“See and hear it – our Mother Tongue as it should be…Spoken!”
So declared the posters for Blackmail, the first ever British talkie. However, it began life as a silent film. Half-way through production the studio asked Hitchcock to re-shoot key scenes to include sound. The finished product is a landmark collision of the silent and talkie eras.
Hitchcock included many scenes with fast edits and atmospheric montages to accommodate for silent screenings, while other scenes are designed to show off the capabilities of recorded sound. Cars honk, glass shatters, pianos are played, characters whistle and there’s even some singing. It’s like the early RealD 3D movies of mid 2000s that took every opportunity throw something towards the screen. If you were a moviegoer in 1929 this was fucking awesome.
Straight off the back of The Manxman, Czech actress Anny Ondra stars as Alice, the bubbly girlfriend of police detective Frank (John Longden). She ditches him at a restaurant to secretly liaise with a suave artist (Cyril Ritchard). Things take a horrific turn as he tries to force himself on her and, in the heat of the moment, she stabs him to death.
Her boyfriend, refreshingly unjudgemental of Alice’s previously flirtatious relationship with the artist, now protects her from a cigar-puffing ex-convict (Donald Calthrop) who suspects her of murder and wants to exploit it to his advantage.
Although Ondra is the only actress officially credited, the character of Alice was actually voiced by Joan Barry who dubbed in all of the lines live on set, since Hitchcock feared audiences would find Ondra’s accent difficult to understand and sound technology was still too primitive for non-diegetic editing. This leads to a few disjointed moments, but in general both actresses do a superb job.
Their collective talents are most impressive during the attempted rape scene. Alice’s terror is frighteningly well expressed, both through the visuals and audio, as he grasps her repeating “Don’t be silly, don’t be silly.” Once her attacker lies dead she becomes quiet, slow and quivering – devastated by what she did and what was nearly done to her. It’s intense and deeply unsettling.
The film drags for the last half hour as the blackmailer tries to have his wicked way. Hitchcock would later realise with Strangers on a Train that a this kind of story works best if the threat builds over a long time. Blackmail takes place over only 24 hours. Regardless, it’s one of Hitchcock more morally complex films with enough intensity to it to forgive the clumsier moments.