Alfred Hitchcock’s triumphant return to murder and mayhem is both his final silent film and his first talkie. Anny Ondra plays a nice kid who stabs a guy to death in his bed. These things happen. Originally conceived as a silent film, Hitchcock made it a talkie with reshoots and a new voice for his Czech leading lady.
I’ll be covering both the silent and sound versions of this picture. Click here to skip to the talkie.
You really ought to be more careful with knives, Alice.
A date gone wrong, a frenzied stabbing and a very dead artist. Blackmail is a dark, stylish film that is probably the most famous silent picture that is not generally treated like a silent picture.
The story of Blackmail’s conversion from silent to talkie is one of the more famous anecdotes of the sound film transition and so I won’t be dwelling on it too much. A quick rundown: The film was originally meant to be a silent film but the film’s producer ordered some scenes to be shot with sound in order to produce a part-talkie.
Part-talkies have not aged well because they come off as the stop-gap cash grab that they were. Adding a reel or two of sound to an otherwise silent film allowed producers to bill the film as a “talking picture” without completely reshooting it. However, the technique also left lurching celluloid Frankenstein monsters that are not particularly enjoyable to fans of either silents or early talkies.
Hitchcock produced something a little more sophisticated instead. It’s not a complete talkie but it’s not a part-talkie either. Some scenes play silent with synchronized sound and no intertitles, which creates a surreal atmosphere. Other scenes were completely reworked with sound in mind and rather cleverly too. Finally, Czech leading lady Anny Ondra was “dubbed” by mouthing dialogue that was performed by London native Joan Barry offscreen. (True dubbing was not possible at the time.)
The sound version of Blackmail is the more famous and easier to obtain version by far but the silent version does survive. (It was common practice to release both silent and sound versions of the same picture during the talkie transition as many theaters lacked to means to immediately wire for the new technology. This continued into the 1930s.) We’ll be covering the silent film in the usual manner and then we’ll discuss the changes made for sound. Finally, we’ll decide which picture is more artistically successful.
Since Hitchcock is one of the most discussed filmmakers of all time, I will try to step off the beaten path in considering this picture and how it fits into his career. In short, I will attempt to avoid repeating what everyone else is saying about it. Here goes!
Blackmail opens with Detective Frank Webber (John Longden) arresting a ne’er-do-well complete with moody shadows. Scotland Yard is doing a bustling business in crime and Frank has a long day at work, which means he is late for his date with his steady girlfriend, Alice White (Anny Ondra).
Alice and Frank have entered that period in their relationship when they are just starting to get on one another’s nerves. She thinks he’s impatient and boorish, he thinks she’s flighty and fickle. They’re both right and begin to bicker over dinner in a crowded restaurant. Alice likes Frank, of course, but she has a new suitor. A dapper artist named Crewe (Cyril Ritchard, still the best darn Captain Hook there ever was!) has asked to take Alice out and after Frank storms off, she accepts the offer. Frank is about to return to Alice and patch things up but then he sees her leaving the restaurant with Crewe and they are clearly on intimate terms.
(I’m going to focus a bit on the date and Blackmail’s buildup to murder as I feel there is still quite a lot of marrow in those bones.)
For all her sauciness, Alice is as naïve as they come and she actually believes Crewe when he offers to take her up to see his paintings. As they enter the flat, a shabby and shady man (Donald Calthrop) approaches but Crewe shoos him away. (Chekhov’s tramp!)
Once in the flat, the film does a marvelous job of illustrating the differing intentions of Crewe and Alice. She spots a palette and a blank canvas and proceeds to paint a silly face of indeterminate gender. Crewe follows up by giving it a very curvy and very nude body. The message is clear: she came for a few laughs with her new friend and he wants something more carnal. This gives Alice pause but she brushes aside any nervousness and boldly signs her name to the canvas, which Crewe takes as permission to proceed.
Anny Ondra neatly conveys Alice’s naivete without slipping into the simpering behavior that marred the character of many a Hollywood virgin. (Colleen Moore sarcastically referred to these mannerisms as “Papa, what is beer?”) Alice hesitates at every step but ends up in Crewe’s studio anyway. She spots a policeman out the top floor window and tells herself that nothing bad could happen with him nearby. (And perhaps the audience is thinking the same thing. Hitchcock betrays us all.)
Before you can say, “Let’s look at my etchings” Crewe talks Alice into trying on a tutu (he would just love to sketch her) and then assists her with her pose. This leads to a kiss and Alice finally realizes that her date is no gentleman. She storms behind a screen to change.
Crewe takes Alice’s dress, throws it out of reach and then grabs her and drags her to the bed. (Some reviews refer to this as a “seduction.” Yipes! I hate to think what they would consider an actual sexual assault.) The next part of the scene features the sort of suggested violence that viewers expect from a Hitchcock film. The bed is a four-poster canopy affair with the curtains hiding most of the struggle. Alice’s hand thrashes outward and lands on a bread knife sitting on the nightstand. Once again, the curtains tell the story and Alice’s frenzied stabbing is left to the imagination.
It’s worth noting that the original play by Charles Bennett (who would become a regular Hitchcock collaborator) takes a more overt approach to the murder. There are no bed curtains to disguise the stabbing and the dialogue falls rather into the “You are in my power, proud beauty!” camp. Both silence and censorship actually serve to make the scene more horrifying and intense. (Insert the usual “less is more, modern filmmakers have forgotten this” jabs here.)
Alice’s shock at what has happened is marvelously played by Ondra and she wanders about in a numb haze. Hitchcock again teases the viewer here: will Alice remember that she signed her name to the canvas? Will she erase it before she leaves? (She does but leaves behind another significant clue.) As she walks through the streets, the scenery and people either remind her of her crime or taunt her.
While daily life has a way of stepping aside for the benefit of movie characters, the people of Blackmail trip over real life at every turn. Restaurants are full, policemen don’t hear screams in the night and the nosy neighbor just won’t stop talking about knives.
The rest of the film concerns itself with Alice’s guilty conscience, Franks attempts to track down the killer and, oh yeah, that shabby man who addressed Crewe outside his apartment. Turns out his name is Tracy and, well, there’s a reason why this movie is called Blackmail. I could tell more but I think this is a movie that really should not have its final act spoiled.
Oh, and I should mention that this film contains two Hitchcock signature touches: the director cameo (as an annoyed passenger in a train car) and a chase through an important landmark, in this case the British Museum.
Blackmail does not have the first Hitchcock cameo, of course. The Lodger (1927) includes a shot of the director’s back, reportedly because the production was low on extras. Speaking of that picture, viewers can profit from comparing that earlier film, which is sometimes described as the first “true” Hitchcock movie, with Blackmail. As a work of cinematic art, The Lodger has issues.
As is the case with Anthony Asquith’s A Cottage on Dartmoor, The Lodger is full of baroque flourishes wielded by a relatively inexperienced director. There is a certain lack of artistic maturity that makes all these touches of light, shadow, rapid cuts and symbolism just a bit much. Star Ivor Novello does not help matters with his random pauses to pose. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy The Lodger overall but there is something lopsided about it, an unsophisticated enthusiasm for all these new cinematic toys. Why include one when you can cram in ten?
Two years passed between The Lodger and Blackmail and Hitchcock had directed six silent films in the interim. Such a breakneck pace would either overwhelm a director or force them to take their craft to the next level. It is clear that Hitchcock profited from this flurry of activity.
Blackmail shows that Hitchcock is still heavily under the influence of German cinema, of course, and he goes in for symbolic shadows. Alice is famously given a noose around the neck by a windowpane and I’ve seen this shadowy shot of Crewe described as putting a villainous mustache on his face but I read it as a skull, a foreshadowing of doom, DOOM! What do you think?
Blackmail’s stylization is more staid than The Lodger and the film is all the more powerful for it. Hitchcock has tamed the Expressionist beast and his flourishes are in the service of the plot and characters, they do not overwhelm.
Blackmail is an absolute pleasure from beginning to end and is essential viewing for silent film devotees and Hitchcock fans. It’s a cultural crime that the silent version is not seen more often.
Where can I see it?
Most home video releases of Blackmail are the sound version and so you can assume any disc you buy will be the talkie unless otherwise stated. The absolute best way to see the silent version on DVD is to get the Arthaus release from Germany. It includes both versions of the film and, as you can see from my screen caps, the silent version looks great! The disc is region 2, so be sure to check for compatibility before ordering. The film is accompanied by a very suitable piano score. (The silent Blackmail is a popular fixture of the silent film screening circuit and, obviously, if you get the chance to see it with live music, you should.)
Well, here’s a first. Usually, a Silents vs. Talkies feature discusses a silent film and its talkie remake. This time, we will be comparing a silent film and talkie that were created and released almost simultaneously.
The Sound of Blackmail
As stated above, Blackmail’s sound conversion was not complete. The opening of the picture plays like a silent film with synchronized music and no intertitles. Films of this kind have an otherworldly, music video quality to them and while it’s not as jarring as a true part-talkie (that is, a silent film with intertitles that also features sound sequences) it’s a little bit distracting.
The good news: it ends quickly. The bad news: the full sound sequences contain something even more distracting.
Yes, we will now talk about the oddest sound element of Blackmail. Ondra’s “voice” (I’ll just call it dubbing for ease of writing) is… okay. The lips don’t always match but at least it doesn’t make her sound catatonic, as was the case with poor Lars Hanson in The Informant. However, the seams show, especially if you know the history of the decision to dub, which, let’s face it, 99% of Hitchcockians do. I think Hitchcock would have been better off recasting Alice or fiddling with the script to explain Ondra’s accent. Outtakes show that her natural voice was fine and her accent was not all that heavy (no heavier than Garbo’s), just distinctly not the voice of someone named Alice White.
The most acclaimed sound sequence of the film is the “knife” scene. After the murder, Alice sits down to breakfast and her parents ask her to slice the bread. As you will recall, a bread knife was the murder weapon. At the same time, a nosy neighbor discusses the murder and as she jabbers on, her dialogue becomes unintelligible except for the repeated word “knife.” It’s a nice, dramatic use of the new sound technology and deserves all its acclaim.
The scenes in the studio leading up to the murder are both less discussed and less successful. Hitchcock takes advantage of Cyril Ritchard’s musical theater experience and has him play the piano and sing as he contemplates his next dastardly move. Much though I love me some Ritchard, the singing does not have the menacing quality one would hope for and it deflates the tension of the scene. (And we know that Ritchard is quite capable of singing with menace. We’re talking about a man whose Peter Pan lyrics included, “Those boys will eat that poison cake and one by one they’ll die!”)
When Crewe takes the dress, the silent film includes one terse intertitle (“I’ve got it.”) before an over-the-shoulder shot of the artist approaching a terrified Alice. It’s tense and truly frightening. In the sound film, Crewe takes the dress and plays the piano until Alice notices that it’s missing. After he tosses it away, we are given a stagey shot of Crewe grabbing Alice. Not nearly as ominous.
For visual comparison, this is what we get in the silent:
And this in the talkie:
You tell me which one is the more tense. (If you think it’s the talkie, well, that’s your right but I do hope you see your optometrist soon.)
The murder in the sound version has a similar remote quality, likely also the result of censorship. It seems to me that a healthy young man like Crewe would have SOMETHING to say about being stabbed to death but his demise is just as mute in the talkie as it was in the silent film. Censors were okay with murders but screams? Gracious, no!
The sound film is further marred by small, interesting snippets that were excised in order to disguise the film’s silent origins. For example, the opening sequence closes quite literally with the peephole on the prisoner’s cell being slammed in his yelling face. Silent yelling is not permissible in a talkie and thus the cut.
This is just a sample of the dozens of little issues I had with the talkie version. They aren’t much on their own but they add up to a slightly less effective thriller overall.
And the winner is… The Silent
I must agree with the majority here and state that the silent version of Blackmail is the superior film in almost every respect.
Is the sound version bad? Not really but it illustrates the difference between an art in its infancy and the mature art of silent cinema. While Hitchcock’s use of sound and his technical innovations are downright brilliant, this does not change the fact that the original version of Blackmail is superior in almost every way. The dubbing of Ondra is awkward and the clever use of sound in other areas is not enough to compensate for the loss of some visual snap. It’s a shame that the sound version is the one that most people will see.
Availability: The sound version of Blackmail is available from numerous public domain dealers, many of which use 16mm prints, which is pretty annoying when 35mm material survives and has been released on other discs. You’re better off with the same German release that has the silent version. (The film is in English and all subtitles are optional.) Remember, you get what you pay for and fuzzy, blown out bargain editions are no bargain.