Pros: Direction, Story, Cinematography, Anny Ondra
Cons: Needs to be better known
Alfred Hitchcock first worked in England for a good many years directing pictures both silent and talkie for film distributors like British International Pictures and was only discovered in the late 30s and imported to Hollywood by David O. Selznick to direct Daphne du Maurier's "Rebecca."
"Blackmail" was a late silent film and in fact was also adapted into a talkie form using the same film as the silent. Historically, it has pride of place as the first British talkie film. Interestingly, the lead actress, Anny Ondra, had a difficult time with the English so her lines were dubbed by another actress (Joan Barry).
Adapted from the Charles Bennett stage play by Alfred Hitchcock, who also directed, "Blackmail" tells the story of a winsome young blond girl (Anny Ondra) who lives with her parents and is wooed by a young police detective (John Longden).
The first scene shows cutting edge police work circa 1929. A Model T Ford truck speeds through the streets of London, beneath the tarp is a hubbub of activity as a wireless operator sits at a desk deciphering and tapping out Morse code in the first known "flying squad" - radio dispatched police. The telegraph operator writes the messages down and they are passed to the driver who speeds to the crime scene. They are shown apprehending a desperado who is caught in bed with his gun on the nightstand. The stalwart detectives step into the room between the desperado and his revolver and another suspect is apprehended.
We learn one of the square jawed heroes is our leading man, beau of beautiful young Alice (Anny Ondra) who is miffed that his job has kept her waiting a half hour for him. Each thing he says springs another complaint and finally she and he are bickering. He has to go back and fetch a glove she dropped so he gets a good look at it. This becomes a point later on.
A young man catches Alice's eye and she makes excuses and she and Frank split up. She hooks up with the other young man (Cyril Ritchard) who is an artist. She accompanies him to his studio and he eventually tries to rape her.
The scene is handled very deftly and nothing is shown except a thrashing curtain and first one hand reaches out wildly grasping for something, anything. It finds a knife next to a loaf of bread and disappears behind the curtain. Many seconds later, another hand droops out listlessly - the artist's - now lifeless. After many more seconds Alice emerges in a daze. She staggers around looking to clean the scene of any evidence of her and she does a good job, but she leaves the darn gloves. Yep, two of them. This opens the festivities for Act 2 - the investigation.
Guess who gets assigned to the murder investigation? Ding ding ding - if you said Frank the detective, give yourself a prize. Franks arrives after the other two detectives and starts to look around the crime scene and darned if he doesn't find one of the gloves. He quietly pockets it and goes to find Alice who had spent most of the night walking the streets in a daze only arriving home shortly before dawn and changing her clothes to report for work.
After Frank finds her and gets her off to the side for a private word, a new party injects himself into the scene by showing he has the other glove. This is the blackmailer of the title. I'll let you see how Act 3 plays out for yourself.
Hitchcock uses a lot of trademark visual techniques like the struggle to find the knife by the grasping hand. He would reprise that same tense moment in Dial M for Murder, years later. There is a lot of dwell time on beautiful Anny Ondra's face who mugs for the camera. This gives me the idea that Hitchcock's obsession with beautiful blonds started long before Grace Kelly.
The use of sound is also creative and Hitchcock uses it to show the subjective state of Alice's mind post killing. There is a very interesting speech where a gossip stands there gabbing away and in between the unintelligible drone there comes a rhythmic chant of knife - knife - knife ! A neon cocktail shaker advertising Gordon's Gin becomes a stabbing arm with a long dagger to Alice's eyes, also.
Besides these visual techniques, Hitchcock showed he was a master of photo montage at this early stage of his career, showing the police investigation and later the chase of the blackmailer very effectively with wordless montages.
The DVD is by Delta, a public domain publisher and is available also in some collections. The black and white film runs 84 minutes and is presented in 1.33:1 aspect. The film condition is pretty good both aurally and visually for its age.
"Blackmail" is an old film, but it builds suspense and is a good film to illustrate how innovative moviemaking was in 1929. There are lots of films made today that break no new ground beyond that done by Blackmail. I think that is a pretty good recommendation to see it, both for film buffs in general and Hitchcock fans in particular.