Alfred Hitchcock Collectors’ Guide: Blackmail (1929), Part 2

by Brent Reid

Restoration and home video releases

  • Detailed: cinematic ground-breaker’s restoration and quality home video releases
  • Shot in two separate versions: the Master’s final silent and first sound film
  • The silent version was recently restored as part of the Hitchcock 9 project
  • It’s a Hitchcock-up: long awaited first Blu-ray is sadly a distorted débâcle
  • Quality releases are outnumbered by bootlegs; usual with British Hitch
  • All licensed releases worldwide detailed for the first time anywhere

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 1 of this article for a full rundown of Blackmail’s origins, production, release, etc.

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

UK Kine Weekly trade magazine ad


Contents


Transfers

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

Cyril Ritchard eyes up Anny Ondra’s, erm, painting; US lobby card

Blackmail’s two versions exist in three separate transfers: older preservations of the silent and sound, and a more recent restored transfer of the former. Both preserved transfers run for 85 minutes (82min w/PAL DVD’s 4% speed-up) and are in decent shape, though the sound version is superior. While perfectly watchable, the preserved silent shows many minor instances of wear throughout and is a little dark and dupey looking. The sound version, by contrast, is clean, bright and almost spotless. They also have different aspect ratios: the silent is 1.33:1 while the sound, like all very early talkies, is a squarer 1.19:1. This is due to originally being cropped along the left frame edge to accommodate an optical soundtrack.

The silent version was restored in 2012 as part of the BFI’s Hitchcock 9 project and transferred at 24fps (76min).

“Fortunately the BFI National Archive holds the original negative of the silent version. However, the negative had suffered extensively from ‘curling’ as a result of one side of the film stock having shrunk more than the other. This, in combination with very narrow joins between shots, meant careful digital scanning was required to prevent further damage and to make the film lie flat in the scanner’s gate. Without this, the sharpness of the images would have been severely compromised. Eventually, despite the curl of the film emulsion and the delicate splices, a sharp scan with excellent tonal range was achieved. The film is one of the first features to be scanned on the BFI’s scanner and it has benefited from the use of a wet-gate for sections of the film. In this technology, the film is immersed in a fluid at point of scanning in order to greatly reduce or eliminate the many fine scratches on the surface.

After scanning, which was carried out at 4K resolution, the negative’s remaining damage and several multi-frame tears were removed by digital repair. The intertitles were present at full-length – rather than the ‘flash-titles’ which often exist in other silent negatives – and have been preserved as part of the new master. The dissolves between shots are a crucial part of the film’s narration and, where possible, they have been reconstructed from the two separate shots. In the end, the restoration has produced an exceptionally clean picture which retains the essence, texture and beauty of the original photography.” – BFI programme notes

It almost goes without saying that the preserved and restored silents’respective running times of 82 and 76 minutes are due to different transfer methods; both are equally complete. But I will say that however historically accurate it may be, the latter runs much too quickly, making the actors’ movements throughout seem almost comical. Both silent and sound versions appear to be around 7,660 feet in length, so I have no idea why the restoration is so fast; it actually equates to running at 28fps, rather than the BFI’s stated 24fps. This is the only major issue I have with the otherwise brilliantly restored Hitchcock 9. Here, the slower preserved transfer is far more natural and realistic.


Scores

Blackmail (1929, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) pop art print by Odysseas Constantine for Art & Hue, 2018

Pop art print by Odysseas Constantine for Art & Hue, 2018

As with the majority of British silents, we don’t know if the silent version of Blackmail had a custom score on its first release, as few documents survive. It’s tempting to imagine the sound version’s score being adapted for at least the London première or that perhaps a compilation score comprised of stock cues was provided. Meanwhile, in the provinces it most likely had the latter or entirely improvised  accompaniment by local  musicians.

There are many official full and partial re-recordings of scores from Hitch’s American films, but sadly not so for his British works. So far, there are only re-recorded excerpts from The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes. Nonetheless, there are various Hitchcock film music compilations featuring selections from those and several other British talkies. But they’re almost all bootlegs too, mostly lifted directly from the film soundtracks themselves. The sole fully-licensed exceptions are:

They include the “Main Titles/Prologue” cue from Blackmail’s sound version score, composed by Jimmy Campbell and Reg Connelly, and finished by Hubert Bath and Harry Stafford. The latter were also responsible for the score of similar film The Informer’s sound version, released just a few months later. The albums also have passages from Steps, Sabotage and Young and Innocent.

Although Blackmail sits just behind The Lodger as Hitch’s best known silent, and regularly has live music screenings worldwide, just four contemporary scores are worthy of note.

Beginning in March 1993, the Matrix Ensemble with Robert Ziegler performed a new score by Jonathan Lloyd at a few screenings. Going by its stated 72-minute runtime, it appears to have been composed for a 76-minute PAL master with 4% speed-up. But it’s sadly unrecorded and unavailable other than as sheet music. However, the Matrix-Ziegler combo did at least get to perform and record a new score for The Lodger by the Divine Comedy’s Joby Talbot which is at least somewhat more accessible, being released on UK VHS.

An excellent Joachim Bärenz piano score appeared in 2002, on the first official DVD, and most closely replicates the way the majority of audiences would have originally experienced the film.

In 2008, leading silent film musician Neil Brand composed a superlative orchestral score (spoiler vid) and he adapted it for smaller ensemble for the restoration’s première on 6 July 2012 at the British Museum. That location is, of course, where the film’s actual finale takes place and it made for a brilliant night! More pics here and here. The BBC Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Timothy Brock and though a multi-track recording was made of the performance, there’s no movement as yet on actually licensing it for release with the film. The score continues to be performed live on regular occasions, so don’t miss any opportunity you get to hear it.

Working with Hitch: Neil Brand on scoring Blackmail

Lastly, the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra’s ensemble score, also regularly played live, was recorded in 2019 for the restoration’s first US disc release and is very competent, a little eclectic and occasionally inspired. More on this and Brand’s score below.


Home video releases

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

Cyril gets more than fresh with Anny; US lobby card

As with the rest of Hitch’s British films, there are an overwhelming number of very poor quality bootlegs, invariably of the sound version, that aren’t worth either your money or the time wasted in watching them. Here are all of Blackmail’s official releases to date.

Silent and sound versions

Sound version

All pre-2019 releases feature the older preserved transfers, and to get both versions the German Arthaus and Spanish Universal DVDs are perhaps the best options overall. Note these were the first release of the silent version on any format from anywhere. The discs themselves are absolutely identical, with the only differences being in their sleeve and label art. The silent has the Bärenz piano score, while extras are an image gallery and the brief but saucy sound test take embedded below. They also have Italian, German, Spanish and Portuguese subtitles for the original English intertitles, and are region 2, PAL format. Most official Hitch DVDs come with a smattering of relevant extras but sadly, some of Blackmail’s that were previously released are still MIA. The same applies to its only known dub, produced in 1962 or 1968 for German TV by ZDF and Ifage Filmproduktion but still unreleased on home video.

John Longden, Anny Ondra and Donald Calthrop in Blackmail (1929, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) US lobby card

John Longden, Anny Ondra and Donald Calthrop talk terms; US lobby card

Anticipation was very high for Kino’s Hitch releases and none so more than for Blackmail, me included. But I’m gutted to report they’ve really Hitchcocked this one up. As per Kino’s pre-release publicity and the disc packaging itself, the BD was originally intended to be a single-disc affair like their BD for Murder!/Mary. Fair enough: with two B&W films of 85 and 76 minutes, and a smattering of extras, it’s hardly a stretch for the format. But something clearly went awry and their “1.20:1” aspect ratio sound version has been transferred stretched to 1.33:1, noticeably distorting the image and making people look abnormally wide. The fault lies either in the copy supplied by Studiocanal or a mistake made during the disc mastering process; my money’s on the latter, as none of the previous releases are distorted in this way and Kino do have some form in this regard. It’s glaringly obvious that rather than go back and remaster the disc, and junk an entire defective run, at the 11th hour Kino opted to add a second disc with the 1.20:1 talkie transferred properly. Except it isn’t: this time it’s been transferred with a vertically squeezed 1.12:1 AR, making people look too thin. See Kino’s squeezed and squashed new trailer, and the screenshots below.

So Kino’s 2-disc BD set has three separate transfers – one too many – and two are defective. Sheesh. I doubt this will ever be corrected, though would love to be proved wrong. Instead, I predict it will continue to be quietly sold ad infinitum, as per Kino’s similarly slipshod Nosferatu discs. Kino’s Blackmail DVD is a single-disc affair, so I assume it only contains the squashed sound version but confirmation would be welcomed in the comments.

I can only recommend the Kinos insomuch as they’re the film’s only official US outing on physical media and one offers the silent version in HD, albeit transferred much too fast for my liking. The sole significant new extra is an engaging, thoroughly researched audio commentary by film historian Tim Lucas, though it unfortunately accompanies the sound version(s). This was one of two simultaneously released titles kicking off a slate of  Studiocanal-owned Hitchcocks. The other, Murder!, has a substantial pre-release-announced omission from its extras; my initial fear that it didn’t bode well for the rest of them was unfortunately well-founded but the saddest part is it’s so easily avoidable, as explained in my review for Kino’s also botched Rich and Strange. US residents should note that as of June 2022, Lionsgate’s HD stream of the sound version is still available – in the correct aspect ratio.

Edit: Kino refuse to admit there’s a problem and instead offered refunds for anyone dissatisfied. They’ve even called the knowledge of one of the set’s expert contributors into question; see comments below. This issue has been discussed on many chat forums, eg here, herehere, here, here and here. Amazingly, out of dozens of reviews, hardly any even mention Kino’s botched aspect ratios. Further proof, if any were needed, that most so-called reviewers either: know little or nothing of the technicalities of film, don’t actually watch the releases in question, or are reluctant to criticise when necessary for fear of offending companies supplying them with freebies. So much for journalistic integrity.

Edit 2: See site consultant and Nosferatu expert Martin Larsen’s handy viewing tips in the comments below, to help you make a silk purse out of Kino’s sow’s ear.

US Motion Picture News advert, Oct 19, 1929

US Motion Picture News advert, Oct 19, 1929

Then there’s the silent version’s accompaniment; here a new one is provided by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. I love what the MAMPO do and they’re easily in my top tier of silent film accompanists, but enlisting them for a score over Neil Brand’s existing one was a woefully misguided decision. Part of the avowed agenda of the much publicised BFI restoration of Hitch’s silents, coinciding with the 2012 UK Olympics, was to celebrate and partially “reclaim” him as a British icon. All too often, Hitch’s stellar, prolific career in the country of his birth is ignorantly written off as not much more than an “apprenticeship” and unfairly overshadowed by his later American movies. This then, was the reasoning behind commissioning a range of renowned British musicians of varying disciplines to breathe new life into his extant 1920s films.

Brand is one of the world’s foremost silent film musicians and his orchestral score for Blackmail is his masterwork. It’s the culmination of nearly four decades in the business and a real labour of love. What’s more, with it a version of the film would have resulted that could have been used for universal broadcast, home video and theatrical release, etc. As things stand, MAMPO’s score is pretty unlikely to ever be licensed outside of the States. Unlike many silents, Blackmail is 100% complete and authentic – remember, the restoration is based on the original negative. Therefore, Brand’s score could never be rendered redundant by a future restoration, and is very unlikely to ever be creatively surpassed.

Blackmail (1929, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) Australian poster

Australian poster

Why then, has this most British silent film, by our most British of directors, had the best score it’s ever known supplanted by an American composition? The answer is simple: this release was ushered onto the market as cheaply as possible, and this new score is cheaper than licensing the alternative. But with just a little willing effort and cooperation, the cost could have been shared between several potential distributors. That way, Kino would have got it for even less and everyone, especially the fans, would have benefited the most. In case you’re unaware, the main stumbling block to releasing the restored Hitchcock 9 as a whole is the lack of funds available to record new scores. So releasing Blackmail this way is bordering on the criminal. And a huge missed opportunity. That said, taken on its own terms, MAMPO’s score can hardly be faulted, as it’s every bit as adept and appropriate as their numerous other silent film accompaniments. It certainly presents a generally more rewarding experience than the previous DVDs’ piano score, though of course the inclusion of both would have been even better. But that’s just wishful thinking as the piano score was recorded to sync with a completely different (and more natural) running speed than the restored version.

Summary

Buy the German-Spanish DVD. All of the transfers of Kino’s BD are lacking in some respect. We can only go on hoping that Blackmail, along with the rest of the Hitchcock 9, eventually gets a UK release, done properly.

  • Preserved sound version – good condition, fine on all releases except US Kino BD and DVD with botched aspect ratios.
  • Preserved silent version – good condition, fine on both DVDs. Joachim Bärenz piano score.
  • Restored silent version – pristine condition but runs too fast; fine on only release to date, US Kino BD and DVD. Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra score.


Screenshots

Courtesy of the invaluable Hitchcock Zone. Note that all bootlegs only contain various poor quality copies of the sound version. All official releases are identical and taken from Studiocanal’s preserved transfer.

Sound version: Studiocanal DVD: 1.19 correct | Kino BD: 1.33 fat, 1.12 thin

Sound version DVDs: bootlegs US Brentwood Home Video, US St. Clair Vision; Cine Korea | Official: Studiocanal

Silent version: Studiocanal DVD | Kino BD


Criterion LaserDisc

Since DVD brought about the demise of earlier home video formats such as VHS and LaserDisc, most of their then unique extras have thankfully been reused and recycled. The main exception in Hitch’s case is Criterion’s 1992 LaserDisc (spine #154) of Blackmail’s sound version. Its sleeve incorrectly states a runtime of 78 minutes but it’s actually 84:27. The only other two LDs, from Japan, are barebones with 8283 minute, PAL-NTSC transfers of poor quality US bootleg prints.

As the film wasn’t otherwise officially available on physical home video in the US until 2019, and then from Kino Lorber, Criterion’s unique extras haven’t been ported across to any other domestic releases. Of course, if Criterion ever do get to reissue it on a more recent format, they’re pretty certain to reuse them. There’s not much chance of that anytime soon though, as Kino only succeeded Lionsgate as licensees for Studiocanal’s properties in 2018. It’s a real shame that Criterion very rarely license out any of their redundant extras to other companies for updated releases, especially for their often brilliant audio commentaries. After all, they actually invented the format with their 1984 King Kong LD and could even establish a nice sideline in selling their spares as synchronisable MP3 files, as per alternative soundtracks of silent films such as Nosferatu. However, thanks to Hitch collector Matthew Hardesty, in Blackmail’s case you can listen to the commentary via the comments!

  • Sound Test (00:42) with Hitchcock and Anny Ondra
  • Directing the Kiss (00:33) silent short with “Hitchcock ‘trying’ to show star Cyril Ritchard how to initially attack co-star Ondra. Hitchcock himself boldly jumps right in at the chance to demonstrate on Ondra, not only attacking but tickling her and trying to peek under her skirt.” Hmm.
  • The Voice from the Screen (1926) Vitaphone demonstration short (10:20) excerpts
  • Audio commentary with Blackmail playwright and screenwriter Charles Bennett (still sharp at the then age of 91!) w/additional material by documentarian-film historian Laurent Bouzereau, spoken by filmmaker Stuart Birnbaum (see the comments!)
  • Sleeve essay by Bouzereau

The Voice from the Screen short also appeared on Criterion’s 1988 LaserDisc of Singin’ in the Rain (1952) but is more complete (15:31) and in superior quality on two special edition releases of The Jazz Singer (1927). However, both edits omit several musical numbers from the full version (33:52). Check out these other related shorts:


Yesterday’s Witness

Perhaps the ultimate Blackmail extra is one which has yet to surface on home video. Yesterday’s Witness is a BBC historical documentary series consisting of 50-minute episodes that ran from 1969–1977, with reruns until 1979. One installment, “The Talkies Come to Britain” (1971), featured Hitch giving his only TV interview on the making of Blackmail. Other interviewees included Johns Longden and Stuart, who between them appeared in eight of Hitch’s films, beginning with his first, The Pleasure Garden. The programme was produced by Jane Oliver (1941–2013), who also conducted the interviews. It’s preserved safely in the BFI Archive and is currently viewable for free in the UK at any of the BFI Mediatheques (films). Due to potential licensing restrictions, this programme is only likely to see disc release on a region 2/B-locked and long overdue, definitive UK edition.

Alfred Hitchcock Collectors’ Guide: Blackmail, Part 1


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.

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J.J. Lendl
17th September 2019 06:38

Hi Brent, Thank you for your write up on the new Kino Blackmail Blu-ray. I emailed Kino about the vertical stretching issue on disc two: they tried to tell me there was no error and that the film’s aspect ratio is in fact 1.11:1, stating the 1.20:1 ratio on the case and the disc were typos on their part. When I sent them screengrabs of the stretching, and even pointed out that Tim Lucas in their own commentary track states the correct AR is 1.19:1, they suggested Mr. Lucas must have checked the same incorrect online source as the Kino… Read more »

John Fowler
John Fowler
22nd September 2019 09:43

Thanks for your comment on my Amazon review. I was inspired to re-measure the images (using centimeters instead of inches) and rewrite the relevant section: CONFUSION: There is a second unadvertised Blu-ray in this box, labelled “Blackmail 1:20:1 version”. Tim Lucas, in his detailed audio commentary, maintains that the silent version was originally framed in the 1.37:1 aspect ratio, while the sound version was in the 1.19:1 ratio. The two versions on Disc One did not seem all that different, so I got a measuring tape and measured both images on my 39” television. The sound and silent versions on… Read more »

Martin Larsen
Martin Larsen
19th February 2022 14:37

A solution for watching the sound version in the correct aspect ratio (or close to) using Kino’s Blu-ray: rip the 1.33:1 sound version (from disc 1) to an MKV file using for example MakeMKV. Play the file in VLC Player and adjust the aspect ratio to 16:10 (click Video -> Aspect Ratio -> 16:10). This will horizontally compress the image by the exact amount needed to achieve a 1.20:1 ratio. If you have a TV with a 16:10 option among the aspect ratio adjustments that should also do the trick during regular disc playback. But I don’t know if any… Read more »

Fr. Matthew Hardesty
Fr. Matthew Hardesty
21st June 2022 03:48

Does the Criterion laserdisc have both silent and sound versions? Does it have a good aspect ratio and score?

Fr. Matt
Fr. Matt
25th July 2022 04:13

Here is the audio of the laserdisc commentary, sound test, and Voice on the Screen!
https://1drv.ms/u/s!AlTkIYkabDLHgYdRijRbkQF79MWjTw?e=dZjIhS

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