Tag Archives: Blackmail

Blackmail’s London: Alfred Hitchcock’s city of crime

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 mural
A mural commemorating Hitchcock on a row of houses near his birthplace – his former home has been demolished and there is a petrol station in its place

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 (1929)
The right side of the law. Image credit: The Hitchcock Zone/Canal Plus UK (2019)

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.

 

Blackmail (1929)
The wrong side of the tracks. Image credit: The Hitchcock Zone/Canal Plus UK (2019)

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. Continue reading Blackmail’s London: Alfred Hitchcock’s city of crime

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Hitchcock’s coming home … Blackmail at the Walthamstow Assembly Hall

Alfred Hitchcock was born in the far east of London, in Leytonstone. So far east in fact, that it was Essex then, I think. But Hitch is still one of London’s most famous film directors, and it is fitting that one of his most famous films to be both set and filmed in the capital will be screening in his home borough of Waltham Forest this summer. The Barbican are showing the silent version of Blackmail, with Neil Brand’s tremendous score played by the Forest Philharmonic, at the Assembly Hall in Walthamstow, London E17.  Be there or find yourself kicking your heels in a West End Lyon’s Corner House, rejected and alone.

Blackmail is a classic crime thriller, laden with Hitchcock’s signature suspense tricks, about a nice young girl (Anny Ondra) who commits a violent act one night in dire circumstances, and has to live with the consequences. Famously shot as both a silent and sound film, Blackmail reveals Hitchcock as a confident director revelling in the themes of murder and guilt that would become his home turf. In classic Hitchcock style, Blackmail also climaxes with a setpiece at a famous landmark – one slightly closer to home than Mount Rushmore. Every film fan in London should see this film, and the best way to see it is like this, with an orchestra and Brand’s wonderful music.

Continue reading Hitchcock’s coming home … Blackmail at the Walthamstow Assembly Hall

An introduction to silent Hitchcock: Blackmail

Anny Ondra in Blackmail (1929)
Anny Ondra in Blackmail (1929)

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.

Blackmail (1929)
Blackmail (1929)

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.

Synopsis: 

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:

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.