Blackmail (1929)

In Blackmail, John Longden plays Frank Webber, a detective for Scotland Yard.  One day, after work, he meets his girlfriend Alice (Anny Ondra) for dinner.  Only Alice has secretly arranged to meet another man, so she starts a fight with Frank to get him to leave.  She succeeds, but as he leaves, he turns and sees Alice with the other man.  The other man is an artist, and he and Alice go back to his apartment where they start out having some harmless fun.  But then the artist convinces Alice to try on a costume his models wear, and while she’s getting changed, he attacks her.  Alice reaches for the nearest weapon she can find, a knife, and stabs him to death.  Of course, Alice does her best to hide the fact that she was even there, but she accidentally leaves behind one clue: her glove.  When Frank is called to the crime scene the next day, he finds the glove and knows it’s Alice’s.  He goes to bring it to her, but the two of them are confronted by Tracy, a local thief, who says he saw Alice at the artist’s apartment the night before.  Tracy tries to blackmail Alice and Fred, but when the artist’s landlady tells police she saw Tracy in the area at the time of the murder, Tracy takes police on a chase through the British Museum.  Alice can’t bear the thought of an innocent man being accused, so she goes to turn herself in.

When you’re talking about someone like Alfred Hitchcock, whose career had so many highlights, sometimes it’s hard to mention all of his finest moments.  But after seeing Blackmail with the Alloy Orchestra last month, I walked out of the theater astonished by how little attention it gets compared to some of his other movies.  I have nothing at all against his stuff like Psycho or Rear Window, but I don’t think those are his most visually interesting movies.  My favorite shot in Blackmail is one where Alice and the artist are walking up the stairs and the camera moves up with them, as if the camera is actually moving through the floors of the building.  The diagonal lines of the stairs, the movement of the people, and the movement of the camera all added up to one spectacular shot.  To me, that shot was way cooler than any shot in Rear Window.  Hitchcock had an amazing eye for shots, and if you only really know him for Rear Window, you’re really short-changing yourself in the whole Hitchcock experience.

My favorite thing about Blackmail is how it’s like a little preview of things to come in later Hitchcock movies.  There were quite a few scenes that really reminded me of some classic scenes from his later movies.  It’s like this was Hitchcock saying, “Wait a minute, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!” because he went on to take those elements and bring them to a new level.  First, there was the scene where Alice is reaching for the knife (skip to the 6:40 minute mark). That scene definitely made me think of Grace Kelly reaching for the scissors in Dial ‘M’ for Murder. This was also the first Hitchcock movie to feature a chase through a national monument. This time it was through the British Museum, but in 1941’s Saboteur, it was in the Statue of Liberty.  And, of course, he really outdid himself with the chase on Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest. This was also an early instance of Hitchcock dealing with the issue of someone being wrongfully accused.  Even though it plays a relatively minor part of Blackmail, it’s a theme he was very famously fond of, as can be seen in North by Northwest, I Confess, and The Wrong Man.

Blackmail was both Alfred Hitchcock’s first talkie and last silent film.  It was originally meant to be a silent, but during production, sound equipment became available.  Rather than just film the last reel with sound, as was initially planned, Hitchcock went ahead and made a complete talkie version as well as the silent version.  Both versions are fantastic, but I personally preferred the silent version.  I thought the nature of the story and the general atmosphere of the movie made were better suited to a silent film.  Although I thought the part in the talkie version where, after the murder, Alice can only hear, “Knife…knife…knife,” was brilliant.  It’s pretty easy to find a copy of the talkie version of Blackmail, but the silent version is a bit harder to find.  If you ever have the chance to see the silent version, it’s very much worth checking out.

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  1. Hey Angela,
    Found you from LAMb and making my rounds, trying to explore the vast, vast blog-o-sphere. I had no idea when I started my blog back in May that there were so many blogs about movies – some good, some bad, some rather pointless really but that is the double edge sword of the internet – in the grass where tulips grow. So of course hello and please drop by my blog if you’re interested and let me know what you think. I have an entry for LAMBS in the Director’s Chair you’ll find (mine is an editorial on Hitch himself).

    Now on to your review above. Great points all around. I get your wonderment how some films of an iconic filmmaker are always thought of first and others, even superior films, get sidelined or forgotten about. It seems to happen all the time (Scorsese, Lucas, Spielberg, even Ron Howard though he is obviously a ‘director of the moment’ insofar as people don’t talk that much about him or comment on his work unless he has a picture in theaters). I will definitely seek out the silent version of this film. As a filmmaker myself I’ve experienced first hand the power of sound both as a communicator of place, mood, and atmosphere but also as a means of transition, travel, and emotion. I just had a short film accepted by the Saskatchewan Filmpool Cooperative in Canada for the Jean-Luc Godard festival (in celebration of his 80th birthday in December) and I had to work out all the sound – from dialog to sound effects and everything in between. Fun but a darn amount of work!

    Best with you site and I love your idea for the cookbook! I love to cook and have my own cookbook but I haven’t been able to come up with a theme yet.


    1. Hi, Rory! Thanks for dropping by! First of all, big congratulations on being accepted to the Godard festival! You’re absolutely right, the use of sound of sound in a film can really enhance it immeasurably. And I’m glad to hear you like the idea for my cookbook! I had a lot of fun working on that.

      Sometimes the movies the public latches onto can be pretty surprising. It’s not like I don’t understand the appeal of movies like Rear Window and Psycho (I really do adore both movies), but the people who only see those movies are missing out on so much. They’re denying themselves incredible moments like the Albert Hall scene in The Man Who Knew Too Much, the stair scene in Blackmail, the scene where Cary Grant brings the milk to Joan Fontaine in Suspicion, and the Salvador Dali dream sequence in Spellbound. Hitch is just one of those directors that can’t be summed up in two or three movies.

      And I’ll be sure to stop by and read your Hitch editorial later on! 🙂

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