The era of talking pictures arrived while Alfred Hitchcock was working on his crime thriller, Blackmail, in 1929. The film had already been shot as a silent feature but during post-production the studio asked the director to convert it to partial sound so it could be marketed as a talking picture. Hitchcock, as was his way, had his own ideas. He began to tinker; scenes were reshot with dialogue, additional scenes with dialogue were added. In the end, Hitchcock had two films - his and Britain's much touted "first full length all talkie film" - and the original silent version. In 1929, most theaters in Britain were not equipped for sound, so it was the silent Blackmail that was for a long time the most widely seen and popular of the two films.
One night last summer, the California Film Institute presented a special screening of a 35 mm British Film Institute archive print of the silent version of Blackmail at a theater near me. Accompanying the film with an original score was the Alloy Orchestra, one of the world's foremost silent film orchestras. In attendance was an enthusiastic sold-out crowd.
|Alfred Hitchcock and Anny Ondra|
Blackmail was Hitchcock's second film of the thriller genre; the first wasThe Lodger (1927), the picture that first brought him widespread acclaim. Blackmail, a film that critic and Hitchcock author/scholar David Sterritt declared "has a strong claim to being his first masterpiece," foreshadows Hitchcock's later work in many ways. Visually sophisticated and gimlet-eyed in its observation of human nature and motives, it includes a delicately lovely woman in grave danger (who spends much of the film as if in a daze) and a grisly murder; the climactic chase scene at a landmark, the British Museum, is the first of such Hitchcock signature set-pieces...and there is no shortage of moral ambiguity.
The story, which Hitchcock conceived as a conflict between love and duty, centers on a middle-class young Londoner, Alice White. Alice lives with her parents, helps out at their tobacconist's shop and is dating a straight-arrow Scotland Yard detective. After the pair has a spat over dinner, she recklessly goes off with an artist/Casanova and ends up involved in a killing (see clip below); as a result her beau is drawn into the investigation - and a blackmail plot.
Blackmail stars Anny Ondra as Alice, John Longden as her detective boyfriend, Cyril Ritchard as the artist and Donald Calthrop as Tracy, the not-so-innocent innocent man. The plot is well constructed, the action is tight and Hitchcock's mastery of suspense is evident throughout.
Though clever and fast-paced, Blackmail is a film of some depth and darkness. Ultimately, the integrity of both central characters is permanently compromised. Though a messy situation is conveniently resolved, the truth comes out between the girl and her man and the film's ending implies an uncertain and possibly bleak future for the two who now share a terrible knowledge and guilt.
The Alloy Orchestra artfully accented this screening of Blackmail, adding dimension and a sense of immediacy to the experience. However...the group is not exactly an "orchestra" but three musicians whose instruments include keyboards, accordion, clarinet, musical saw and a famous "rack of junk." A combination of percussion and electronics allows them to create an array of sounds and effects. The Alloy Orchestra has performed worldwide - for major film festivals, AMPAS and even at the Louvre.
|The Alloy Orchestra|
I had not seen the sound version of Blackmail when I viewed the silent, but have since. I was a little surprised to discover that I much preferred the silent version. There are, perhaps, some technical reasons for this (rudimentary sound, the awkwardness of English actress Joan Barry voicing Czech-born star Anny Ondra's lines as Ondra performed). What struck me, though, was that the plot was rendered less ambiguous by the addition of spoken dialogue that was more explicit than the intertitles had been.