Thursday, February 02, 2006

Film Review - Blackmail (1929)

The vibrantly beautiful Anny Ondra, yet another spinster in the long line of Hitchcock blondes, is spectacularly breathtaking. The aura of elegance and innocence which emanates from her gauzy figure make her downward spiral into guilt all the more grueling to watch. Due to her heavy Czech accent, an example of which can be viewed in sound test Hitchcock made with the young actress that has now been archived by the American Film Institute, she never actually speaks a word in the film. Her dialogue instead is voiced by British actress Joan Barry. It is however the scenes in which she expresses no dialogue whatsoever that are perhaps the most memorable. The impression of fear, horror, shock, and self-resentment in Alice’s eyes moments after she kills Cyril Ritchard is a perfect example of this. This in turn is followed up with the more famous ‘knife’ scene in which Hitchcock uses a dialogue sequence involving a caustic British neighbor repeatedly uttering the word ‘knife’, drilling it not only in our minds but Alice’s as well until she can stand it no more and throws the bread-knife she is holding out of her hand in shock. It is this scene alone which makes the sound-version of Blackmail all the more memorable then its silent counterpart.

Sadly, whether it is due to the inferior sound technology of the time or her own voice, Joan Barry’s overlay of Alice’s lines of dialogue are too squeaky and high-pitched. They don’t quite match up with Ondra’s mouthing of her lines, with the exception of one or two scenes. This, again, is no fault of Hitchcock who at the time of casting Czech actress Anny Ondra was making a silent picture. Since he was close friends with the actress, he couldn’t bear to let her go once British International Pictures decided to make Blackmail a ‘talkie’, so he came up with the best solution he could think of that wouldn’t involve firing Miss Ondra. It’s a mixed bag. It works in some respects, but on the other hand it doesn’t in others.

Cyril Ritchard is particularly captivating as the villain of the picture. This is viewed as one of Hitchcock’s famous ‘against type’ casting decisions which works splendidly. Upon first meeting the man, audiences, like Alice, never suspect him of being a malefactor. However, the longer Alice remains in his apartment, the more we, along with her, develop a growing suspicion of his character until it climaxes with him forcefully grabbing her and advancing himself on her.

Blackmail contains at least two especially notable ‘slight of hand’ moments cultivated by Alfred Hitchcock. First, the film contains one of the director’s more memorable cameos in which a boy on a subway train pulls the hat of the director over his head, leading Hitchcock to berate the boy and his family. The boy confronts the man again, this time leaving the two engaged in a staring contest until the scene ends. Although the witty scene does end rather abruptly, perhaps even a bit clumsily, the levity of the moment works nonetheless. The other fleeting gesture of Hitchcock’s is considered to be his lasting tribute to the silent picture-era which, now with the invention of ‘talkies’, he was now embarking from in his filmmaking career. Right before Clew is about to advance on Alice, a shadow is imposed on Ritchard’s face making it appear as though he had a curly mustache much in the same vein as the clichéd villains of the silent films.

The rape scene in particular is especially mesmerizing. Nothing is shown however but not because of government censors. The lack of visual imagery is of Hitchcock’s own volition. The eerily penetrating silence of the moment and what is not seen, leaving the diabolical deed to the device of our own imagination, is what makes this scene all the more fascinating to watch.

Though certainly engaging to a point, Blackmail, as it winds down towards its conclusion, does become rather predictable. The ending however is not so much the problem. Frankly this ending is a far superior one to the original Hitchcock developed which would have had Alice, ridden with guilt, turning herself in. Instead Alice is made to rot with guilt, possibly for the rest of her miserable life. A more diabolical ending for Mr. Hitchcock then one would expect so early in his career. Audiences are made to confront the fact that Alice would have been better off having confessed to the murder and conceivably gotten off on the argument that she was acting in self-defense, which she was, rather then relying on Frank to cover it up for her and in the process causing the death of another man, whether he deserved it or not. Blackmail hits upon a common theme of Hitchcock’s films; this of course is the fear police invoke in the mindset of the general public and why it is so hard for people to confess to a crime even if they were acting in good judgment.

Although the ending to the film suggests that Alice is off the hook and the now deceased blackmailer has been accused of the murder, the fleeting image of Crew’s last painting, a clown-like figure laughing mockingly, leaves one to assume that Alice’s conscience will never be freed of the burden of her guilt. If Frank and Alice do end up getting married and live the rest of their lives together, it is understandable to suspect that it will not be a happy life in part to these events. However, on the other hand, it is just sensible to suggest that they will never end up together.

My Rating: **** ½ out of 5 (Grade: A-)