Sunday, February 6, 2011

At the Cinema: Hitch's BLACKMAIL (1929)

The AFI Silver is doing a Hitchcock series and I've already bought tickets for about seven shows. Today's was 1929's BLACKMAIL.

They're actually showing two different versions of was shot in silent format but in the middle of filming sound technology became available and Hitch quickly reshot most of it in sound. So now there's silent and sound versions available, and they'll be showing the silent version with an orchestra next month.

The sound version of BLACKMAIL plays with the audience at first. It opens with a scene of London police nabbing a criminal in his apartment, and the only thing you hear is music and occasional sound effects. People speak but no dialogue is heard. It's as if Hitch was slowly getting the audience used to the fact that this was a sound movie...before you hear any dialogue.

BLACKMAIL is the story of Alice (Anny Ondra), a shopkeeper's daughter who's dating policeman Frank (John Longden). They go out one evening but Alice is difficult and keeps changing her mind; it turns out that she's already arranged to meet someone else, an artist played by Cyril Ritchard. Frank gets fed up with her and storms out, but then turns back to see her leaving with another man.

Alice is coaxed up to the artist's apartment, where they indulge in a series of flirtations. Alice dresses up in one of his model's costumes, and he makes a play for her, which has her suddenly thinking twice about what she's doing. He tries to rape her...and she stabs him in self-defense. She runs out, traumatized and numb, but is seen by a shadowy figure.

The next day, Frank is at the scene and not only recognizes the man but finds one of Alice's gloves. He goes to Alice and tries to get her to talk, when in strolls Tracy, a petty criminal who was in the apartment as well and has Alice's other glove, and now proposes blackmail...

BLACKMAIL was apparently adapted from a play and it shows for the first three quarters. The action is bound to a couple of sets and at times seems almost claustrophobic. It's not until toward the end when Tracy panics and leads the coppers on a merry chase through the British Museum that things really pick up. And here you can see the start of Hitch's use of large-scale landmarks in his chase scenes.

It has its debits, though. Anny Ondra's performance is rather awkward, and there's a good story behind that...turns out she had a heavy Czech accent and rather than recast the role, Hitch hired another actress to stand off camera and read the lines while Ondra lip-synched. The stagebound feel of a number of scenes gets a little dull after a while.

But overall, it's worth seeing for Hitchcock fans, especially with the odd and ambiguous ending. (If you're spoiler sensitive, stop reading now.) The police all believe that Tracy is responsible, and during the chase he is killed when he climbs to the top of the dome at the British Museum and falls through a window. Alice, unaware of this, goes into Scotland Yard, determined to confess. However, she never manages to tell anyone other than Frank, and nobody takes her seriously. As far as they're concerned, Tracy was the killer and now is dead, and the case is closed. She and Frank laugh with another officer...but Alice's laugh becomes forced and hollow as she sees one of the artist's paintings, of a clown looking out at the viewer and pointing, which works on her guilt. She glances uncomfortably at Frank. You get the feeling that she will never be free of her guilt, and that she and Frank are now trapped together, and will not have a happy life. End of movie.

Yipes! But given some thought, this is a movie where few people are truly innocent.

It's out there on DVD, and it's worth viewing on a lazy afternoon or evening.

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