BFI Classics: Blackmail

Author: Tom Ryall.

Any number of Hitchcock’s films could be included in the BFI Film Classics series (and indeed a number of them have); even his pre-Hollywood thirties films, such as The 39 Steps (1935) or The Lady Vanishes (1938), but included here is not so much a seminal Hitchcock film (important within his oeuvre as it is) so much as the very first British sound film – Blackmail. Made in 1929, two years after the first partial sound film, The Jazz Singer Ryall explores how Hitchcock used sound, how he took ownership of the production and its critical impact at the time. Ryall, a writer who has also written a history of Hitch’s oft ignored British films in his book, ‘Alfred Hitchcock and the British Cinema’ clearly has an academic understanding of Hitchcock in the context of both the development of sound and his place in British cinema before his better known Hollywood films after his departure for America in 1940. Ryall spends a good portion of the book analysing the films critical reception on its release, both in the UK and the USA.

The story is quite a simple one about a greengrocer’s daughter with two gentleman suitors: a police detective and an artist. She surreptitiously agrees to dump the policeman and ends up at the artist’s studio (to see his etchings?) who then attempts to rape, leading her to grab a carving knife and kill him. Fleeing the scene of the crime she is spotted by someone lurking (in the shadows) outside. When the body is discovered the policeman on the case happens to be her other boyfriend who realizes that it was her committed the crime on discovering her glove but keeps the evidence to himself. The next morning he confronts her and a short while later they are interrupted by the man who saw her leave the scene who proceeds to blackmail the pair.

What Ryall ignores in his study is the second silent version of the film (as only a relatively small percentage had converted their theatres to sound), even less seen than the sound one and how different the two versions are and how much more it resembles the Expressionist cinema that had been coming from Germany throughout the twenties (Hitchcock shot his first films in Germany and must have been well aware of the artistic impact of twenties German cinema), although Ryall does mention German Expressionism’s obsession with shadows and staircases and how these motifs are used for effect in Blackmail. He also only mentions in passing the different ending Hitchcock had originally intended for the film in which Alice is finally caught and her detective boyfriend through duty bangs her up in a cell. When a policeman then asks if he is going out with Alice that night, his reply is “not tonight” and instead a happier ending for the protagonists is substituted.

Aside from the contemporary critiques, he does spend time analysing the documentary aspects of the opening (silent) scene and the famous use of dialogue in the ‘knife’ conversation, demonstrating how Hitchcock as an artist uses sound to powerful effect in creating drama and suspense. In this sense Ryall establishes Hitchcock’s importance as a director on the cutting edge of cinematic innovation and how this film deservedly over the overrated The Jazz Singer is worthy of study about early innovations of sound technique and artistry.

Chris Hick

Share this!