Alfred Hitchcock Collectors’ Guide: Blackmail (1929)

  • Britain’s first talkie saw off several part-silent pretenders and made film history
  • 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
  • It was the clearest indication yet of the direction his future career would take
  • Hitchcock was keen to push the artistic boundaries of the latest technology

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.

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

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

Kine Weekly trade magazine ad


Contents


The play

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. Bennett also co-wrote the screenplay for Hitch’s second Hollywood film, Foreign Correspondent (1940), for which he received an Academy Award nomination. He 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. Though Hitch himself adapted Bennett’s play, 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.

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 different 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 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.


Production

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 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.

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

Cyril Ritchard bites off more than he can chew with Anny Ondra

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 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 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 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. Then there are scores of 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

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

Anny holds a spoiler. 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 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.” – 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.

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

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 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 yet 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 consensus 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)

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 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, claimed to have suggested the latter’s renowned chase ending.

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?

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


Resources

Alfred Hitchcock Collectors’ Guide: Blackmail, Part 2

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

It’s all just fun and games: Alfred Hitchcock, Donald Calthrop, John Longden and Anny Ondra on the set of Blackmail


The Informer (1929)

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 was released later the same year, also in silent and sound versions, both were lovingly restored and included here. It’s a film that also 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. Both its silent and sound versions have been beautifully restored and complement each other perfectly.

Lars Hansen in The Informer (1929) UK BFI Blu-ray

Lars Hansen in The Informer; UK BFI Blu-ray


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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