Blackmail is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most iconic and yet lesser-seen films. Much like many of his British films, poor quality public domain versions have floated around on DVD and on the internet for years now, images grainy and soundtrack barely decipherable. Kino Lorber’s release of Blackmail on Blu-ray is a godsend, a chance to see one of a great director’s greatest early works in a properly restored form, including a version in the 1.20:1 aspect ratio.
Blackmail is most famous for being both Hitchcock’s last silent film, and his first talkie. The film was produced in silent and sound versions, both of which are included on Kino’s Blu-ray release. The silent version is shorter than the sound, but boasts a soundtrack from the Mont Alto Picture Orchestra. Both versions are worth seeing, but the sound version is perhaps the more complete one, at once a powerfully visual and aural film, incorporating sound and silent techniques in a way that prizes ambient noise, diegetic sound, and focalized repetition, but disprizes actual dialogue.
The film focuses on Alice White (Anny Ondra, dubbed by Joan Barry), a somewhat frivolous young woman who goes to meet her boyfriend, Frank (John Longden), a detective at Scotland Yard. Frank annoys Alice by making her wait too long, and the pair tease and bicker as they head for an evening out. Alice has also begun a flirtation with Crewe (Cyril Ritchard), a young artist, whom she meets again at the restaurant with Frank. After Frank departs in a huff, Alice leaves with Crewe. He persuades her to come up to his studio flat to look at his artwork and attempts to rape her. Alice saves herself by stabbing him multiple times with a bread knife, finally escaping. Traumatized and frightened, she wanders the streets until morning, returning home to learn that the murder has been discovered and Frank has been assigned to the case.
Blackmail is rightfully considered one of the best of Hitchcock’s British period, right up there with The Lady Vanishes, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and The 39 Steps. It and The Lodger bear the early hallmarks that will later become known as Hitchcockian, but that are embedded in German Expressionist techniques and themes (and reflected in other British films of the period). The subject matter, however, is one of three Hitchcock films that takes sexual assault as a central issue, the others being Marnie and Frenzy, the latter almost an update of Blackmail from the perspective of the rapist.
Blackmail focalizes most of the early narrative up to the murder’s discovery through Alice. Much of the first and second acts are taken up with the building of tension, as she and Frank bicker and argue to the point where he leaves. But in defiance of the time period, her flirtation with Crewe is not treated as an instance of a woman “asking for it,” or misleading a man into believing she wants sex. Alice wants to appear “up to date,” as Crewe at one point tells her; she remarks that she thinks she knows when she can trust a man, yet checks out Crewe’s window to be certain that a police officer is nearby. Even her fight with Frank is a case of her pushing things too far – she begs him not to leave, apologizing several times as he storms out. She likes Crewe, she enjoys Frank’s discomfiture, but she’s not really interested in sex with Crewe and has to be persuaded to come up to his apartment. Once there, she’s again persuaded, even as her discomfort grows when Crewe challenges her to change into a new outfit and model for him.
The eventual attack is treated as an act of violence, not sex or desire, and without ambiguity: over Alice’s loud protests, Crewe drags her out of frame. The attack itself takes place off screen, in a curtained bed, with Alice screaming “No!” until she’s able to grab the bread knife and stab him. The savagery of both Crewe’s attack and his murder—the police later say that he was stabbed five times and the jugular slashed—draws Alice’s terror and act of self-defense into focus. She is a victim, not a murderer, and the film treats her as such by compelling the viewer to identify with her perspective. She spends the rest of the film wandering in a daze, unable to explicitly state what happened and unable to again enforce her autonomy. Her one act of rebellion against male domination is to kill her rapist.
Technically, Blackmail is one of Hitchcock’s more brilliant and complex treatments of the interaction between sound and image. The opening sequence of a police arrest and raid is entirely silent—no effort is made to the dub the minimal dialogue, and the only diegetic noise is the shutting of the police wagon. The dialogue begins when the officers arrive back at Scotland Yard, but even then it’s is largely incidental, as the officers discuss what they’re going to do after work. Dialogue as unimportant carries through the rest of the film—the characters discuss non-essential banalities, debate which table to choose at a restaurant, and have minor conversations undercut by the needs of the images. This comes further to the fore during the sequence in Crewe’s apartment, prior to the attempted rape, when the dialogue itself undercuts the tension of the scene. As Crewe and Alice converse over minor details, the tension develops via image, including Alice’s body language and the imagery of Crewe in chiaroscuro, as the viewer becomes aware of Alice’s danger and discomfort.
The most prominent uses of sound, then, is in its absence and outside of dialogue qua dialogue. Crewe sings “Miss Up-to-Date,” imposing a narrative on Alice and her desires; the word “knife” is repeated over and over by a gossiping neighbor, and emphasized on the soundtrack over the other spoken dialogue. The use of sound in Blackmail doesn’t take second place to the image, but the film defies expectations by making the actual conversations relatively banal and inessential, and the sounds themselves important.
At a runtime of barely an hour and a half, Blackmail incorporates some of Hitchcock’s most complex, nastiest themes, digging deep into the psychological nature of trauma and drawing justice, personal autonomy, gendered expectations, and misogyny into question. It powerfully identifies with a female victim—not the first nor the last in Hitchcock’s oeuvre—but renders her not as a passive object, but someone who is made passive and objectified by the male characters and the use of the camera itself. Alice is consistently imposed upon, shaped by male narratives and male gazes, until she finds her one moment of personal autonomy in self-defense and murder. Her needs are again rendered mute—she speaks very little during the rest of the film—by the male characters, even as she remains the focus of the narrative and the sole sympathetic character, with whom the audience continues to identify.
Kino Lorber has finally given Blackmail the treatment and attention it deserves. Buy it, watch it, and savor the brilliance of a great film.