Blackmail (1929) Director: Alfred Hitchcock
In the mold of an Aeschylean Greek tragedy, or perhaps a psychological murder tale a la Dostoevsky, Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929) certainly stands apart from other films of the 1920s. Blackmail was initially intended to be a silent film, but Hitchcock worked it out with the studio who demanded that it be a “talkie.” Hitchcock’s famous cameo occurs when a young boy bothers him on the London Underground subway while he reads a newspaper. As per usual with Hitchcock, the influence of late German Expressionism holds a particularly high place in the creation of this film.
The setting is a London tea house. Alice White (Anny Ondra) has an argument with her boyfriend, Detective Frank Webber (John Longden). In a rage, he storms out and she leaves with another man, an artist named Mr. Crewe (Cyril Ritchard). They visit his upper flat art studio and paint over a picture of a sad clown together while he plays the piano. They sign her name on the painting and, much to her disgust, he steals a kiss. As Alice attempts to leave, he steals her dress and tries to rape her, but she stabs him to death offscreen (notably the murder takes place offstage a la Aeschylus’s Agamemnon). She rips a hole in the painting and leaves the flat in a daze, wandering the streets at night. Although she believes she has removed all traces of her presence in the flat, in truth she has accidentally left behind her glove. Alice’s boyfriend Frank is assigned to the murder case and then they are blackmailed by a man named Tracy (Donald Calthrop) who discovers the glove. A man named Tracy is wrongfully blamed for the murder, and as the tension builds, Alice decides to turn herself in. But before she can she confess the whole truth, Tracy flees to the rooftop above the British Museum where he falls crashing down to his death. The police assume he was the true killer, and Alice and Frank leave the police station together as a policeman carries the infamous painting past the screen.
I just love a good Hitchcock movie –even these early ones. The use of celebrated public landmarks like the British Museum is reminiscent of the classic American landmarks used in Hitchcock’s later movies like Mount Rushmore in North By Northwest (1959) or the Golden Gate Bridge in Vertigo (1958). Blackmail is another triumph from the master of suspense!