Blackmail

Hitchcock’s final silent movie and his very first sound movie, Blackmail was one of his big breakthrough moments and also the movie where he first brought together the collection of elements that the public would soon begin to recognise as his trademarks.

Hitchcock at work
Alfred Hitchcock directs Anny Ondra in a scene from Blackmail

Although most people know Hitchcock for his best known masterpieces such as Vertigo, Psycho or Rear Window , it’s often forgotten that he started as a director of silent films before the sound era began. From his earliest effort (the aptly entitled ‘Number 13’which was never released and apparently Hitchcock preferred to forget about) Hitchcock made nine silents, the last of which was Blackmail.

During the production of Blackmail, Wardour Studios ordered Hitchcock to use the emerging technology to turn the film into the first ever British ‘talkie’. Hitchcock wasn’t entirely enthusiastic about this. It wasn’t that he was against sound – in fact unlike other directors such as Murnau or Chaplin who were not convinced by the new ideas of having sound in films, Hitchcock knew that it was the future and was eager to start making talkies. But Hitchcock had conceived Blackmail as a silent film and the fact was that he disliked revisiting projects that he felt were completed. His other problem was that his leading lady – Anny Ondra – had a very strong Czech accent, (click here to watch the video of her famous screentest for Blackmail.) Hitchcock had to get an actress to stand at the side of the set and speak Ondra’s lines for the microphone. One of the first casulaties of the transition to sound, it was Ondra’s last movie in English, although she went on to make numerous films in German and Czech.

Donald Calthrop as Tracy, the blackmailer

Blackmail was a huge European hit, and it opened the doors of Hollywood to Hitchcock…but the sound version of the movie is – in all honesty – a poor cousin to the silent version. The sound version is poorly edited, doesn’t flow well, and the sound tends to actually detract from the movie, whilst the silent original is one of Hitchcock’s unsung masterpieces.

What makes Blackmail so special? It’s a combination of factors. The plot, which drives the movie – at times quite literally in the form of a police van – is clever and taught. You can watch the movie several times before you realize just how well worked out it is. The plot was base on a play by Charles Bennett who would become a regular Hichcock collaborator (The 39 Steps, Sabotage, The man who knew too much) and together they achieved, in Blackmail, the first truly Hitchcockian film.c The characters are superbly drawn and acted – especially Donald Calthrop who plays Tracy the blackmailer and Cyril Ritchard as one of the creepiest perverts in cinema history.

The chase through the British Museum

The movie has many of Hitchcock’s so called trademarks – the blond, the murder, the chase through a famous landmark, the cameo and many others – which might give it a claim to be a real Hitchcock classic. But I think that what makes the movie so good is the feeling – and it’s something that Hitchcock became very adept at over the years – that the characters are caught up in events beyond their control, and are forced into situations which bring out their inner beings. At times we the audience aren’t sure what genre of movie it is that weare watching either – it begins as a police drama, turns into a romantic comedy, becomes a horror film and eventually hovers somewhere between thriller and tragedy.

For an excellent comparison of the sound and silent versions, and a very intelligent critical analysis of both movies I would recommend this article at Movies Silently