December 7, 2017
Blackmail – UK, 1929
With her curly blond hair, slight build, and expressive face, I have no doubt that Anny Ondra excelled in silent films. In fact, prior to making Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail, she had appeared in over twenty of them, and there is evidence that Blackmail indeed began as one. The film’s opening sequence, in which a number of officers from Scotland Yard set out to arrest someone, contains no dialogue and only minimal sound. There’s also an impressive sequence later on in which Ondra reacts to a terrible incident by opening her eyes wide, keeping her lips frozen, and slowly stumbling through an artists studio, utterly in shock. Here too the sound is non-existent – there’s not even a musical score. Ondra is perfect in the scene; truthfully, it’s the best one in the film.
Blackmail, however, is not a silent film, and if you didn’t know that it was directed by Hitchcock, you’d be forgiven for thinking it had been made by an untested director struggling to find his way behind the camera. The film is awkwardly paced, and, even more egregious, its cast seems to be a beat behind. An actor will speak, and instead of an immediate response, there is often an unnatural pause, as the actors just stand there looking at each other. Were it a stage play, I’d say someone had missed a cue.
The result of this is a movie that, with the exception of one or two scenes, moves at a painfully slow pace. Characters stand around waiting for someone on camera to do something, as if frozen in time. When someone finally moves, it is the other characters that become motionless. There is a particular scene in which a character inquires about a cigar, ponders which brand to buy, gets one, asks for a light and then just stands there smoking. I suppose the scene is intended to show the character’s calm and calculating demeanor, but I suspect that it will produce nothing but yawns and slowly closing eyes.
In the film, Ondra plays a young woman named Alice who is dating a police officer named Frank (John Longden). Early on, we learn that the two of them are having trouble, and that Alice has turned her attention to a young painter, Mr. Crewe (Cyril Ritchard). The film’s most dramatic moment comes when he coaxes her up to his apartment and attempts to woo her with art, music, and sweet words. Of course, his intentions are not entirely honorable, and Alice is forced to protect herself from some pretty aggressive advances. Her escape from the apartment does not go unnoticed, despite her best efforts, leading to a scene from which the film gets its name.
There are a few classic Hitchcock moments. In one scene, Hitchcock films his lead actors as they ascend a staircase, and savvy filmgoers will immediately recognize the techniques as ones he perfected and used later in Vertigo. Hitchcock also excellently portrays the crazed obsession that can develop over specific items or images after an unfortunate act. In these moments, we get a great sense of Alice’s state of mind. And there’s a curious scene in which the chirping of birds is used to convey the message that nothing can put Alice’s fears to rest.
However, the film is ultimately a disappointment. It never develops the appropriate pace, and its script is so light on substance that its 85-minute running time feels like much longer. And then there’s Ondra. According to Wikipedia, her accent was felt to be too thick, which resulted in Joan Barry recording Alice’s dialogue. I honestly have no idea whose voice is on the version of Blackmail that I saw, but it was indeed awkward, the voice of someone unsure of how to speak with confidence in a foreign language. And yet in those moments when the film just lets her react, she is a revelation.
It is not hard to understand what led to the decision to change Blackmail into a talking picture. That was what audiences demanded after The Jazz Singer, and studios were eager to keep them happy. However, Blackmail is an example of a film that was hurt by the move toward sound. Its cast looks the part, yet they never find their groove. It’s as if Hitchcock hired them for a silent film and then did not have time to recast the film after the decision was made to add dialogue. And here’s the kicker. Remove the sound and edit some of the scenes a bit more, and Blackmail would work. It would not be a masterpiece or even a great film, but it would be a decent one, one led by an immensely talented silent actress. Unfortunately, that’s just not the film we have. (on DVD)