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

  • Detailing the restoration and quality home video releases of this groundbreaking film
  • Shot in two separate versions, it was 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
  • As usual with British Hitch, quality releases are outnumbered by bootlegs
  • For the first time anywhere, all licensed releases worldwide are detailed

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 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


The restoration

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 silent version was most recently restored 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

In 2008, Neil Brand composed a superlative full orchestra score (spoiler vid) and he adapted it for smaller ensemble for the restoration’s première on 6 July 2012 at the British Museum. That venue is, of course, where the film’s finale takes place and made for a brilliant night! More pics here and here. The performance, by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Timothy Brock, was recorded in multi-track form but there’s no movement as yet on actually licencing 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.


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 any number of very poor quality bootlegs, invariably of the sound version, that aren’t worth either your money or the time wasted watching them. Here are all of Blackmail’s official releases to date. Unless specified otherwise, all only include the sound version.

All pre-2019 releases with the silent version feature an older preserved transfer, Though it clearly hasn’t undergone a full restoration it’s in decent shape, though not nearly as good as the sound version. Both run for 85 minutes (82min w/4% PAL speed-up). It almost goes without saying that this silent’s longer running time as compared to the BFI restoration is due to a different transfer method and speed; both are equally complete. While perfectly decent, 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 is a squarer 1.19:1. This is due to it originally being cropped along the left frame edge to accommodate the optical soundtrack. However, slight variations either side are acceptable as long as the correct geometry is maintained.

For most fans, the German Arthaus and Spanish Universal DVDs are the best options available. The discs themselves are absolutely identical, with the only differences being in their sleeve and label art. They contain both the silent and sound versions with original English intertitles and audio respectively. The silent has an excellent Joachim Bärenz piano score, while extras are a brief but saucy sound test take and an image gallery. They also have Italian, German, Spanish and Portuguese subtitles, and are region 2, PAL format. Most DVDs come with a smattering of relevant extras but sadly, some that were previously released are still MIA…

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 has been 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 release, like their Murder!/Mary BD. 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 horizontally stretched to 1.33:1, noticeably distorting the image and making people look wider. 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. 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 stretched 1.12:1 AR, making people look too thin. See these comparisons:

Here’s a new trailer for Kino’s vertically stretched 1.12:1 sound transfer.

So Kino’s 2-disc 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. I can only recommend this insomuch as it’s the film’s only official US outing and offers the silent version in HD. The sole significant new extra is an engaging, thoroughly researched audio commentary by film historian Tim Lucas, though it unfortunately accompanies both sound versions. This is one of Kino’s first two releases in a slate of Hitchcocks that are owned by Studiocanal. The other, Murder!, has a substantial pre-release-announced omission from its extras, but they really made a mess of this one. It doesn’t bode well for the rest of them.

Edit: Kino refuse to admit there’s a problem and have 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 BD 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 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.

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, his stellar homegrown career is ignorantly written off as not much more than an “apprenticeship”, and unfairly overshadowed by the 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 released 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 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 outfit? The answer is simple: this release was ushered onto the market as cheaply as possible, and this new score is cheaper than 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. That’s just wishful thinking though, as it was recorded to sync with a completely different running speed than the restored version.

We can only go on hoping that Blackmail, along with the rest of the Hitchcock 9, eventually gets a UK release, done properly.


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 wasn’t available on physical home video in the US until 2019, and then from a different company, 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 in 2018 Kino succeeded Lionsgate as licensees for Studiocanal’s properties in the US. It’s a real shame that Criterion resolutely refuse to 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, and could establish a nice sideline in selling their spares as synchronisable MP3 files, as per alternative soundtracks of silent films such as Nosferatu.

  • 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.


Yesterday’s Witness

Perhaps the ultimate Blackmail extra is one which has yet to surface. Yesterday’s Witness was a BBC historical documentary series that ran from 1969–1977, consisting of 45-minute episodes. One of them, “The Talkies Come to Britain” (1971), featured Hitch giving his only TV interview on the making of the film. Other interviewees included John Longden and John Stuart, who between them appeared in eight of Hitch’s films, beginning with his first. The programme was produced by Jane Oliver (1941–2013), who also conducted the interviews. No copies of the series are held in the BFI Archive; does anyone know if this particular episode survives? If so, please leave a comment or drop me a line.

Alfred Hitchcock Collectors’ Guide: Blackmail, Part 1


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.

4 Comments

  1. J.J. Lendl
    September 17, 06:38 Reply
    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 employees who put 1.20:1 on the box and that he was mistaken. They stated with finality that Kino was standing by the release and no disc replacements would be made – I can return the item if I'm not satisfied. Pretty frustrating to be gaslighted by a home video company, so I was relieved that I wasn't the only one who spotted the error. It's a shame Kino has the US rights to these Hitchcock films. Fingers crossed for some UK announcements in the near future!
    • Brent Reid
      September 17, 07:01 Reply
      I'm sorry you're able to confirm my suspicions, J.J. Everyone is entitled to make mistakes, but lying to your customers and claiming both they and Kino's own expert contributors are in the wrong only destroys consumer confidence. A very poor state of affairs indeed.
  2. John Fowler
    September 22, 09:43 Reply
    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 Disc One each measure 48.5 centimeters high by 64 centimeters wide – this is the 1.32:1 aspect ratio, pretty much the standard for movies in the 1930s. Aspect ratio = width divided by height. Acceptable for the silent version, but much too wide for the sound version. If you look carefully, the sound version on Disc One appears to be stretched horizontally. There were a number of competing sound-on-film systems in 1929, each with a different picture size. The smallest was the RCA Photophone process. (not to be confused with the DeForest Phonofilm process which had other problems). The sound on early RCA Photophone was pretty good, but the image was cropped at the sides (almost square). Cropped because extra space was needed to provide room for the wide optical soundtrack. Tim Lucas (in the audio commentary) claims that RCA Photofilm image was 1.19:1 Kino-Lorber realized their mistake too late. Instead of recalling it, they included a second Blu-ray of the sound version labelled “Blackmail 1:20:1 version”. This second disc includes the same audio commentary and English SDH subtitles that were on disc one. BUT The image on Disc Two actually measures 48.5 centimeters high by 53.5 centimeters wide. This is the 1.10:1 aspect ratio. Three versions are therefore included: Silent = 1.32:1 on disc 1 (correct) Sound = 1.32:1 on disc 1 (too wide) Sound = 1.10:1 on disc 2 (too narrow). Assuming that Tim Lucas is correct, and the RCA Photofilm image should be 1.19:1, the image on Disc One is 11% too wide, the image on Disc Two is 8% too narrow. You get the choice of a chubby Anny Ondra on disc one or a skinny Anny Ondra on disc two. Unfortunate, but I wouldn’t be without the Kino Blu-ray: It’s far and away the best transfer of the silent version + the extras are generous.
    • Brent Reid
      September 22, 09:51 Reply
      You're welcome, John, and I'm glad you found it useful. The first Kino disc has some merit, due to its silent transfer, but the second does not. Unless someone's familiar with the software to correct its AR, my advice is to pick up the BD only very cheaply for the silent and watch the sound version via one of the recommended DVDs. With that version, the improvement is far less than that for the silent, as both BD and DVD have the same transfer.

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