Alfred Hitchcock Collectors’ Guide: Blackmail (1929)

by Brent Reid

NEWS: Blackmail the play revival! Mercury Theatre, Colchester, 4-19 March, 2022 | preview | writer article | director interview | review


  • Hitchcock breaks the sound barrier with Britain’s first talkie
  • It saw off several part-silent pretenders and made cinema history
  • But his sound film had a silent counterpart; both get the twice-over
  • They were simultaneously shot but edited and released in reverse order
  • Hitchcock was keen to push the artistic boundaries of the latest technology
  • Plot was the clearest indication yet of the direction his future career would take
  • Sex, murder, deceit, morally ambiguous protagonists and only partially resolved ending

Note: this is one of 100-odd Hitchcock articles coming over the next few months. Any dead links are to those not yet published. Subscribe to the email list to be notified when new ones appear.

See Part 2 of this article for details of Blackmail’s restoration and home video releases.

Blackmail (1929, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) UK Kine Weekly trade magazine ad

UK Kine Weekly trade magazine ad


The play

Tallulah Bankhead in Her Cardboard Lover (1928) by Paul Tanqueray

Tallulah Bankhead in West End hit, Her Cardboard Lover (1928) NPG

Spoiler: From Alfred Hitchcock, the Master of Suspense, the first thriller in sound with the groundbreaking “Knife” scene. Quarreling with her detective boyfriend, Alice White accepts the offer of escort from a handsome stranger. Allowing herself to be coaxed into his apartment, she resists his advances, and in a violent struggle, stabs him with a knife. But in her haste to leave the scene of the crime passionelle, she drops a glove. And this vital clue to her identity falls into the hands of a blackmailer who viciously starts turning the screw. – US Republic Pictures VHS (1994, ad)

Blackmail was based on an eponymous 1928 play by Charles Bennett (1899–1995), which starred Tallulah Bankhead on its initial West End run, years before she featured in Lifeboat. Though today not remembered as much more than a footnote in the Hitch story, Bennett had a pivotal role in the creation of eight of the Master’s most renowned films and late in life finally began getting some long overdue recognition. The silent and sound Blackmails have some plot variances, but both deviate from the source text in many respects, including their shared denouement being completely different to that of the play – but you’ll get no spoilers from me! I will say that the central shocking act driving the story is made much more explicit in the sound version. Additionally, as explained in Bennett’s memoirs, there’s an early unpublished version of the play, titled 24 Hours, which has a completely different conclusion again.

The final produced play was also published, though copies are now very rare, as is the film tie-in novelisation by Ruth Alexander who produced several similar works, including for Rome Express and The Man Who Knew Too Much. According to Charles Barr, writing in English Hitchcock (1999), “Her Blackmail book is an extraordinary muddling-together of silent film, sound film and stage original.” Hitch also described a fascinatingly dark alternate ending in a 1963 interview.

Blackmail: Sight and Sound – Charles Barr

As explained elsewhere, Barr’s book is the definitive account of Hitch’s British career and goes into fascinating depth on Blackmail, devoting what is by far its longest chapter to the film. A verbal reprise of his forensic analysis on both versions would be the perfect fit for a future audio commentary. Sticking with related books, Britain’s, indeed Europe’s, first talkie and its silent counterpart also get the twice-over in BFI Film Classics: Blackmail (1993) by Tom Ryall.

Blackmail (1929, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) novelisation by Ruth Alexander and Charles Bennett

Extremely rare novelisation, US edition (World Wide Publishing Co., NY, 1929); full dust jacket (alt).

Hitch himself was largely responsible for adapting Bennett’s play, with its author having no direct input. However, Blackmail’s dialogue was credited to Labour MP and playwright Benn Levy, whose 1930 musical Ever Green was filmed as Evergreen (1934), providing a signature role for Londoner Jessie Matthews, Britain’s first internationally famous film star and our biggest homegrown star of the 1930s. Levy also scripted many significant UK and US films, including Kitty (1929), The Informer (1929) Waterloo Bridge (1931), Devil and the Deep (1932), The Old Dark House (1932), Topaze (1933, DVD) and Desire (1936, UK DVD). Levy even wrote and directed one film himself, the Hitch-produced Lord Camber’s Ladies (1932), which survives in good condition and is long overdue for release and re-evaluation.


Cyril Ritchard and Anny Ondra in Blackmail (1929, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)

Cyril Ritchard, playing Mr. Crewe, bites off more than he can chew with Anny Ondra as as Alice White

BBC Radio 3: Night Waves Landmarks: Blackmail

Made on the cusp of the talkie revolution, Blackmail began production as a silent film and was part-converted to sound midway through. Consequently it made history as Britain’s first full-length talkie. Both versions were released at the same time and co-existed quite happily in cinemas, much like 2D and 3D films today. For years, there’s been endless back-and-forth about which one is best, but I love both. Each has different strengths but neither feels wholly complete without the other. For fans more familiar with Hitchcock’s later work, this is the perfect introduction to his silent period.

In many ways, it most closely resembles his talkie thrillers and there is an abundance of his trademark directorial touches for film studies chin strokers to drool over. What’s more, following his brief appearance in The Lodger, Blackmail contains Hitch’s only other silent film cameo: here he appears in a more substantial interlude as a bus passenger being pestered by a little boy. Also in increasingly typical self-reflexive mode, there are onscreen references to two earlier films: The Ring and The Constant Nymph (1928), co-scripted by his wife Alma Reville.

More info

Though Blackmail’s silent version was shot initially, the talkie version was planned for at an early stage in the proceedings and its reshoots, using the same set-ups, followed immediately after. In fact, by the time filming was over, the demand for talkies had grown such that it was decided to release that version first; it was to be another two months before the silent version was completed and released. Many scenes in the finished films look very similar, but there’s no actual shared footage. Bear in mind, in the days of analogue film, to have repeated footage in a second negative it would have to be taken from a copy of the original, which would have degraded the quality to an unacceptable degree. Interestingly though, the silent version actually incorporates much footage from the talkie reshoot and vice versa.

The first reel in both versions comprises footage solely from the silent version shoot and has no dialogue, either via intertitles or the spoken word. This was a deliberate artistic choice, as it’s an efficient scene setter and in the sound version also serves to build anticipation for the talking ‘reveal’. History records Blackmail qualifying as a full synchronised talking picture, as opposed to many other incipient sound films of the goat gland variety. These include renowned US part-talkies like The Jazz Singer (1927), Lonesome (1928) and Show Boat (1929), not to mention various similar but lesser known British films. The Jazz Singer, for instance, was a marketing con as it’s basically a silent film with a synchronised soundtrack. It still has intertitles throughout and only two minutes of synchronised speech, the first of which (below) doesn’t occur until the 17½-minute mark, just after a short song. Apart from the extended opening, Blackmail is much more of an actual talkie.

Warner’s superb restoration of The Jazz Singer has many single discs but these special edition releases also feature a host of other shorts and extras detailing the earliest years of the sound era.

Following on from all the goat gland talkies are scores of cash-in sound reissues of silents, usually with newly shot talking sequences, like The Phantom of the Opera (1925) and The Godless Girl (1928). Of course, there was no cut-off point for silent films: the chopping and changing of part-silent and sound versions persisted for several years, and the question of what category many of the liminal results fit into becomes pretty moot. It’s somewhat reminiscent of the old gags asking at what point the world’s largest Brussels sprout becomes the world’s smallest cabbage, or is a zebra white with black stripes or black with white stripes? There are several fine resources below that make the complications of categorising transitional silent-sound era films abundantly clear, especially film historian John Belton’s excellent, insightful essay.

Blackmail’s London: A City of CrimePamela Hutchinson

Anny Ondra in Blackmail (1929, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)

Alice holds a spoiler. Paradoxically, it’s a hair-raising Crewe cut. Good girl. She’s impossibly spotless, considering her actual method of dispatch, only revealed in the sound version. Clue: it’s much worse than you think.

Kitty (1929) is sometimes cited as a contender for the title of Britain’s first talkie, but such claims are disingenuous at best. True, its original silent version was finished and released to the public before Blackmail, but not so with Kitty’s opportunistic sound version:

Kitty, directed by Hitchcock’s contemporary and ex-colleague Victor Saville… was first completed and shown as a silent, after which it was withdrawn for the final two reels to be reshot with dialogue; the silent version is a very fine melodrama, but was at once eclipsed by the novelty of the part-talkie version, and it is the latter that history remembers. Its first six reels are identical with the silent, except that a synchronised music [and effects] track takes the place of live accompaniment; the switch to dialogue for reels seven and eight is abrupt, clumsy, and disorientating, as archivally-based television programmes from time to time remind us by using a clip of the transitional point to illustrate the crudities of that historical moment.” – Charles Barr, English Hitchcock (1999)

Incidentally, Saville shot those last two reels (or possibly three; see comments) of Kitty in the US, as the UK had no other suitable sound studio facilities at the time. While there, he also directed the remake of Woman to Woman (1923), one of the young Hitch’s apprenticeship films. Both versions of Kitty survive in good condition in the BFI archive here and here, so there’s a possibility one day we’ll all get to view each in its entirety and judge for ourselves how successfully it was retooled.

Anny Ondra in Blackmail (1929, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)

In lieu of Kitty’s appearance, for a great comparison to Blackmail check out The Informer, released just three months later; both its lovingly restored silent and sound versions complement each other perfectly on their US and UK releases. It was also shot at Elstree with many of the same cast and crew, and treads not-too dissimilar territory thematically, being a crime thriller with a plot driven by the female contingent of a love triangle on the wrong side of the law.

Following its initial release, the silent version went unseen for decades and was all but forgotten. Now though, both can be easily accessed for appraisal and the silent is held by most to be the better of the two. The sound version wasn’t helped by the fact that star Anny Ondra was spoken for. No, I’m not referring to her sweetheart: I mean she opened her mouth and someone else said her words! Though it obviously hadn’t been an impediment in hers and Hitch’s previous silent film, The Manxman, this time her native Czech accent was adjudged too strong.

As a workaround, she had to mime her dialogue and was dubbed off-camera by English actress Joan Barry, future star of Hitch’s Rich and Strange. It’s a pity, as Ondra spoke English fluently and was perfectly intelligible. It was certainly no stronger than that of many foreign stars of the time who were hovering on the brink of international success. Both Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich had their breakthroughs in 1930, so just imagine: Blackmail could have scored another significant first, by beating the likes of Anna Christie and The Blue Angel in toplining an exotically-voiced female lead.

Anny Ondra in Blackmail (1929, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)

But it was not to be. The filmmakers did what they felt best at the time but the inadequate live dubbing technique certainly makes its presence felt, to the overall detriment of the sound version. The modern consensus is it would have been preferable had they simply tweaked the script to give her character a foreign backstory; there’s certainly nothing in the central plot to impede the idea. Again, this has happened in countless films from that day to this. Whichever version of Blackmail you prefer, they’re both absolutely riveting: thrills, intrigue, comedy and sexuality are balanced beautifully in a fast-paced concoction that’s all killer and no filler.

All the photos in this article were taken by budding filmmaker Michael Powell, of Powell and Pressburger/”The Archers” fame. After a few years spent learning the ropes at a studio in France, he returned to England and took on various duties at Elstree Studios, including that of stills photographer. He worked with Hitch on his last three silents: Champagne, The Manxman and Blackmail, and in his 1986 autobiography, A Life in Movies, Powell claimed to have suggested the latter’s renowned chase ending.

Anny Ondra in Blackmail (1929, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)

Last word must go to the notion held by a gossiping woman in Alice’s father’s shop, played by Phyllis Konstam in the silent version and Phyllis Monkman in the talkie, as the former wasn’t available for reshoots. She had some very old-fashioned views on killing:

“A good, clean, honest whack over the head with a brick is one thing. There’s something British about that. But knives… nope, knives is not right. I must say that’s what I think and that’s what I feel. Whatever the provocation I could never use a knife. Now mind you a knife is a difficult thing to handle. I mean any knife… knife… knife… butcher’s knife… knife… knife… I mean in Chelsea you mustn’t use a KNIFE!”

I don’t think anyone can really disagree with that. Oh Anny, where’s a good brick when you need one?


Alfred Hitchcock, Donald Calthrop, John Longden and Anny Ondra on the set of Blackmail (1929)

It’s all just fun and games: Hitch and stars Donald Calthrop, John Longden and Anny Ondra in her onscreen dad’s armchair on the set of Blackmail

Alfred Hitchcock Collectors’ Guide: Blackmail, Part 2 – restoration and home video releases

For more detailed specifications of official releases mentioned, check out the ever-useful DVDCompare. This article is regularly updated, so please leave a comment if you have any questions or suggestions.

You might also like

Notify of
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Marc David Jacobs
Marc David Jacobs
10th September 2023 03:05

Hello, Brent! Long time reader, first time commenter – although, regrettably, I do so as a matter of correction. I’m afraid I’m one of these ‘disingenuous’ types who likes to point out that the sound version of Kitty did very much precede Blackmail, both in terms of production and public screening. As your Kinematograph Weekly advert confirms, Blackmail was first trade shown in the UK on 21st June 1929. However, this was nearly three weeks after the sound version of Kitty had been shown on 3rd June; the silent version had been premiered as early as 7th January 1929. Not… Read more »

Like Brenton Film on Facebook

This will close in 12 seconds

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x