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 the 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: 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

Following its initial release, the silent version went unseen for decades and was all but forgotten. Now though, they’re both easily available 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 Polish-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!

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

Cyril Ritchard gets more than fresh with Anny Ondra

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)

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

The 2012 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 2012 re-première at the British Museum. A brilliant night! More pics here and here.

“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 accomodate 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. 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.

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

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

Blackmail was based on an eponymous play by Charles Bennett, who became one of Hitch’s most significant collaborators. Having adapted his play for the films’s script, he went on to write the first five of Hitch’s golden run of six thrillers, commencing with The Man Who Knew Too Much. Bennett had a long and accomplished career as playwright, stage director and screenwriter. In the latter guise, he penned many significant films from 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 the biggest homegrown star of the 1930s. Bennet also  directed one film himself, the Hitch-produced Lord Camber’s Ladies (1932).

The silent and sound Blackmails have some plot variances, but both deviate from the source text in many respects, including their shared denouement itself 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 in British Hitchcock (1999), “Her Blackmail book is an extraordinary muddling-together of silent film, sound film and stage original.”

Sticking with related books, Britain’s first talkie and its silent counterpart get the twice-over in BFI Film Classics: Blackmail (1993) by Tom Ryall.

BFI video: The Cutting Room (3min) w/spoilers

Blackmail: A Silent Film Review at Movies Silently

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

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.”
  • The Voice on 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
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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