Sunday, November 2, 2014

Blackmail (1929)

Yesterday evening marked the start of the Toronto Silent Film Festival’s Hitchcock 9 screening series—an event that will be executed over several weeks. Could you, by chance, be unfamiliar with the Hitchcock 9? You are not alone.

Alfred Hitchcock directed ten silent films at the beginning of his career, nine of which survive. They vary in genre, theme and style, and they are little known today—in part because they are silent, but also because they’ve long been available, on video, in prints of such a quality that Hitchcock could’ve sued for vandalism.

But things are looking up. In 2012, the British Film Institute (BFI) completed restorations of all nine silents, and by all accounts they look gorgeous. I can vouch for only one so far: the opening film of TSFF’s series: Blackmail.

Filmed at the close of the silent era in the West, Blackmail exists in both a silent and sound version, and the former, in the minds of many, is superior. Having not seen the talkie, I can’t speak to that. What interested me more was the film’s almost prototypical Hitchcock-feel. While The Lodger (1927) is typically held to be the most Hitchcock-like of the nine silents, I say it’s Blackmail—the slighter of the two films, but at the same time, the more familiar.

Blackmail stars Anna Ondra and John Longden as Alice and Frank: a young couple dating (it seems) seriously in contemporary London. He’s a detective with Scotland Yard; she works in her father’s shop. He’s very busy, and she’s increasingly bored with his busy-ness. One night, after an argument with Frank, Alice makes off with a charming artist. That artist brings her to his studio in the dead of night and attempts to rape her—Alice, however, proves adept with a butcher knife and is the only one who leaves the studio alive.

That thrust of the knife turns effervescent Alice into the haunted, enclosed figure she’ll remain for the rest of the film. Frank, assigned to the case, soon discovers a clue connecting her to the murder, which he suppresses. And soon after that, a third man, Mr. Tracy (Donald Calthrop) appears, producing evidence of his own against Alice and demanding to be paid for his silence. He has a serious criminal record.

Alice cheats; Frank obstructs an investigation; Tracy blackmails—three figures, each one guilty of something. If any one of them talks to the authorities, the other two are doomed. Here is a recipe for delicious collusion—or conniving—between people whose distrust of one another will only grow with time and pressure. Who will crack first? And would doing so be a sign of weakness, or strength?

Alas, we get little time to enjoy this dynamic. Blackmail’s juicy middle dries up much too soon, moving to an extended chase sequence that causes us to pity the unpleasant Mr. Tracy. It’s a fine scene, actually; but it solves several problems too quickly.

The most entertaining thing about Blackmail today—certainly what a lot of audience members were talking about afterward—are its trademark Hitchcock touches. Even if you’re not a big fan, the man’s work is so famous that you’ll spot things and begin cataloguing them in your mind.

In Alice we have an imperiled blonde, though not a particularly icy one. In Scotland Yard we have a persecuting body that does good work, but plays the antagonist nonetheless, since we identify with those fleeing it. In Frank we have an authority figure whose personal and professional duties mutually oppose—a simplistic version of the dilemma Scottie Ferguson would face, decades later. Blackmail looks like a later Hitchcock film too: Alice’s trip to the artist’s studio involves a flight of stairs, the height of which is first exaggerated, then emphasized, to build suspense. Tracy’s attempt to escape the cops takes him into the British Museum, a famous building, and culminates in a standoff high atop it. And of course, there is the director’s cameo—one of his longest—as a fussy bus passenger bothered by a curious kid.

Live accompaniment was provided last night by Laura Silberberg, who evoked quite ably the perpetually choked expression Alice wears, post-crime. She also kept things light when the film demanded it—as in one sequence where Alice’s parents blandly comment on the murder and the dangers of knives in general, unaware of the effect this is having on their daughter. I expect this scene works better with sound, but Laura, at least, found the right tone on her keyboard.

We also enjoyed a brief introductory talk by local arts and media critic and journalist, Geoff Pevere, who told us the rather interesting story of how Blackmail got made.

The Toronto Silent Film Festival’s Hitchcock 9 screenings continue on selected days, through to the middle of November.

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