Saturday, January 29, 2005

REVIEW: Blackmail

(No entry on HBS for Blackmail yet, so the whole thing will be posted here)

* * * ½ (out of four) (silent version)
Seen 22 January 2005 at Somerville Theater #1 (CRASHarts presents the Alloy Orcestra)

Alfred Hitchcock is known best as "the Master of Suspense", and justifiably so. That title doesn't capture the totality of his genius, of course. For example, he also was adept at handling new technology - this picture was originally shot as a silent, with parts later re-shot for sound. But perhaps the thing that best defines Hitchcock aside from his work as a director of thrillers is his skill at black, mordant comedy.

Blackmail isn't really a comedy, but it benefits from Hitchcock's skills in that area. It's a fairly simple, straightforward story, but it demonstrates that the skills which would make Hitchcock arguably the twentieth century's greatest filmmaker were present and refined from the very beginning.

As the movie opens, we meet Alice White (Anny Ondra) and Frank Webber (John Longden), a young couple who have been dating for a while. Webber is a dedicated detective at Scotland Yard; Alice's parents own a newsstand in Chelsea. Work makes Frank late for the night's date, which gets Alice snippy; at the restaurant, she catches the eye of an artist. They return to his studio, he attempts to have his way with her, and she kills him in self-defense. When Webber is sent to investigate the next morning, he finds her glove. Fortunately, there are witness reports of a prowler, and the artist had an appointment with a man with a criminal record... who later shows up at the Whites' newsstand with extortion on his mind.

It's not surprising that this movie later became a talkie; even in this original, silent version, the performances are relatively low-key, not as full of the histrionics and theatricality that often characterized silents. Ms. Ondra makes Alice more than a bit of a brat, initially, but is convincingly frightened and guilty later on. Longden is kind of stiff as Webber; we're led to believe he's an extremely dedicated police officer, but never seems terribly conflicted about his desire to cover Alice's involvement up. Donald Calthrop is delightfully unctuous as Tracy, the petty crook attempting to blackmail the couple, and Cyril Ritchard is quite good as the artist, smoothly moving from charm to malevolence. Hitchcock has an amusing cameo as a man on the subway being pestered by an unruly child.

The story, adapted by Hitchcock from a play by Charles Bennett, is told in a straightforward, linear fashion, but is, at its heart, delightfully perverse: It encourages the audience to cheer for a police officer attempting to frame an innocent man for the murder his girlfriend committed. Certainly, we are told that Tracy has a long criminal record, and has perhaps escaped justice for previous crimes, and there can be little doubt that Alice acted in self-defense, but still, one can't help but ask oneself if the deception was really necessary, if perhaps this could all have been avoided by simply telling the truth from the get-go. It's a tribute to the movie that this doesn't feel like an idiot plot, but instead the believable actions of young people trying to avoid a scandal. (Then again, that's me in 2005 saying this. In 1928, a young woman in the apartment of someone other than her boyfriend might be viewed as getting what's coming to her; "no means no" wasn't nearly as pervsive an attitude as it is now.)

Hitchcock's direction is rock-solid, even so early in his career. He manipulates mood perfectly, bringing us from one extreme to the other with lightning dispatch without it ever feeling jarring. Take, for instance, Alice in the artist's apartment. The mood is initially playful, but evolves into violence rather quickly. Hitchcock is able to imply a great deal of brutality even as the actual assault happens behind a curtain. It's one of three well-done set pieces Hitchcock gives us in under an hour and a half; the others involve Webber: Closing in on a criminal whose mirror provides him a view of the approaching policemen, and chasing Tracy through the British Museum.

It's not just the action that is well-done, though - the scenes in the restaurant are blessed with almost perfect comic timing, broken up only by the need for intertitles, and the post-chase sequence is darkly funny, loaded with double and triple meanings. And though the later addition of sound is the movie's most well-known technical innovation, there is one scene in a stairwell, following Alice and the artist in a continuous side-view as they climb the stairs, that is remarkably distinctive. The vertical motion is unusual, and this one scene must have required the construction of a tall set along with a sort of elevator apparatus so that the camera could follow the actors. It's a reminder that Hitchcock could have been an engineer as well as an artist if he hadn't broken into the movie business.

The film's history is a little fuzzy; before introducing the Alloy Orchestra, the host claimed that Blackmail was released as a silent in 1928 before being partially reshot and expanded to include sound, although I couldn't find any other evidence of this initial silent release. Still, silent prints were made, and it is that cut that the Alloy Orchestra accompanied. Their score is, as always, highly enjoyable - it's a subtler, less percussive score than some of the others I've seen them perform (I'm thinking of The General and The Black Pirate here), but it works for the movie. They're creating the movie's entire soundtrack, so in addition to a straight score and obvious sound effects like a ringing bell, they also have to creat the illusion of ambient noise. It winds up working remarkably well, and it's something not many other groups do so well (or even at all).

I've got one of those quasi-legal Laserlight DVDs of the sound version of Blackmail on my shelf, though it's got a few other movies stacked up in front of it. It'll be interesting to compare it to this version sometime; at least I know it'll be good.

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