Classic Film Guide

Blackmail (1929) - full review!

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, who adapted the Charles Bennett (Foreign Correspondent (1940)) play, this slightly above average drama is credited with being the first British sound film. Unfortunately, the sound quality is abysmal. After watching it on TCM, I learned from Robert Osborne that the lead actress's (Anny Ondra, from Austria-Hungary - now Poland) lines were being dubbed in real-time (by Joan Barry, uncredited) off "stage", which helped explain a bit of this (but not all of it). This film opens with a 10 minute long sequence, done strictly with music like a silent film (since the film was shot during the transition period; the silent version released is said to be better than this sound one), which is outstanding. It establishes several locales and police officer characters.

Alice White (Ondra), who maintains an "on again, off again" relationship dating Detective Frank Webber (John Longden), flirts with an artist (Cyril Ritchard) while dining with her beau. After dumping the detective, she goes with the artist to his apartment where she goes too far to be shocked by his advances. When he won't be denied her sexual favors, she kills him with a bread knife and flees. However, she was seen leaving by a moocher (Donald Calthrop) who was hanging out nearby and entered the apartment building after she fled.

After a sleepless night walking the streets in frightened despair, Alice sneaks upstairs to her bedroom which happens to be above her family's cigar shop. Her mother (Sara Allgood) visits her room just after she'd gotten into bed and tells her to come have breakfast. Alice joins her family (her father is played by Charles Paton) and a neighbor who, naturally, are discussing the (now discovered) murder that occurred the previous night. Preoccupied, Alice hears nothing besides the work KNIFE being spoken over and over again.

Detective Webber arrives and has a brief conversation with his girlfriend, in the shop's phone-booth, about the glove of hers he'd found, and concealed from the other detectives, at the crime scene. While showing it to her, the moocher turned blackmailer, enters the phone-booth to reveal he's got her other glove! My favorite scene follows, and I won't spoil it other than to say that the prey (the Scotland Yard detective and his girl) turn the tables on their blackmailer, which leads to the requisite Hitchcock chase. This transition, including the realization on the detective's and then the blackmailer's faces, is done quite well.

Additionally, it's interesting to see flashes of the master that Hitchcock would become: the use of an institution, in this case a museum complete with an Egyptian statue and harrowing rooftop, as a backdrop for the chase (ala Saboteur (1942) & North by Northwest (1959), and the women's screams (Ondra's with the landlady's that discovers the body) that are combined ala The 39 Steps (1935) (e.g. with a train whistle).

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