The Hitchcock Conversations is an ongoing project between me and James W. Powell, in which we study Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography in chronological order. I’ll be publishing one conversation per week.
(By necessity, spoilers ahead!)
Synopsis: Alice White is the daughter of a shopkeeper in 1920s London. Her boyfriend, Frank Webber, is a Scotland Yard detective who seems more interested in police work than in her. Frank takes Alice out one night, but she has secretly arranged to meet another man. Later that night Alice agrees to go back to his flat to see his studio. The man has other ideas and as he tries to rape Alice, she defends herself and kills him with a bread knife. When the body is discovered, Frank is assigned to the case, and he quickly determines that Alice is the killer—but so has someone else. Blackmail is threatened.
James: So, I liked Blackmail more than The Lodger, but I can’t say for certain whether the DVD print quality and sound had anything to do with it. The Blackmail print was actually pretty decent. All the dirt and tears and spots were there, but it still felt clean compared to The Ring. And brighter, too.
Jason: Yes, my copy was much brighter and more watchable than the first two films. And I agree that it increased the enjoyment of the story itself.
James: Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but this film was shot silent, and Hitch added sound later? I thought the technique worked most of the time, as only a few times did I notice a poor dub or tracking.
Jason: At first, it seemed like a silent film with awkward sound effects sprinkled in, like shuffling footsteps and car honks, and the sound was calling attention to itself, especially with the lead woman giggling. But at the 8-minute mark, it became a true talkie—but in an interesting way. One of the more fascinating things about this movie is the way it uses sound. Dialog has a disembodied quality, and you can really tell that the art of marrying sound to film wasn’t perfected. I read later, in fact, that the lead actress (Anny Ondra) didn’t speak English well at all, so Hitch had a British voice actress (Joan Barry) read the dialog offscreen into a separate microphone while Ondra mouthed the words. I gather there were two versions of this film made: one silent except for the last reel, and one all sound. I wonder how available that silent version is.
James: My favorite aspect of this film was seeing Hitch try new things. For example, I loved the camera shots as the artist and the woman are walking up the stairs. The camera is “in the wall,” so to speak. That was cool. I also really liked the way Hitch cut away the instant before Alice screams to show the old woman scream after finding the dead body. That’s classic Hitch, and honestly, I think that’s one of the best transitions of that type I’ve seen. The one thing that didn’t work too well was the opening scene in which the camera focuses on the mirror to show the criminal’s point of view of the cops at the door. The camera on this one was just too jerky. The idea was great, but the execution wasn’t.
Jason: I thought the innovation in this film was a lot of fun. I also noticed the elaborate stairwell set, where we follow Alice and the artist upstairs. Lots of shadow work again. I actually liked that primitive mirror shot, even though it called attention to itself. And all the outstretched arms that Alice comes across in the streets of London. The neon knife. The scream merging into a scream also foreshadows The 39 Steps, when the scream merges into a train whistle.
James: I had forgotten about the neon knife. That was very well done. I also liked how Alice is pretty much devastated after she kills the guy. She looks spooky as hell. And the way Hitch shows her focus on the word “knife” when that woman is talking at breakfast. Classic.
Jason: Yes, the repetition of the word “knife” is very well done, but I had to laugh because the first thing I thought of was the “Flaming Moe” episode of The Simpsons when Homer keeps hearing “Moe.”
James: I liked the pacing of this one much more than The Ring. I enjoyed getting to know the characters before the drama started. While I can say I didn’t like Alice much before the studio scene, I warmed to her when she was prancing around with the artist.
Jason: Yeah, this was a better film than I thought it would be when it started. I was impressed by how much more mature it is than The Lodger and The Ring. I mean, these are complex characters. Admittedly, we have another duplicitous woman in Alice, but she’s full of doubt, and you’re right, her actions immediately after the murder are very impressive. I was totally involved in the way she contemplated what she’d just done, the way she’s all twitchy, in shock, and in negligee. Speaking of negligee, there must have been a real erotic charge to this whole scene, in which we see lingering shots of her shedding and changing clothes and essentially committing murder while in a state of undress. There’s also a later scene where she’s changing her stockings in a sexy close-up, foreshadowing the handcuff scene in The 39 Steps. Anyway, it was probably lurid for the time. I love this aspect of Hitch.
James: You’re right. I continually ask myself when watching these films just how risqué these scenes are. I mean, I’d love to get a comparison. Is that scene on par with, say, the love scene in Monster’s Ball? Or perhaps it was even more naughty? It’s so tame by today’s standards, but you can tell just by how it was presented that it was something wild. I mean, the guy is obviously a lowlife, which I thought was funny. I kept seeing him as someone who just wanted to get some. That seems more modern than anything else in the film. Hitch just put it all out there: this guy will do anything to sleep with Alice. Which is funny, because just that simple “naked” drawing makes Alice blush, which indicates just how risqué the whole affair is.
Jason: Did you notice the great Vertigo-like shot of Alice staring down the stairwell after the murder?
James: I too noticed that Vertigo-type of shot. I’m loving that . . . recognizing different, similar shots from other flicks. Something I wouldn’t get if we watched these films just randomly.
Jason: Oh yeah.
James: But, man, if I hear one more car horn I’ll go insane. I can just see Hitch saying, “More honking horns. We need to wow the audience with sound.” And all that whistling.
Jason: I hear you about the incessant honking and whistling. And what’s with the damn bird in Alice’s apartment? I wanted to strangle that thing.
James: Me too.
Jason: Blackmail contains what I think is the best Hitch cameo I’ve ever seen. I was laughing hysterically at that scene on the subway, especially after he reprimands the mother, and the boy just stands there looking down at Hitch, and Hitch has this wary, defeated look in his eyes. That was hilarious. I wonder if it’s the most prominent we’ll see.
James: Oh yeah, the cameo. I enjoyed that one. I like how he’s always doing something funny. The double bass in Strangers on a Train, the littering in The 39 Steps, the five aces in Shadow of a Doubt. I think it’s cool that he’s not just in the scene, but it’s noticeable for the humor.
Jason: But I want to get more into these characters’ depth, which really did surprise me. First of all, Frank the cop (John Longden), even after seeing his wife leave the restaurant with another man, is incredibly true to Alice later in the film, shielding her and forgiving her even after his early dismissal of her. Unlike most buffoonish cops in Hitch movies, this dude is complex, and I really liked him. And Alice herself, even though she’s a lowly two-timer, becomes this fragile, wounded girl. I definitely liked this actress. (I noticed what might be a little more Christian symbolism late in the film, another shadowed windowpane in the form of a cross when she decides to give herself up.) These two characters earn the film’s ending, where they’re together with a mutual secret and accepting the good luck that comes to them. The ending has a nice moral ambiguity, but it feels right.
James: I’m not sure I agree with you about the cop. I mean, I see your point, but I didn’t really like him. He seems kind of like an ass at the restaurant and on their way to the restaurant. And she is a two-timing little tramp. I wanted to see one more scene to show that they loved each other or that she was worth the lying. For example, that scene when he leaves the table but debates going back . . . that was great. But it wasn’t enough for me to fully believe he’d just lie for her. While I didn’t like these characters per se, or at least didn’t like them throughout the whole picture, I do agree with you on your other points.
Jason: I see where you’re coming from, but I still think these are the most complex characters we’ve seen yet. Yes, he’s an ass at the restaurant, and I thought Hitch’s cop caricature was shining through, but Frank redeems himself, almost as if he’s making up for his early behavior. It’s significant that the clue is her glove, which plays an important part in the restaurant. What a difference between the dismissive way he retrieves it at the restaurant and the reverent way he handles it later.
James: I hadn’t considered the glove the way you did. I just saw it strictly as a plot device. We had to learn and see the gloves early, so they could be a major factor later, that type of thing.
Jason: I’m still forgiving a lot because of the era of film. I’m doing a lot of reading between the lines here.
James: To be honest, I didn’t really buy the relationship between Alice and the artist. She’s all willing to be with him at the restaurant, but she doesn’t want to go to his room or be with him sexually. Sure, it was a different era, but something didn’t work for me there. I mean, the way they look at each other at the restaurant made me think that they have a past. And if they have a past, I think they would’ve acted differently outside the artist’s house.
Jason: I don’t remember if the artist was named, but a quick check at IMDB says that his name is Mr. Crewe (Cyril Ritchard). You’re right, there’s definitely something creepy and sleazy about him, and their verbal back-and-forth feels right. That whole scene exudes a creepy, voyeuristic vibe, something that Hitch is going to build on . . . the sexually forward blonde . . . the duplicitous nature . . . the kinky double-entendres.
James: With all that said, however, I truly enjoyed their interaction. I liked the way they verbally danced around each other. It’s a nice game they play . . . him wanting her to come in, her acting like she doesn’t want to. Very nicely done.
Jason: We haven’t even talked about Tracy, the blackmailer (Donald Calthrop). I think the cigar scene is fantastic, the way it’s drawn out, and the way the whole notion of blackmail is introduced. But are we supposed to assume that Tracy has some kind of dirt on the artist? We see him hanging around the studio, and he even leaves a note for the landlady, and the artist seems concerned about it.
James: I like the character. He fits well with the story. He’s only subtly slimy, and he manages the cigar scene perfectly. I just assumed he has dirt on the artist, but I’m glad we don’t learn more about it. I mean, in a way, the artist is a slime too, since he tried to rape Alice, so I can see him having troubles with the blackmailer.
Jason: Blackmail has a couple of interesting back stories like this. The other one is the artist’s relationship with Alice. Interesting note she has at the restaurant from him. How did they meet? Very mysterious.
James: I distinctly remember, during the cigar scene, asking why the blackmailer would enter the artist’s apartment after Alice left, and I remember thinking that I’m glad it wasn’t announced. I like that whole mystery. Why would he go in there? What was their relationship? It certainly didn’t hinder the movie that we didn’t know. So I like that ambiguity.
Jason: Oh, and is the blackmailer really identified when the landlady shows Scotland Yard the way he smiled? That’s a strange leap.
James: That is a leap, but nothing major. I just assumed her description is enough for the police to identify the blackmailer.
Jason: After that point, when Frank has the edge and the blackmailer loses his menace, I thought a little suspense went out of the story.
James: What did you think about the big museum sequence? Think it was Hitch’s first attempt to incorporate a big-scale climax?
Jason: Yeah, we’re going to see a lot of those large-scale climaxes. After watching the movie, I read in Hitchcock/Truffaut that the museum chase was shot with lots of camera tricks and primitive matte paintings, in which you’re looking at a painting that has a little hole rubbed out where actors in the background are moving. I didn’t even notice.
James: I didn’t notice anything like that. Hmmm. Usually those matte paintings are easy to spot. Interesting.
The synopsis correctly states that Frank is the boyfriend of Alice. Jason calls her his wife.
The multiple pages of possible criminals shown in the movie may indicate that the landlady looked through such a “line-up” and identified the man she had seen.
Blackmail is a fascinating film. A little creaky due to the limits of the technology, but fascinating structurally and psychologically. I think you are being a little harsh on Alice. She seems to be naive and a little bored by her cop boyfriend who takes her for granted (not unlike the cop/girl dynamic in The Lodger), and is merely flirting with another man who has shown an interest. The whole scene upstairs is more about an innocent girl (shown by her childlike drawing a face) not realizing she has stepped into a womanizer’s lair. She naively thinks (probably with the cop as her only previous example) that she can go to a man’s flat for conversation, and maybe a cuddle, but expect him to behave like a gentleman. The movie does seem to be partly Alice being shocked out of her innocence into the real world. Hitch is the master of the subjective camera, and walking in her shoes as she leaves the scene of the murder, and seeing how the world is now a much more foreboding place is a tour de force. I also love the neon sign where the cocktail shaker turns into a knife attacking the word “cocktail.” I personally think this suggests that she may have actually castrated her attacker. Note also that she stabs the portrait of the jester in the genitals.
It is too bad that you guys skipped The Manxman. The photography alone makes this film one of my favourite early Hitchcock’s. And his camera is absolutely in love with Anny Ondra. The story is a bit Victorian, but still interesting. Another romantic triangle where nobody gets what they desire.