Alfred Hitchcock Collectors’ Guide: Blackmail (1929)

  • The Master’s first full-length sound film and its silent counterpart get the twice-over
  • They were simultaneously shot and released on the cusp of the talkie revolution
  • Hitchcock was keen to push the artistic boundaries of the latest technology
  • Both versions were recently restored as part of the Hitchcock 9 project
  • The previous transfers of both variants are still scarce on home video
  • Detailing every official, high quality home video release to date

Note: this is one of 50-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.

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 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 are plenty 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.

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

Kine Weekly trade magazine ad

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. Interestingly though, the silent version actually incorporates some 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 expository 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 part-talkies like The Jazz Singer (1927), Lonesome (1928) and Show Boat (1929), not to mention scores of similar cash-in sound reissues of silents 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 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? Film historian John Belton makes the complications of categorising transitional silent-sound era films abundantly clear in his excellent, insightful essay:

Awkward Transitions: Hitchcock’s Blackmail and the Dynamics of Early Sound

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

UK lobby card

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 before Blackmail, but not so with Kitty’s opportunistic sound version:

Kitty, directed by Hitchcock’s contemporary and ex-colleage 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 illutrate the crudities of that historical moment.” – English Hitchcock (1999) by Charles Barr

Incidentally, Saville shot those last two reels 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.

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

Cyril Ritchard gets more than fresh with Anny Ondra

Following its initial release, the silent version went unseen for decades and was all but forgotten. Now though, they can both easily be 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‘s native Czech accent was adjudged too strong, though it obviously hadn’t been an impediment in hers and Hitch’s previous silent film, The Manxman. This time, 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 with a perfectly intelligible accent. 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 first, by beating the likes of Anna Christie and The Blue Angel in toplining an exotically-voiced female lead!

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 Blackmail‘s sound version. The modern concensus is it would have been preferable had they simply tweaked the script to give her character a foreign back story. 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.

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

Anny Ondra holds a spoiler. Good girl. She’s impossibily spotless, considering her actual method, only revealed in the sound version. Clue: it’s much worse than you think.

The BFI’s restoration of the silent version was transferred at 24fps (75min), but neither that nor the restored sound version have yet been released. In 2008, Neil Brand composed a superlative full orchestra score (spoiler vid) and it was adapted for a smaller ensemble for the 6 July 2012 re-première at the British Museum. A brilliant night! More pics here and here. Neil’s score has only been performed live and not properly recorded as yet.

“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

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

Though they clearly haven’t undergone a full restoration, the previous transfers are in good shape and both run for 82min. While perfectly decent, the silent version 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 is a squarer 1.11:1. This is due to it being cropped along the left frame edge to accommodate the optical soundtrack. Unless specified otherwise, all releases are only of the sound version.

Apart from the US HD digital release of the sound version, the German Arthaus and Spanish Universal DVDs are currently the best options available – although there’s more to come. The discs themselves are all absolutely identical, with the only differences being in their packaging. They contain both the silent and sound versions of the film, with original English intertitles and audio respectively. The silent version has an excellent Joachim Bärenz piano score. Extras are the brief but saucy sound test take, also in English, and a picture gallery. They also have Italian, German, Spanish and Portuguese subtitles, and are region 2, PAL format. Sadly, some previously released extras are still MIA.

Note: In August 2019, Kino are set to release both BFI Blackmail restorations on Blu-ray and DVD but the silent will not feature Neil Brand’s new score. Criminal.

Anny Ondra in Blackmail (1929, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)Blackmail was based on an eponymous play by Charles Bennett, who adapted his own work for the film’s script. He would soon go on to became one of Hitch’s most significant collaborators, writing the first five of his golden run of six thrillers, commencing with The Man Who Knew Too Much. He also co-wrote the screenplay for Hitch’s second Hollywood film, Foreign Correspondent (1940). Bennett would have a particularly long and accomplished career as playwright, stage director and screenwriter. In the latter guise, he also penned many major films of the 1920s–1960s, both in his native England and the US. His 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. Bennet also  directed one film himself, the Hitch-produced Lord Camber’s Ladies (1932).

Blackmail novelisation, US edition (World Wide Publishing Co., NY, 1929)

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

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 diffferent to that of the play  but you’ll get no spoilers from me! The play was also published, though it’s now very rare, as is the film novelisation, the first of many such tie-ins for a Hitchcock release. The novel was co-written by Bennett and Ruth Alexander; she produced many such books, including one for The Man Who Knew Too Much. According to Charles Barr, again writing in English Hitchcock, “Her Blackmail book is an extraordinary muddling-together of silent film, sound film and stage original.” As explained elsewhere, Barr’s own book is the definitive account of Hitch’s British career and goes into extraordinary, fascinating depth on Blackmail, devoting what is by far its longest chapter to both versions. Sticking with related books, Britain’s first talkie and its silent counterpart also get the twice-over in BFI Film Classics: Blackmail (1993) by Tom Ryall.

Fans of Blackmail looking for a similar comparison could do a lot worse than pick up the UK BFI or US Kino releases of The Informer (1929). It’s a film that treads not-too dissimilar territory, being a crime thriller with a plot driven by the female part of a love triangle on the wrong side of the law. Both its silent and sound versions have been beautifully restored and complement each other perfectly.

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. As the film hasn’t been available on physical home video in the US since, its 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 Lionsgate currently license Studiocanal’s properties in the US.

  • Sound Test (42sec) with Hitchcock and Anny Ondra
  • Directing the Kiss (33sec) 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 excerpt (10min)
  • Audio commentary with Blackmail (1928) playwright and screenwriter Charles Bennett (still sharp at the then age of 91!), w/additional material written by filmmaker/historian Laurent Bouzereau and spoken by filmmaker Stuart Birnbaum
  • Essay by Laurent Bouzereau

The Voice from the Screen short also appears in restored form on several special edition releases of The Jazz Singer, alongside a host of other shorts and extras detailing the earliest years of the sound era.

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

L-R: Alfred Hitchcock, Donald Calthrop, John Longden and Anny Ondra on the set of Blackmail

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


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