Alfred Hitchcock’s 1929 film, Blackmail, follows Alice (Ondra), as she ditches her police detective boyfriend, Frank (Longden), and goes on a date instead with a local artist, Mr. Crewe (Ritchard). Unfortunately, their date concludes with Mr. Crewe attempting to rape Alice. In the struggle, Alice is able to get her hands on a knife and kill Mr. Crewe.
Frank becomes the lead detective on the case and immediately discovers evidence against Alice. Frank confronts Alice about the murder. However, both of them are confronted by a third party, another witness to the crime.
Blackmail was not Hitchcock’s first film, but it was early in his career. He had made 10 films in the seven years leading up to Blackmail and his knack for suspenseful thrillers was already established by his 1927 film, The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog. Blackmail‘s primary accolade is that it is considered the first “all talkie” film in the United Kingdom. I put “all talkie” in quotes, because at least the introductory scene of the film is silent. Due to the technology becoming available around the time of production, Blackmail was produced and released in both silent and sound versions.
Editing and Camera Work
It is easy to see how Hitchcock’s style stood out out among his contemporaries. Hitchcock and editor, Emile de Ruelle, crafted fluid transitions between scenes that maintained a natural flow. This made the story easy to follow and heightened the importance of everything being presented on the screen. You can tell that Hitchcock made a point to film the characters properly during each action and to show them moving from space to space. Using every moment he could to hint at the impending danger, or possible danger.
The stairs sequence
The scene begins with Crewe telling Alice to go up the stairs ahead of him. The shot that comes next, a low angle shot looking up to the top of the flight of stairs, reinforces the implication of impending danger and helps center ourselves around Alice’s point of view, her weariness and uncomfortability are immediately transmitted to the viewer.
Hitchcock then uses a vertical tracking shot to follow the couple up the stairs. Not letting the viewer take their eyes off of their transition up to the apartment. A quick cut to Alice and Mr Crewe in the apartment would soften the suspense. Instead, the tracking shot allows the viewer to slowly follow Alice as she leaves the safety of ground and ascends up to the apartment. Hitchcock uses slow pacing often throughout Blackmail to build the tension. Letting the scene slowly play out is a norm of thrillers today, but Hitchcock had it figured out 100 years ago.
The overall plot is relatively shallow and full of holes. Did Tracy really have anything of substance to use as Blackmail? Is there a reason that Alice was never allowed to speak her mind or say much of anything to anyone? She could have told anyone that she was defending herself and she would not have had to hide or felt as guilty. Did Scotland Yard not think it was weird that Frank left the crime scene to visit his girlfriend and coincidentally the primary suspect? Ultimately, it was all just a vessel for Hitchcock to create the suspense, which was done well.
A typical murder mystery would focus on finding out who done it. Instead we know right away who does it and the question becomes who is going to take the fall. The actual murderer who happens to be dating the detective on the case? The stranger that for some reason was hanging around Mr Crewe’s apartment the night he was murdered and happened to pick up her glove in hopes of blackmail? The focus becomes finding out if Alice is capable of grappling with the guilt, although she was defending herself and not killing him in cold blood.
The use of sound in Blackmail is important in two distinct ways. First, the fact that sound was incorporated at all made it one of, if not the, first sound film in the UK. Apparently, Hitchcock was even reluctant to make Blackmail a sound film. Secondly, Hitchcock took it one step further and used sound to help heighten the tension of Alice’s guilty conscience. This is another example of Hitchcock’s genius and ingenuity in film making, especially given his reluctance to use sound at all.
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Cinematography: Jack E. Cox
Screenplay by: Alfred Hitchcock
Editing By: Emile de Ruelle
Starring: Anny Ondra, John Longden, Cyril Ritchard, & Donald Calthrop.
Runtime: 1h 25m
Genre: Crime, Thriller
Distributed by: Wardour Films
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