Blackmail (1929 film)
theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Alfred Hitchcock|
|Produced by||John Maxwell|
|Based on||Blackmail (play)
by Charles Bennett
|Music by||Jimmy Campbell and Reg Connelly|
|Cinematography||Jack E. Cox|
|Editing by||Emile de Ruelle|
|Running time||84 minutes
(6740 ft silent, 7136 ft sound)
Blackmail is a 1929 British thriller drama film directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Anny Ondra, John Longden, and Cyril Ritchard. Based on the play Blackmail by Charles Bennett, the film is about the daughter of a London shopkeeper whose boyfriend, a Scotland Yard detective, seems more interested in police work than in her. The woman secretly arranged to meet another man and agrees to go to see his studio, where the stranger tries to rape her. The woman defends herself and kills the attacker with a bread knife. Her boyfriend is assigned to investigate and soon determines that his girlfriend is the killer.
After starting production as a silent film, British International Pictures decided to convert Blackmail into a sound film during filming. A silent version was released for theaters not equipped for sound (at 6740 feet), with the sound version (7136 feet) released at the same time. The silent version still exists in the British Film Institute collection.
Scotland Yard Detective Frank Webber (John Longden) escorts his girlfriend Alice White (Anny Ondra) to a tea house. They have an argument and Frank storms out. While reconsidering his action, he sees Alice leave with Mr. Crewe (Cyril Ritchard), a painter whom she had earlier agreed to meet.
Crewe persuades a reluctant Alice into coming up to see his studio. Crewe sings and plays "Miss Up-to-Date" on the piano, and she admires a painting of a laughing clown. He steals a kiss, then attempts to rape her. In desperation, Alice grabs a nearby bread knife and stabs him to death. She punches a hole in the painting of the clown, then leaves after attempting to remove any evidence of her presence in the flat, but leaves her gloves behind. She walks the streets of London all night in a daze.
The next day, Frank is assigned to the case and finds one of the gloves. He realizes it belongs to Alice after he recognizes the dead man, and conceals it from his superior. He goes to speak with Alice at her father's tobacco shop. Tracy (Donald Calthrop), the model for the clown, saw Alice go up to Crewe's flat. He attempts to blackmail the couple, showing that he has the other glove. Frank tells Tracy his attempt will fail, and sends for policemen.
The tension mounts. When the police arrive, Tracy's nerve finally breaks, as he has a criminal record. He flees. When he is spotted, he seeks refuge in the British Museum. During the pursuit, he climbs down a rope or chain beside an enormous stone statue of a head. Eventually, he clambers onto the domed roof of the British Museum Reading Room and dies after falling through a glass panel.
Unaware of this, Alice feels compelled to give herself up and goes to New Scotland Yard. She sees the Chief Inspector, but before she can bring herself to confess, the inspector receives a telephone call and asks Frank to deal with Alice. As they leave, Crewe's painting of the laughing clown is carried past them.
The film began production as a silent film. To cash in on the new popularity of talkies, the film's producer, John Maxwell of British International Pictures, gave Hitchcock the go-ahead to film a portion of the movie in sound. Hitchcock thought the idea absurd and surreptitiously filmed almost the entire feature in sound (the opening 6 and a half minutes of the sound version are in silent with musical accompaniment), along with a silent version for theatres not yet equipped for talking pictures.
Blackmail, marketed as one of Britain's earliest "all-talkie" feature films, was recorded in the RCA Photophone sound-on-film process. (The first U.S. all-talking film, Lights of New York, was released in July 1928 by Warner Brothers.)
Lead actress Anny Ondra was raised in Prague and had a heavy Czech accent that was felt unsuitable for the film. Sound was in its infancy at the time and it was impossible to post-dub Ondra's voice. Rather than replace her and re-shoot her portions of the film, actress Joan Barry was hired to actually speak the dialogue off-camera while Anny lip-synched them for the film. This makes Ondra's performance seem slightly awkward.
Ondra's career in the UK was hurt by sound. She returned to Germany and retired from films after making a few additional movies and marrying boxer Max Schmeling in 1933. However, an amusing test film has survived of Hitchcock "interviewing" Ondra, in which the director teases the actress and asks her some personal questions.
Hitchcock used several elements that would become Hitchcock "trademarks" including a beautiful blonde in peril and a famous landmark in the finale. Without informing the producers, Hitchcock used the Schüfftan process to film the scenes in the Reading Room of the British Museum since the light levels were too low for normal filming.
The film was a critical and commercial hit. The sound was praised as inventive. A completed silent version of Blackmail was released in 1929 shortly after the talkie version hit theaters. The silent version of Blackmail actually ran longer in theaters and proved more popular, largely because most theaters in Britain were not yet equipped for sound. Despite the popularity of the silent version, history best remembers the landmark talkie version of Blackmail. It is the version now generally available although some critics consider the silent version superior. Alfred Hitchcock filmed the silent version with Sam Livesey as the Chief Inspector and the sound version with Harvey Braban in the same role.
Hitchcock's cameo 
Alfred Hitchcock's cameo, a signature occurrence in many of Hitchcock's films, shows him being bothered by a small boy as he reads a book on the London Underground. The small boy was Jacque Carter. This is probably the lengthiest of Hitchcock's cameo appearances in his film career, appearing from 10 min. 24 sec to 10 min. 44 sec. As the director became better-known to audiences, especially when he appeared as the host of his own television series, he dramatically shortened his on-screen appearances.
Role in UK film history 
Earlier British sound films include:
- The Gentleman, a short film in the Phonofilm sound-on-film process, was an excerpt of Nine O'Clock Revue, directed by William J. Elliott, and released in the UK in June 1925;
- The part-talking The Clue of the New Pin, based on the novel by Edgar Wallace, and filmed in British Phototone, a sound-on-disc system using 12-inch discs;
- The Crimson Circle, a UK-German silent film, also based on a Wallace novel, dubbed after the fact with the Phonofilm sound-on-film process;
- Black Waters, a British all-talkie production shot in the US and released on 6 April 1929.
In March 1929, Pin and Circle were trade-shown at the same screening for film exhibitors in London.
The film was voted the best British movie of 1929.
- SilentEra entry
- BFI Database entry
- BFI Database entry
- Rob White, Edward Buscombe British Film Institute film classics, Volume 1 Taylor & Francis, 2003
- Richard Allen, S. Ishii-Gonzalès Hitchcock: past and future Routledge, 2004
- St. Pierre, Paul Matthew Music hall mimesis in British film, 1895-1960: on the halls on the screen p.79. Associated University Presse, 2009
- Black Waters at IMDB
- ""SUNSHINE SUSIE".". The Daily News (Perth, WA : 1882 - 1950) (Perth, WA: National Library of Australia). 19 August 1933. p. 19 Edition: HOME EDITION. Retrieved 4 March 2013.
- Ryall, Tom, Blackmail (London: British Film Institute, 1993)
- Blackmail at the Internet Movie Database
- Blackmail at Rotten Tomatoes
- Blackmail at the TCM Movie Database
- Blackmail at SilentEra
- Blackmail at BFI Database
- Blackmail at AllRovi
- Blackmail at the British Film Institute's Screenonline
- Blackmail at Eyegate Gallery
- Blackmail Sound Test at YouTube
- Copyright Catalog at Library of Congress; select "Document number" and type "V8003P432"