Blackmail (1929)

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An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A policeman’s girlfriend kills someone in self-defence, but then the pair are blackmailed by a witness…

There’s something about Anny. The star of this 1929 movie is Czech actress Anny Ondra, who had also been in Hitchcock’s The Manxman a few months earlier. She’s Hitch’s first tortured, haunted yet beautiful blonde, and is extremely watchable. Her character, Alice White, is annoyed with her boyfriend so rebels by going up to the apartment of an artist friend called Crewe (Cyril Ritchard). He, however, is a nasty piece of work and attempts to rape her. Fighting back, Alice grabs a knife, kills him and flees.

Her turmoil as she tries to hide her crime while the rest of the world goes on with its daily life is very affecting. One scene has her numbly walking through busy crowds, another has a family friend innocently repeating the word knife – each instance making Alice feel worse and worse. But as good as Ondra is, there’s something not quite right in the performance and it doesn’t take long to see – or rather hear – what it is.

When filming began, Blackmail was planned as a silent film. But ‘talkies’ were the coming thing and halfway through production Hitchcock jumped at the chance to convert his movie to sound. (It’s Britain’s first film with dialogue.) But Anny Ondra presented a problem. Her natural, mid-European accent wasn’t appropriate for the character of Alice. (To hear Ondra speaking, check out this amazing piece of test footage where Hitchcock embarrasses her for a laugh.) It needed replacing, but the technique of post-dubbing had yet to be developed. The solution? Have another actress, Joan Barry, stand by the camera and perform the dialogue as Ondra mouthed along – sometimes it works, but usually it’s just distracting. (Ironically, while English, Barry’s clipped voice doesn’t especially suit the working-class character of Alice either!)

Visually, the movie is brilliantly innovative: a shot of Alice and Crewe climbing a staircase is staged on a specially built set that allows the camera to climb with them; the rape scene is off-screen, with billowing curtains standing in for the violence; and there are match-cuts, a montage and a large-scale chase set at the British Museum. Oh, and Hitchcock has a substantial cameo as a train commuter being bothered by a naughty child. A real treat.

Eight men on the London Underground out of 10

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