REVIEW: Blackmail [1929]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★


Rating: NR | Runtime: 85 minutes | Release Date: July 28th, 1929 (UK)
Studio: Wardour Films / Sono Art-World Wide Pictures
Director(s): Alfred Hitchcock
Writer(s): Alfred Hitchcock (adaptation) / Benn W. Levy (dialogue) / Charles Bennett (play)

“I don’t like waiting about for you”

Originally green-lit as a silent film, I’ve read differing accounts as far as Alfred Hitchcock‘s feelings about his producer deciding to shift gears and make Blackmail Europe’s first successful “talkie.” Some say he hated the idea and thus the silent cut (Hitchcock finished two versions of the film so it could be played in theaters ill-equipped to handle synchronized sound) is the definitive variant. Others say he hated the idea that he was allowed to only shoot “some” of it with dialogue, choosing to complete the entirety with it (save a silent opening sequence) regardless of what producers asked. Either way, both iterations of his Charles Bennett adaptation have been immortalized in the British Film Institute with the “talkie” being the more readily available of the two today.

That aforementioned scene starting things off concerns Scotland Yard being summoned to a residence occupied by a criminal someone tipped them off to procuring. It’s a tense exchange with a brilliant use of mirrors and visual cues to anticipate the perpetrator’s attempts to inflict danger upon the officers arresting him. From there things turn into an economical montage of events that take us along for the ride to the precinct, his being fingered in a line-up, and ultimately his being put into a jail cell. Does what he did matter to the plot? No. Hitchcock is merely showing us the efficiency of a criminal justice system at apprehending remorselessly indignant criminals before going home to their normal lives and how juggling that dynamic is a tough sell for romance.

Detective Frank Webber (John Longden) has been so fully engaged in this case that its completion leaves his girlfriend Alice White (Anny Ondra with Joan Barry providing the voice) waiting in the lobby for him to finally take her out to dinner. We can infer the long hours apart and his resulting impatience when together has been taking its toll because her attention has been diverted towards another: a painter, Mr. Crewe (Cyril Ritchard). Their latest quarrel has Frank leaving early so Crewe can make his move by unknowingly escorting Alice out of the restaurant right in front of him. The evening of flirtation continues to the artist’s doorstep, his advances to invite her upstairs interrupted by a man off-screen (Donald Calthrop‘s Mr. Tracy) as Alice inevitably acquiesces.

What happens in his apartment sets the stage for what’s next as Crewe’s amorous attentions turn dark upon a road towards rape. It’s a rather blatant manipulation as he plies Alice with alcohol, shows off his artistic worth, and promises to sketch her if she’ll oblige him to undress and wear a costume. We know what’s coming even if she doesn’t, this wolf in sheep’s clothing never earning our empathy as he struggles to take her to bed before she can reach out for a bread knife in self-defense. Visibly distraught and uncertain of what to do, she roams the streets until morning in order to sneak back into her room and hope her parents (Sara Allgood‘s Mrs. and Charles Paton‘s Mr. White) believe she’s slept the night.

The murder is on everyone’s mind—the brutality of a stabbing taking some by surprise because of the personal nature of its rage. Everywhere Alice looks reminds her of what she did, her instantaneous PTSD attacking her when seeing men’s hands lying limp at their sides or the knife her mother laid out for breakfast. Despite her hope that nobody will know what’s occurred, it’s not long until a pair of men proves the opposite. With two different pieces of the same clue, both Frank and Tracy discover the truth. The latter is desperate to shield her from suspicion while the former sees his knowledge as an opportunity to blackmail the couple for much-needed cash. Since Tracy was also there, however, what’s stopping Frank from framing him instead?

What follows is a master class of tension as Tracy smugly worms his way into the White family’s home knowing Alice and Frank can’t throw him out without his vocalizing what he knows. While he gets comfortable and Frank grows angrier in response, Alice is left alone in turmoil. Her fear of the consequences turns towards guilt because she’s helpless from becoming a pawn in these men’s chess match to gain an upper hand. Once her reality transforms into a case of “he said, she said,” Alice realizes her boyfriend is more or less pinning a second man’s death upon her because forcing Tracy into the fall guy’s position would all but seal his fate. It’s quite the conundrum augmented by authentic emotion and drama from all involved.

Moving from one weighty exchange to another, Hitchcock throws an effective chase scene in too after Tracy acknowledges the precariousness of his circumstances and runs. The sequence also plays silent, this man’s desperation dwarfed by giant columns outside the British Museum and amplified by the large expanses within. It’s a visual delight of meticulous compositions and expert cutting to ratchet the suspense higher as cross-cuts of Alice wringing her hands at home remind us that the action has little bearing on her conscience deciding her own fate. The final scene therefore carries a maniacal sense of nihilism wherein she’s left languishing inside a psychological prison locked by the same man refusing to put her in a physical one. She realizes no man is safe. They all take what they want.

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