on 6 July.