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. Continue reading Blackmail’s London: Alfred Hitchcock’s city of crime→
Who can resist a good film book? Not me. Sometimes I have to close my eyes when I pass a bookshop, just to save my bank balance..
Recently, I’ve been lucky enough to dip into several new silent movie-related books – some of which have been sent to me to review. In fact I have spent so much time reading them that there aren’t enough hours left in the day to report on them all. Here instead, are some rapid-fire reviews of books worthy of your consideration.
Every one of them would repay the decision to spend a leisurely afternoon browsing in the library of your choice – some you may even want to splash out on as a gift or a treat to yourself. I am sure you deserve it.
Silent Features: The Development of Silent Feature Films 1914-1934
Edited by Steve Neale (University of Exeter Press)
A great idea for a book, and one that is bound to be popular with students and scholars alike. The idea is to track the development of the feature film as a form, via a series of meticulous case studies. Each essay here functions as a mini-monograph on one feature film, covering its sources, production and critical reception in admirable depth.
This book has 17 chapters and almost as many contributors. It roams across films from Europe, Russia, America, China and Japan, and many of the choices are far from the usual suspects. There are some much-feted classics here, Assunta Spina, Wings, I Was Born, But …, The Phantom Carriage, but also The Strong Man, Lazybones, Miss Mend and The Wishing Ring. With each leap to different place and time, it’s hard not to wish for a second or third volume to fill in all the gaps.
Two British silents are covered, while Steve Neale’s essay on Lubitsch’s Lady Windermere’s Fan notes the similarities of that film with the 1916 adaptation from the Ideal studio. Piccadilly is the subject of a rich analysis by Jon Burrows which is both a pleasurable read and consistently illuminating. Another great silent London film, Maurice Elvey’s Palais de Dance (1928), is discussed in detail by Martin Shingler. Hopefully, his excellent essay may pique more interest in this overlooked film.
The Call of the Heart: John M Stahl and Hollywood Melodrama
Edited by Bruce Babington and Charles Barr (John Libbey)
You can’t have failed to notice the spread of Stahlmania by now, and not before time. Babington and Barr have been on a mission to put John M. Stahl back where he belongs in the annals of great American film directors. Perhaps it’s because he made “women’s films”, because melodrama is an unfashionable word, or because some of his best films were remade by Douglas Sirk (and it’s not long since he was fished out of the “forgotten” category), but Stahl hasn’t had his due for a while. That was before screenings of his best silent and sound films became some of the most popular programmes at Pordenone and Bologna last year. And before this impressive book.
This volume, with contributions from writers around the globe, represents a truly exhaustive study of a single director. There are essays on each of his films, even the lost ones, and biographical pieces by Babington to fill in some of the mystery surrounding this undersung director. Many people will be familiar with Stahl’s sound films, such as Leave Her to Heaven (1945) and the 1930s melodramas Back Street, Only Yesterday and Imitation of Life. Showcased at last year’s Giornate, however, the silent films are a revelation, and in their command of emotional complexity, freewheeling narrative and telling human detail cast a fresh light of the triumphs of the best sound films.
Richard Koszarski kicks off the silent section with a meticulous study of Stahl’s first substantial screen work, The Lincoln Cycle of short films on the beloved US president. Watching these shorts, Stahl’s ambition and talent is obvious from the outset. It’s clear now, that Stahl’s silent work alone deserves re-evaluation and a series of brilliant essays in this book by Lea Jacobs, Charles Barr and Imogen Sara Smith explore his first features with insight and clarity. Many of these films are very rarely shown, but this book should encourage more screenings.
Those of us who have been working on Stahl as part of this project expressed just one regret when we gathered at Pordenone. It was that we had been able to see all the other films before writing our individual pieces, because they are all connected, in such fascinating ways. The lurid plotting of Leave Her to Heaven has its roots in Stahl’s silent era melodramas, the immense sensitivity of his 1930s “women’s pictures” is trailed in the emotional delicacy of the later silent features. Thorough as this work is, and definitive as it feels right now, it may well be the start of something bigger.
Film Serials and the American Cinema 1910-1940: Operational Detection
By Ilka Brasch (Amsterdam University Press)
The film serial was once a staple of cinema programming, until TV came along and spoiled the fun. In this thoroughgoing study of the form, scholar Ilka Brasch gets to grips with what exactly made the serial such a compelling format. It’s goes beyond the thrill of the cliffhanger. Brasch has plenty to say on the appeal of the weekly thriller, but also drills into the “operational aesthetic” that informs our love of technological wizardry on screen and the particular pleasures of the police procedural drama.
And although the film serials may no longer grace our cinema screens, as Brasch points out, the rise of home video and digital streaming has allowed many of us to become 21st-century serial fans all over again. I couldn’t help but think of how popular daily serial screenings have become at Pordenone and Bologna. Maybe the serial has legs after all. How’s that for a last-minute twist?
I wrote a little more on this book for the April 2019 issue of Sight & Sound, which is on sale next week.