Hitchock’s Legacy #2: Blackmail (1929 film)


Blackmail was released in 1929, but could Hitchcock’s first “talkie” live up to the standards of modern audiences? Sure it could!

After releasing The Lodger, Alfred Hitchcock went on a long stretch without releasing horror/thriller titles. He made six films before returning to the genre he’s most known for. On top of that, Blackmail was not a silent movie. In fact, it was promoted as the first British motion picture to feature sound! In other words, this film would have been technically innovative no matter its quality. So, does it deliver?

Admittedly, Blackmail starts off pretty slow, with Alice White (Anny Ondra) in a tea house with her Detective boyfriend, Frank Webber (John Longden). Things pick up after they get into an argument and she leaves with another man, Mr. Crewe (Cyril Ritchard).

An artist, Mr. Crewe invites her up to his apartment/art studio. At first it seems cute, and like nothing will go wrong. However, let’s just say he takes things too far after she rejects his advances, and ends up paying the price with a knife! She tries to conceal the crime but leaves a glove behind, which is found by Detective Webber. The other glove is found by a blackmailer, Tracy (Donald Calthrop). The story ends up being about blackmail, much as the title suggests.

Strengths of Blackmail

Blackmail becomes a fairly engaging picture, not solely coasting on the gimmick of actually having audio. In fact, a silent version was also available at the time, as many theaters lacked sound. What’s interesting about Blackmail is that the story is straightforward and simple, and there’s no real mystery to its characters.

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We know roughly what they’re thinking and why, as we vicariously live through their decisions.  While that’s a drawback to many films, Hitchcock relies on his superior sense of tension and style to propel the story along. There are also unexpected moments of humor dotted throughout. For example, at one point Alice sees an electric sign that reminds her of the stabbing. A little macabre humor goes a long way!

Similarly, one character (Phyllis Konstam) gossips about the murderer’s reprehensible use of a knife. She says “A good, clean honest whack over the head with a brick is one thing. There’s something British about that. But knives — No, knives is not right!” Oddly, some aspects of Blackmail also tie in with Hitchcock’s later film, The Birds.

Does that sound far-fetched? At one point in the film, the sound of bird tweets totally dominate a scene. Also, much like The Birds, Blackmail seems to have a rather minimalist soundtrack. Also, of course, Blackmail features a blonde woman in peril.

Awkkard Aspects of Blackmail

Although Anny Ondra physically played Alice, her Czech accent was considered to out of place for a British movie. To address the problem, actress Joan Barry actually voiced the character as Ondra lip-synched. While not everyone will notice this, some people surely have, or will now.

Also, one almost has to address the awkward elephant in the room: The attack on Alice isn’t entirely dissimilar to the attack Tippi Hedren accused Hitchcock of in her memoir, which came complete with a “blackmail”-like threat to ruin her career for rejecting him. Ironically, it’s almost easier to watch The Birds without thinking about that than Blackmail.

Final thoughts

Blackmail is a solid film, and actually quite modern in its approach. Aside from the black-and-white colors, old-timey fashions and outdated technology, its style was clearly forward-looking. The acting isn’t too over-the-top, which makes it not distract from the story, and the story is easy to follow for general audiences. Horehounds won’t be satisfied with this film (or most other Hitchcock works), but it does have a decent amount of tension. It may not be the best Hitchcock piece, but one needn’t be crazy to rank it among his best. Just remember: Knives is not right!

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Fan of the immortal Alfred Hitchcock? What are your thoughts on Blackmail and Hitchcock’s horror legacy? Let us know in the comments!