It’s always fascinating to revisit the nascent stages of icons’ careers, and Alfred Hitchcock is one of the most intriguing. Before we knew him as the director of Vertigo, The Birds, Psycho, and other perennial classics of cinema history, Hitchcock was plugging away at making films in his native Britain, starting with silents and changing with the times. One of his very, very early features was 1929’s Blackmail. It’s considered Hitchcock’s first sound film, which it kinda sorta is.
The film opens with a wheel spinning, and we see a group of London detectives rushing in a squad van to an address on Cambridge Street. They enter a slum apartment building and make their way upstairs to a tiny studio unit, where a middle-aged man is sitting in bed reading the paper. He sees their reflection in a mirror and glances at a gun on the table. The detectives barge in and arrest him, taking him to New Scotland Yard for questioning. Everything seems very chummy at first, with the man being offered a cup of tea just the way he likes it. We see the cigarette butts pile up in the ashtray.
The guy ends up being charged with something, but we don’t know what, and put in a cell. Then one of the detectives on the case, Frank Webber (John Longden) gets off and meets his girlfriend, Alice (Anny Ondra), who everyone appears to know at the station, because she seems very flirty. The two of them sneak into a crowded restaurant and somehow find a table. Alice is a little put-out because Frank has kept her waiting, but she can’t be too mad at him because he found a glove she had misplaced.
At least, that’s what she says. Alice is there to meet an artist named Mr. Crewe (Cyril Ritchard), and when he shows up and sees her with Frank, she gives him a come-hither stare. Crewe sits down and waits for her. Long story short, Frank leaves in a huff after he and Alice have an argument, and then Frank sees Alice leave with Mr. Crewe. Another man sees them go, and follows them, but we don’t know who he is, although he does look familiar.
Crewe invites Alice up to his apartment, and yes, it’s the oldest trick in the book. He’s a sweet talker, and Alice finally agrees. While they’re up there, she tries on a ballerina costume, and Crewe tries to steal a kiss. This guy is very handsy, because while Alice is changing, he also steals her dress, then pulls her out from behind the folding screen and tries to rape her. Alice grabs a bread knife and stabs Crewe in self-defense. She claws at one of Crewe’s paintings because it seems to be laughing at her, then picks up her dress and puts it on, not bothering to fasten it.
Even though she lives just around the corner over her family’s store, Alice wanders around all night in a daze. She’s tortured by what she sees. A moving light display of a martini shaker looks like a knife stabbing, and she screams at the sight of a sleeping homeless man is whose hands are cupped just like Crewe’s.
Alice finally goes home and rushes upstairs to her room. She jumps into bed in her clothes, pretending to be asleep. It’s enough to fool her mother, Mrs. White (Sara Allgood) who brings her a cup of tea and opens her curtains, talking all the time about the murder just around the corner. The police are there now. Alice, still in a daze, powders her face and gets dressed, all the time glancing at Frank’s photo on the wall.
Speaking of whom, Frank is at Crewe’s apartment with the other policemen, and as he’s puttering around, finds Alice’s glove. He glances at the bed and recognizes Crewe from the night before. Frank puts two and two together, but doesn’t say anything to the other officers.
The Whites are having breakfast in their dining room off the store. Well, they’re trying, anyway. Alice’s father asks her to cut him a slice of bread, and Alice hesitatingly picks up the knife. She stares at it in horror, then throws it away from her. Her parents are mystified, but before they can ask any questions, Frank shows up.
He’s there on the pretense of making a phone call. While Frank’s standing in the phone booth, he asks Alice to join him. Alice is scared stiff, especially when Frank pulls out the glove she left at Crewe’s apartment. She’s just about to say something when a guy in a black fedora appears, looking to call Scotland Yard. To Alice’s horror, he pulls out her other glove. He knows all about what happened, or at least he thinks he does. He saw Alice and Crewe last night. If Frank and Alice play their cards right, he won’t go to the police.
Who is this man and what’s his interest in blackmailing Alice and Frank? Well…that’s the twist. Nope, I’m not telling. In true Hitchcock fashion, Blackmail keeps the suspense dangling until the very last second.
The interesting thing about Blackmail is that Hitchcock shot both silent and sound versions of it. It was in production right when The Jazz Singer became the Al Jolson song heard around the world, and naturally, Hitchcock’s producers wanted in on the revolution. They told Hitchcock to reshoot only the film’s last thirty minutes or so, but Hitch redid the whole thing instead. Some theaters used the sound version, and others the silent. Since most theaters hadn’t installed sound equipment yet, the silent version did better at the box office.
There were a few complications to making Blackmail a talkie, though. A few actors had to be replaced with ones that could speak on camera, including the police chief. The biggest trick of all was figuring out what to do with lead player Anny Ondra, who had a thick Czech accent. ADR didn’t exist in 1929, of course, and in the end Hitchcock had actress Joan Barry stand off to the side and speak Alice’s lines into a microphone, which Ondra lip-synced. Blackmail is commonly thought to be the first dubbed film, although the term wasn’t known at the time.
The film had other issues as well, such as bad filming angles in various spots and really obvious matte lines in the scenes with the squad van, but it’s fun to see Hitchcock’s trademarks already in evidence. Among other signature elements, he does his usual brief cameo in the film. No, I’m not going to spoil that one either. While Blackmail is decidedly cruder than Hitchcock’s later movies in terms of production, the story is still very interesting, and a wonderful glimpse at his early filming style.
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