Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production: British International Pictures, black and white, 35mm; running time: 96 minutes. Released 1929. Filmed in studios in London and on location in the British Museum.
Producer: John Maxwell; screenplay: Alfred Hitchcock, Charles Bennett, Benn W. Levy, and Garnett Weston; from the play by Charles Bennett; photography: Jack Cox; editor: Emile Ruello; production design: Wilfred C. Arnold and Norman Arnold; music: Campbell and Connely, finished and arranged by Hubert Bath and Henry Stafford, performed by the British Symphony Orchestra under the direction of John Reynders.
Anny Ondra (
); Sara Allgood (
); John Longden (
); Charles Paton (
); Donald Calthrop (
); Cyril Ritchard (
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* * *
Hitchcock's last silent film, Blackmail was also his first sound effort—and one of the first British "talkies" as well. A resounding popular and critical success, Blackmail prefigures some of the director's most famous themes and demonstrates techniques for which he would be noted.
As critic Eric Rohmer points out, the entire film "focuses on the relationships among characters." Victims and victimizers alternate from scene to scene (a technique Hitchock would later perfect in his 1951 film Strangers on a Train ). Sometimes within a single shot, for example, the moral positions of the characters shift, while the placement of the characters illustrates visually the relationship that we also know from context. As many other critics have detailed, this type of shift is "pure Hitchcock": scenes such as those between the blackmailer and the detective parallel scenes from the director's future work, most notably the relationship between a tennis pro and his psychotic "fan" in Strangers on a Train. This visual affirmation of moral ambiguity and transfer of guilt combines with other elements— such as the use of cinematic means to direct point of view, often at the expense of a linear storyline—that would later be considered typical of Hitchcock's films. The thematic concerns of Blackmail also appear in Hitchcock's Hollywood period, for example, the depiction of a woman's torments, as in Suspicion. Blackmail demonstrates an intriguing use of sound, especially since it was originally conceived and produced as a silent film. One notable example occurs in the use of sound for scene-to-scene continuity: the protagonist's shriek becomes the basis for transition to the next scene in which a charwoman finds a dead body. (This technique, too, was incorporated into another film, The Thirty-Nine Steps. ) Even in this very early sound venture, Hitchcock's awareness of the possibilities of sound represents a major experimental advance in his ability to "make the inexpressible tangible."
Hitchcock said that he used a good many trick shots in the picture. During a sequence in the British Museum, he told Francois Truffaut, "we used the Shüfftan process because there wasn't enough light in the museum to shoot there. You set a mirror at an angle of 45 degrees and you reflect a full picture of the British Museum in it." Hitchcock had nine of the pictures made, showing various rooms. But the producers knew nothing of the Shüfftan process, and since they might have objected, Hitchcock performed his magic without their knowledge.
Blackmail has an important place in cinematic and Hitchcockian film history. Not only is it one of the first British talking pictures, but it is also a prototype for Hitchcock films to follow in terms of theme, the use of sound and cinematic style. Blackmail initiated the suspense sub-genre many call the "Hitchcock film," while innovatively transforming use of the then new sound medium within an established visual style and in the service of unique thematic purposes.
—Deborah H. Holdstein