Alfred Hitchcock is the filmmaker with the most entries on the 1001, and the first of those chronologically is Blackmail (1929). The film was far from Hitch’s first though, he had already made nine silent features before this one. Whilst it is definitely minor Hitchcock, Blackmail is notable for being not only the director’s first sound film, but Britain’s too. My understanding is that the film began production as a silent film, before the decision was made part way through production to make it a sound film instead. A silent version was completed, but I m not sure that it is available and this review is of the better known sound version.
Like many films of the period, including from Hitch, Blackmail is based on a play. Some of these early films, Number 17 (1932) springs to mind, really struggle to escape their source and come off feeling more like filmed plays rather than being at all cinematic. For the most part, this film succeeds in convincing you that this is definitely a film not a filmed play. Early on though, it struggles to escape it’s beginnings as a silent film moreso than its theatrical roots. The early part of the film just feels like a silent film sans intertitles. I suspect that these sequences were already filmed when the decision was made to convert the production to a sound one. Plot wise there is nothing too intriguing to report. The film is a crime story and a pretty straightforward one, at least after being pretty difficult to follow over the first section. The most important part of the plot is of course the Hitchcock cameo and I can happily report it is a cracker. One of my favourites actually, as Hitch rides a train and gets bugged by a little kid. After what is a frankly pretty boring first half, this film thankfully picks up a fair bit over the second and third acts. Part of the issue early on is that it takes a long time for the pieces to fall into place. But once there is a murder and a scramble to cover it up, we are in familiar Hitch territory – blackmail, knives, jilted cops, mistaken identity and so on – and it is a nice place to be in this master’s hands.
Many people have not seen any of Hitchcock’s extensive British filmography. I generally like this period of his career, with the films generally possessing a low-key charm that was not a part of bigger, ‘greater’ productions such as Psycho (1960) or North by Northwest (1959). Much of the enjoyment from watching this era of films is seeing the progress of Hitchcock’s development. Here there is little of the visual trickery and really noticeable camera movements that would be characteristics of his later work. But the young director already had the ability to frame a shot both perfectly and in a really interesting manner so that they did not feel at all staid. I often ponder the connections between Hitchcock and Tarantino as I think that they share some really interesting similarities and differences. Here, Hitch seems to be quite the forerunner of the contemporary superstar director. There is some really wink wink dialogue, especially about movies, that Tarantino himself would have been ultra proud of. Some of the other dialogue is strangely stuttering for a film from this great director, whose work is usually so sharp. The result is a film that feels more old fashioned than most of his other films. The female lead Anny Ondra gives a really excellent performance, especially in some of the more challenging scenes she is required to deliver. There is a rape scene, which is really quite forward for the time, and Ondra’s performance in the immediate aftermath is impressive, conveying the violation and confrontation she has just endured. Her performance is one of the reasons that the film remains relatively watchable today.
Some of Hitchcock’s earlier British films really only work as curiosity pieces, but thankfully not this one. After a slow start, the plot contains many of the tropes and themes that the director would continue to return to over the following decades. It is certainly not his best or even the best of his British films, but Blackmail is still worth checking out if you are a fan of the great man or just of crime cinema of this vintage.
Verdict: Stubby of Reschs
2014 Progress: 10/101