Alice White is the daughter of a shopkeeper in 1920's London. Her boyfriend, Frank Webber is a Scotland Yard detective who seems more interested in police work than in her. Frank takes Alice out one night, but she has secretly arranged to meet another man. Later that night Alice agrees to go back to his flat to see his studio. The man has other ideas and as he tries to rape Alice, she defends herself and kills him with a bread knife. When the body is discovered, Frank is assigned to the case, he quickly determines that Alice is the killer, but so has someone else and blackmail is threatened. Written by
Col Needham <email@example.com>
This was Hitchcock's and the British film industry's first full-length sound feature. While his earlier silent picture The Lodger is most often cited as the first example of what came to be known as "Hitchcockian", Blackmail really looks like the first time he consolidated his style and knew exactly what he wanted to achieve.
Blackmail is not literally "all-talking" the first six or seven minutes are made up of an introductory silent sequence in which a criminal is hunted down, and this is in fact very well done, utilising all the techniques of tension and visual attention-grabbing that Hitch had perfected in his half-dozen or so preceding silent pictures. In fact, it would become a semi-regular feature throughout the rest of Hitch's career to begin with a little dialogue-free sequence to set the scene for example the lengthy camera pans at the start of Rear Window (1954) which introduce all the other apartments and provide Jimmy Stewart's character's back-story.
Blackmail is noted for its creative use of sound, although perhaps it was circumstance more than anything else which encouraged Hitchcock to be experimental. The production was begun as a silent, but Hitch suspected it would later be upgraded to a talkie, so he began by shooting around the dialogue scenes, and shot a few with the actors backs to the camera so their voices could be dubbed in later. Also, Anny Ondra's thick accent meant she had to mime to Joan Barry who was reading her lines off set. All this must have given Hitchcock ideas for expressive sound design and off-screen sounds, using sound as a technique in itself, rather than as a whole new format.
It was probably with this film and his next talkie, Murder! that Hitchcock realised that crime and suspense were his forte. He appears to be having great fun building up the suspense and stringing out tense situations as far as they will go. It's one of the earliest Hitchcock pictures to really delve into a character's guilt and paranoia. Also very clear is the grisly delight he takes the subject matter. Typical Hitchcockian characters crop up for the first time. There is the sleazy blackmailer who is not appalled by the crime he has witnessed, but simply sees it as a chance to profit. Then there's the murder-obsessed gossip who seems to be a not-so-distant relative of Henry Travers and Hume Cronyn in Shadow of a Doubt (1943), or the housekeeper from Rear Window.
Even more perverse than all this gallows humour is Hitchcock's linking of sex and murder in that first pivotal scene, which really shows off the Hitchcock psychology. Crewe plays an elaborate game in order to get to see Alice in her underwear but the way Hitchcock has placed the camera, the audience can see her all along! At the end of this scene, in her distraught state Alice still goes behind the screen to get changed even though she is now alone, but Hitchcock makes a mockery of her idea of privacy by placing the camera on her side of the screen. As well as being one of the most telling example of Hitchcock's disrespectful attitude towards his female victims, it hammers home perhaps the most fundamental idea in his approach to film-making that there are three players involved here the killer, the victim and the audience.
The story builds up to a tense and satisfying finale which established yet another Hitchcock first a chase scene featuring a famous landmark, in this case the British museum an idea suggested by the future director Michael Powell. Although it wouldn't be applied to him for some years yet, this is perhaps the first film where Hitchcock could have earned his nickname "The Master of Suspense". Blackmail does suffer from some of the problems of an early talkie, in particular the dialogue scenes are stilted and long-winded. Overall though it's a good solid effort, a significant Hitchcock and a promise of greater things to come.
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