Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail was released 90 years ago this June. This is a version of a piece I wrote for the Loud Silents estival screening of the film in 2015. The 2019 Loud Silents festival takes place 12-14 April in Tampere, Finland.
In Blackmail (1929), Alfred Hitchcock’s final silent film, guilt spreads like a virus across London, from criminal to accomplice, and as it travels, it subsumes the city itself. By the end of this film, even London’s most respectable neighbourhoods will have been transformed by a rippling crimewave. And Hitchcock’s use of key locations in the city maps this disruption, illustrating the terrible consequences of his heroine’s fatal mistake.
Hitchcock was certainly a law-fearing Londoner. He grew up in a flat over a greengrocer’s shop in the eastern suburb of Leytonstone, but by the time he made Blackmail, he had lived, worked and studied all over the city. We know that he was a keen film and theatregoer in his youth, fascinated by lurid crime stories. We also know that he grew up in awe of the police, a terror exacerbated if not born when his father punished him by having him locked in a cell at the local station – he was just five years old. Many of his best films, from The Lodger (1927) to Frenzy (1972), via Sabotage (1936) portray the city of his birth as a dangerous place, stalked by terrorists and serial killers who make the streets unsafe.
Blackmail takes in some of London’s most famous landmarks, from Scotland Yard to the Palace of Westminster to the British Museum, and the first twenty minutes of the film travel full-tilt across the city, from west to east and back again, in the company of a sharp-jawed detective called Frank (John Longden). We begin the movie on the right side of the law, and with the criminals in their expected place. So naturally, we begin at Great Scotland Yard, Whitehall, slap-bang in the heart of the Establishment.
The camera travels with the flying squad on their way to arrest a wrong ’un. We are not privy to the exact address, but the arches and tenements at their destination suggest the inner East End, and the criminal they arrest is straight out of a rogue’s gallery. As soon as the coppers arrive, he reaches for the gun on his bedside table.
But as the film continues, we’ll meet more respectable-looking criminals, in far more expensive postcodes. And all the boundaries will become blurred. The first surprise comes as soon as our East End crim has been locked up (for stealing cash and gold). Alice (Anny Ondra) arrives at Scotland Yard – gatecrashing the most macho of male spaces, which is certainly no place for a nice girl. But she’s there to meet her boyfriend, Frank.
Frank and Alice’s date takes us up West – to a fancier area of the city. The sweethearts travel by Tube (what else?) where a familiar face lurks in the background, to the sanctuary of a Lyons Corner House. This is definitely a PG-rated date destination, fancier than a café, more family-friendly than a bar. Found in a selection of top-rank West End locations, and arranged over several floors, the Corner Houses quickly became an institution after first opening in 1909 and only disappeared from the capital in 1977. The hustle-and-bustle on screen is true to life – Corner Houses never slept. Cakes and hot meals were served 24 hours a day by waitresses known as “nippies” wearing distinctive black-and-white uniforms.
The silent version of Blackmail was filmed in a bona fide Corner House, whereas the sound version was confined to the studio, so by viewing this film, you get an extra glimpse of a London long gone. You’d think that nothing bad could happen to our couple in such a place … but Hitchcock has other plans, and Alice spots a handsome stranger in the crowd who will derail her evening, and her life.
Because Alice’s life, up to this point, has been very ordered, and strongly tied to one location. Alice, like the young Hitchcock, lives with her parents over the family shop: George White’s newsagent, at No 227 on the King’s Road. And that is an almost, but not quite, airtight refuge from the dangers of the big bad city. The King’s Road, as the name suggests, was a private road belonging to the Royal family until 1830. Subsequently, it became a commercial thoroughfare in well-heeled west London, stretching from Sloane Square in the east to Fulham Broadway and Chelsea in the west. In the 1960s and 70s it was associated with cutting-edge fashion and pop subcultures. In the 1920s the shops there were less glamorous, but the area was already known as an artistic quarter – somewhere where an unscrupulous dauber might rent an attic room.
What happens in the attic room I won’t disclose, but when Alice emerges from it she is disoriented, and not ready to return home. Instead she takes a looping route via the West End, the Houses of Parliament and Trafalgar Square before returning to No 227. Her second trip to the West End is less welcoming than her visit to the Corner House with Frank. The crowds are overwhelming, and even the neon adverts take on new sinister meanings.
But Hitchcock’s most audacious use of a London location comes in his grandstanding finale. It’s another mission for the flying squad, but this time the chase takes them north, to a symbol of the nation’s, and the empire’s, history – the British Museum in Bloomsbury. It’s an astonishing sequence, which uses the scale of the building and its antiquities to add drama, while simultaneously seeming to thumb its nose at the institution. Note the similarity between the curve of the Museum’s domed roof, and the arch close to where the first criminal is arrested at the start of the film.
Hitchcock told François Truffaut that he wanted to end the film as it began, with a criminal being being arrested and taken to the police station, continuing the daily cycle of crime and punishment – but in this case the criminal would be Alice, and Frank would be going home alone. He was stymied, because, he said, “the producers claimed it was too depressing”. While the ending we are left with is superficially more optimistic than that, it does nothing to allay the fear that the capital is a criminal hotspot.
Alice’s fateful encounter at the Corner House has spun the city on its axis. Criminals are now chased out in the open, over the perfect dome of the British Museum, rather than ferreted out from under the railway arches of east London. Surely Hitchcock would have chuckled at the thought of spooked audiences stumbling out of West End cinemas after seeing his film, and taking a fresh look at their surroundings, and their journey home.
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