Blackmail (1929)

Shot largely like a silent film, yet it is also Hitchcock’s first ‘talkie’, this curious early work of murder and intimidation could have been sharper if it had been shorter and tauter. 

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Review #2,540

Dir. Alfred Hitchcock
1929 | UK | Crime/Thriller | 82 min | 1.20:1 | English
Not rated – likely to be PG

Cast: Anny Ondra, Sara Allgood, Charles Paton
Plot: After killing a man in self-defense, a young woman is blackmailed by a witness to the killing.
Distributor: Studiocanal

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate – Crime & Blackmail
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream

Viewed: MUBI
Spoilers: No

It is always interesting to trace a legendary director back to his roots, be it to locate any instances of early style or thematic obsession, or just simply as a point of curiosity.

In Blackmail, Alfred Hitchcock’s first ‘talkie’ (and apparently also Britain’s first) offers us a sense of how things were in the late 1920s when filmmakers started to transit into sound. 

Shot largely like a silent film but with added dialogue and sound effects, Blackmail was hardly a game-changer in film history, but it showed how Hitchcock was already toying with ideas of sound (e.g. the amplification of the word “knife!” in dialogue) and visual symbolism (e.g. montage of hands, and the motif of finger-pointing).

“Tell him that he’s playing with fire, and we shall, all of us, burn our fingers.”

Being a maximalist filmmaker whose style had rarely been described as subtle, Hitchcock sometimes tried too hard here to prolong suspense.  Certain scenes drag on for too long, particularly in the early stretch where the plot catalyst manifests—not unexpectedly in the form of murder. 

Themes of the ‘wrong man’ and intimidation are obvious, and so is the director’s brand of macabre humour and trademark climactic set-piece (in this case, a foot chase through a British museum). 

Even though we already know who the real murderer is from the first act, Blackmail uses this knowledge to create a somewhat compelling situation of extortion in the second act as a couple (one a police officer, the other his girlfriend) is blackmailed by a crook.  If the film had been a good twenty minutes shorter, this could have been one of Hitchcock’s sharpest works.

Grade: B


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