Blackmail ★★★★

"A good honest whack over the head with a brick is one thing. There's something very British about that."

#48 in the Reverse Hitchcock project.

When I began the Reverse Hitchcock project at the start of 2014, I hoped that by the time I got to this film, it would be possible to adequately review both the synchronised sound and silent versions as seperate entries, as they are completely different films - albeit with the first section remaining 'silent' with overdubbed sound effects and dialogue until Anny Ondra's first appearance at the ninth minute.

But, there is still one solo entry in both TMDB and in Letterboxd, so please note this review is for the sound version.

It was not the first sound feature to be released in Great Britain - that honour goes to the now lost film 'The Clue of the New Pin' which was released three months earlier. But the publicity machine that surrounded Hitchcock and British International Pictures at the time, and many repeated claims since, have meant that it is now regarded as the trailblazer. It is the first sound on film picture released in Britain.

Anny Ondra's thick Czech accent meant she could not possibly handle the dialogue in this, and early filming problems meant that the solution was a novel one: Ondra mouthed her lines, while off-camera Joan Barry (who would get her own screen appearance for Hitch in 'Rich and Strange') provided the voice. The voice is cut glass and faintly ridiculous, and it is a tribute to both Ondra and the creatives on this film that the trick doesn't get in the way of her performance.

Alice White (Ondra) has a policeman boyfriend, Frank (John Longden, who seems a little old for her) but has set up a meeting with an artist, Crewe (Cyril Ritchard), making the fatal decision to go to his studio. Frank sees them leave. When Crewe ends up murdered, of course he knows that Alice is in the frame, but he determines to protect her, especially when a shady chap, Tracy (Donald Calthrop), sees Alice go up to the studio with Crewe and then attempts to blackmail both her and the conflicted policeman.

There are three excellent scenes for which this film is remembered: the first is the sequence leading up to the murder of Crewe (who turns quickly from a charming gentleman to a seedy opportunist who attempts to assault his young companion), including a sequence where Ritchard, an accomplished musical revue artist, sings at the piano as we see Ondra change into a babydoll dress (voyeuristic, as she is behind a changing screen) and the subsequent flirtation which turns nasty, leaving to a shadowy and hysterical struggle, and stabbing.

Then, the scene at the breakfast table where the repeated word 'knife' from a gossipy neighbour's conversation causes Alice to teeter on the edge of despair and leading into the shop scene where Tracy teases and torments his quarry while lighting a cigar; and the scenes at the British Museum where a man falls to his death - this easily rivals the fairground sequence in 'Strangers on a Train' for tension and ingenuity.

The jester painting, which at first amuses the innocent Alice and then assumes a horrific significance after she becomes a killer and a frightened fugitive from justice, is deeply disturbing. And the use of the Schüfftan process to make a realistic scene in the British Museum's Reading Room is just as effective as it was for the Royal Albert Hall sequence in 'The Man Who Knew Too Much.'

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