Monday, August 12, 2013

Blackmail (1929)

BLACKMAIL           B+                    
Great Britain  (86 mi)  1929  d:  Alfred Hitchcock

Depending on how you look at it, this is either the final silent Hitchcock film or the first full-length British talking picture, as Hitchcock shot both versions simultaneously, though the talking version featured a few casting adjustments, including the use of an offscreen voice for the leading lady, Anny Ondra, Hitchcock’s first icy blonde, an aloof beauty, sophisticated, smart, and dangerous, traits that Hitchcock felt made the best victims, claiming “They're like virgin snow that shows up the bloody footprints.”  Ondra, however, spoke with a thick Czech accent, supposedly resembling Hungarian actress Zsa Zsa Gabor, so they felt it was unsuitable for a talking picture (That never stopped Zsa Zsa).  Some of the original footage with spoken dialogue also implemented music and sound effects, but they also re-shot a few scenes and used the voice of actress Joan Barry speaking off camera, but the lip-synched words never found the natural rhythm of the silent version, which is now the preferred version, having been restored in 2012 by the British Film Institute along with 8 earlier silent era Hitchcock films, known as The Hitchcock 9, which are now making the rounds in theaters around the world in pristine 35 mm prints.  For some screenings, the film is accompanied by newly commissioned scores, original music written especially for the films by the Mont Alto Orchestra, a five piece chamber ensemble that has scored over 100 silent films using the repertoire and scoring techniques of the orchestras in movie theaters during the silent film era, while other screenings feature live pipe organ accompaniment.  Hitchcock had by now hit his stride in making silent films, which have a rhythm all their own, where in his view “silent pictures were the purest form of cinema,” where a director’s talent was largely based upon his ability to advance a story using the least amount of dialogue title cards.  While the talking version was the first version to hit the theaters, receiving overwhelmingly rave reviews, where sound in its inventive first use was certainly historical and far more influential, but most theaters were still not equipped for sound, so it was the silent version that proved most popular with the public. 

What marks this film among Hitchcock’s early silent features is the sophistication of theme, as it’s largely a character driven film where the focus continually moves back and forth between various characters, continually shifting throughout, offering the audience multiple points of view, written and adapted from screenwriter Charles Bennett’s own play, the first of several collaborations with Hitchcock, including THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1934), THE 39 STEPS (1935), SABOTAGE (1936), and YOUNG AND INNOCENT (1937), before leaving England to work with Hitchcock in America on FOREIGN CORRESPONDENCE (1940).  The film opens as a strict police procedural, with a view of London’s streets whizzing by from the racing police paddy wagons, where after arresting a suspected criminal holed up in his seedy room, with point of view shots moving from the police, to the criminal, and back to the police again, it’s viewed as just another day at the job by Scotland Yard detective Frank (John Longden).  But Frank receives an earful from his waiting girlfriend Alice (Anny Ondra), who impatiently complains that she doesn’t like to wait.  In the sound version, it opens exactly the same way in a mechanized rhythm of silence, with streets sounds the first sounds heard slowly added, until by the time it gets to Alice, it is full-blown sound from then on.  As they go out to dinner to the Lyon’s Cornerhouse at Piccadilly Circus, they amusingly have to wait for an open table, as the place is packed, and once seated, it’s so busy they have to wait once again for someone to wait on them, which only infuriorates Alice, causing the two to get into an argument where Frank storms out in disgust, but sees her leaving with another gentleman.  Alice allows herself to be taken upstairs to the studio of a young artist (Cyril Ritchard, of Captain Hook fame), supposedly to view his paintings (No, he didn’t ask if she’d like to come up to see his etchings), but he has other intentions, plying her with alcohol as he has her change into various model’s costumes before he sexually assaults her, where in defending herself, expressed with a shadowy hand hovering over a knife that she can be seen frantically reaching for on the table, she kills him with a butter knife, all taking place behind a curtain, his limp arm finally hanging out the window.  In a wordless scene she emerges from behind the curtain shocked and in something of a daze afterwards, still holding the knife and dressed in her undergarments, one of the first Hitchcock scenes to attain this degree of intensity, where she walks the streets all night until returning home in the morning, acting as if nothing has happened.    

Her family owns a corner tobacco market selling cigarettes and cigars, where their morning routine is unchanged except her father (Charles Paton) takes a heightened interest in a murder that’s taken place just around the corner.  The picture of guilt all morning, constantly reminded of what she’s done, Alice soon realizes Frank has been assigned to the case, finding one of her gloves on the scene, which he doesn’t disclose to the police.  So while all the gossip in the shop is about a murder, Frank and Alice conceal their guilty consciences, which is given a somewhat humorous treatment by Hitchcock, playfully toying with their pent-up fears and emotions, first by her ever inquisitive father, then by a gossip who won’t shut up, and finally by a passing stranger named Tracy (Donald Calthrop) who has found the other glove and with sadistic relish attempts to blackmail Frank.  Tracy has the upper hand initially, but the tables turn when it’s discovered he has a criminal record and there is proof he was outside the scene of the crime, but he escapes out the window just as the police arrive, turning into a rollicking chase scene through the streets of London, reaching a climax at the British Museum, where due to a lack of sufficient light, Hitchcock utilized the Schüfftan process, shooting into mirrors that create the illusion of a huge, realistic looking room.  This is the first of three Hitchcock films shot on location at an actual national monument, the others being the Statue of Liberty in SABOTEUR (1942) and Mount Rushmore in NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959).  Inside the museum the blackmailer is seen continually eluding police, climbing down a hanging chain past the peering eyes of a colossal head of an Egyptian god that may be King Ramses, eventually climbing onto the domed roof of the British Museum Reading Room, much like Cody Jarrett’s legendary ascent up the steps of a fuel refinery storage tank in White Heat (1949), where at the top he slips and falls to his death, conveniently wrapping up the case for the police, except Alice is so tormented with guilt that she wishes to confess to the police.  This is the Hitchcock factor, the first of Hitchcock’s guilty women films, preceding the likes of Janet Leigh, Tippi Hedron, or Grace Kelly, vulnerable women wracked by an impending moral dilemma, placing them on the verge of a psychological breakdown.  Hitchcock has a recurring focus on staircases and hands, like Lady Macbeth trying to wash the blood away, which are used to express the emotional fragility of the character, but also there are constantly recurring knife motifs, where the most clever is Alice in her head seeing a neon sign suddenly change from a cocktail shaker to a stabbing knife.  Perhaps most interestingly is the condescending and comedic use of a large painting at the scene of the crime of a clown jester laughing, where the mocking face absurdly comments not only on what’s taking place during the murder scene, literally laughing *at* Alice, like how did you get yourself into this mess, but also the deceitful moral order surrounding the events, as the painting is seen again at the finale, suggesting an ironic offshoot of “The Wrong Man (1956)” theme, as the wrong man dies for a crime he didn’t commit, which in the end is being laughed off by the one who did, along with her boyfriend who helps cover it up.    

Note – Hitchcock had a different ending in mind, revealed in his infamous Truffaut interviews, where after the death of the blackmailer, Alice confesses to the crime, where Frank would be forced to process her arrest, exactly the same images as we saw in the opening scene, placing her in handcuffs, booking her arrest, taking fingerprints, where he and his partner would meet in the men’s room afterwards washing their hands, as they did in the opening, where the unknowing partner would ask, “Are you going out with your girl tonight?” and Frank would answer, “No, I’m going straight home.”  The producers claimed this ending was too depressing.  Hitchcock’s signature cameo appearance comes at about the 10-minute mark, and at 20-seconds is probably the lengthiest in his film career, as he’s reading a book while riding the London subway train alongside Frank and Alice, but he’s constantly irritated by a small boy who is a continual nuisance to the passengers, especially Hitchcock, seen grabbing at his hat.

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