Blackmail was both Hitchcock’s final silent picture and his first to utilise sound. Two versions of the film were made, with the decision to convert the silent feature into a talkie made early enough in the production process of the former to allow Hitch the opportunity to craft dialogue scenes that took it beyond the bet-hedging fashion for ‘part-talkies’ of the time. The silent version represents the pinnacle of the director’s achievements up to that point, and it’d be a few more years into his full adoption of the new-fangled sound technology before he’d equal his achievements here.
If the addition of sound offered opportunities for Hitchcock to experiment with the possibilities it offered, they remain either technical exercises neatly executed (a breakfast table conversation in which the paranoid murderess picks out only the word ‘knife’ has a killer punchline) or staid pauses for dialogue that unnecessarily expand upon the expositional intertitles of the silent version. That said, there are a few choice character beats, mostly indebted to Phyllis Konstam as the ‘Gossiping Neighbour’, responsible for the devilishly Hitchcockian insinuation that murder by a brick to the head evokes Britishness better than a knife ever could.
Comparing the two versions back to back quickly proves the silent definitive. The most effective sequences in the talkie are those unreliant on dialogue, ironically gaining one tension-building beat over the earlier version by playing it entirely without sound. Where the silent film underscores the murder scene, the talkie plays it silent, even if the menacing perversity of its build-up is here fudged by Cyril Ritchard taking to the piano to warble a couple of ditties.
The opening montage shared by both cuts represents a masterclass in visual and narrative efficiency, the shifts in perspective between characters in the opening half hour keeping us on our toes, camera placement inviting the viewer’s voyeuristic complicity a game he’d continue to play throughout his career. Echoes of images abound; the outstretched arm of the murder victim seen in that of a homeless man as Anny Ondra walks through a deserted Trafalgar Square; a stabbing arm painted in neon above Piccadilly Circus. The chase through the British Museum that ends in the death of an innocent man is one of the director’s most iconic sequences from the period, but it’s the epilogue that follows which truly shows Hitch at his most impish and ironic; a portrait taken from the crime scene slicing through the relieved laughter of a couple who’ve literally just gotten away with murder.
Blackmail - 1929 - United Kingdom - 85 mins - Alfred Hitchcock