Thursday, May 8, 2008

Hitchcock talks!

Earlier this week, TCM showed Alfred Hitchcock's 1929 movie Blackmail; having had other things to write about, though, I haven't gotten around to blogging about it until today. It was Hitchcock's first talking picture, and indeed British cinema's first talkie. It shows, and therein lie a few tales.

It's said that Blackmail was originally supposed to be a silent movie, but part of the way through the filming, the decision was made to release it as a talkie. The opening sequence, of Scotland Yard detectives going about their business, had apparently already been filmed, and this scene seems to have made it into the film almost unchanged, save for the adding of a score. The first six or seven minutes of the movie have no dialogue whatsoever, and then the first bit of dialogue we do hear is in a shot of two detectives walking down a hall, taken from the back. Obviously, the dialogue could have been added later if the need arose.

Then there's the lead actress, Anny Ondra. It turned out that she had a heavy German accent, making her voice very difficult to understand. (Then again, some Americans would argue that certain British accents are unintelligible....) So, as can be seen in Singing In the Rain, another actress had to be brought in to dub over all of Ondra's lines. It's quite noticeable in certain scenes.

Hitchcock was also inventive in using the new sound technology to drive the plot. Alice White, the main character, stabs and kills an artist in self-defense when he tries to rape her. (This is another thing which dates this movie: this could never have been shown in America after the introduction of the Production Code. More importantly, however, this scene makes Blackmail unsuitable for younger viewers, even though during the actual attack, we only see two forearms.) Later, Alice is at breakfast with her family, and the bread knife drives her nuts. Worse, everybody else is talking, and the only word we hear, from Alice's perspective, is "Knife!"

Hitchcock hadn't fully hit his stride, however, and having to cater to the new sound technology also hurt him. Blackmail is enjoyable enough, but I don't think it's quite as artistic, or as well-told a story, as his earlier silent The Lodger. However, the signs of the Hitchcock style are already well in evidence, especially during the climax, which is set in and atop the British Museum, and presages such later Hitchcock works as Saboteur and North by Northwest.

If you're a fan of early talkies and pre-Codes, I can highly recommend Blackmail. By the same token, if you're already a fan of Hitchcock's work, this is well worth adding to the list of Hitchcock films you've seen. However, if you're new to Hitchcock, I can think of quite a few other movies worth seeing first, including the above-mentioned Saboteur and North by Northwest, both of which are available on DVD.

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