Monday, September 14, 2015

Blackmail (1929)

It is difficult to imagine the incredible pressure that must have been weighing on Alfred Hitchcock's shoulders when he undertook the production of his tenth film, Blackmail, in 1929. Consider the lofty and unique position he had attained at this point in his career: rising quickly as he did through the ranks of the British film industry, having achieved a great deal of acclaim for what was only his third film (1926's The Lodger, held up as a shining example of what the British cinema could be), which in turn catapulted him to a level of celebrity remarkable for any director at that time. Now, having mastered the purely visual storytelling of the silent film, Hitchcock was thrust into the midst of a technological change that had a profound altering impact on the medium. Not only was Blackmail to be Hitchcock's first talking film, it was also the first all-talkie produced in the UK (it was billed as "Britain's All-Talkie Challenge To The World"). There were undoubtedly high expectations for Hitchcock to deliver a film worthy of this distinction and of his celebrated reputation within the nation's film industry. Keep in mind, he was not yet 30.

The resulting film was the most accomplished he had yet made, demonstrating an astonishing command of and inventiveness with the infant medium of sound film. Working within the suspense genre for which he had shown such aptitude in The Lodger, for his source material this time Hitchcock turned to a play by Charles Bennett (who would become of one the director's most valuable collaborators later in the 1930s), and handled the task of adapting the script himself. Blackmail established the model for many of the themes, techniques and plot devices that Hitchcock would return to again and again in his mature work.

Like many early talkies, Blackmail was produced simultaneously in both sound and silent versions. There is the opinion in some quarters that the silent version is the superior one, an expression of "pure cinema" unencumbered by the restraints of the newfangled commercial sound film technology. The silent version is certainly effective enough, but a comparison of the two versions reveals that Hitchcock used the new creative possibilities afforded by sound -- specifically, its ability to heighten the tension between what we see and what we hear -- in order to create a more fully-realized and satisfying suspense film.

Because Hitchcock would soon develop these techniques and ideas to a greater degree, beginning just a few years later with The Man Who Knew Too Much and The 39 Steps, Blackmail can appear, in contrast with those classics, to be a quaint work primarily of historical interest as an early, formative effort from a great director who would go on to do much better things. In some ways, to be sure, it is that. But to view the film this way does a disservice to the inventiveness and creativity, and indeed the apparent ease, with which Hitchcock adapted his style to the new sound film medium. In that context, Blackmail remains an remarkable achievement, and one of the most important films the director ever made.

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