Blackmail (1929)

“Detectives in glass houses shouldn’t wave clues.”

Synopsis:
The flirtatious girlfriend (Anny Ondra) of a Scotland Yard detective (John Longden) accompanies an artist (Cyril Ritchard) to his apartment one night and ends up killing him with a knife when he tries to rape her. A loiterer (Donald Calthrop) sees Longden leaving the scene of the crime with a crucial piece of evidence, and decides to blackmail Ondra — but a snoopy landlady (Hannah Jones) has seen Calthrop entering Ritchard’s apartment, and soon he’s wanted by the police himself.

Genres:

Review:
I was pleasantly surprised to finally check out this early Hitchcock thriller, which is famous for being his first “talkie” but remains remarkably enjoyable in its own right. All of the trademark qualities of Hitchcock’s best films are present here, starting with a tension-inducing screenplay in which our heroine — who is far from sympathetic, at least at first — is caught up in a nightmare of her own accidental making, existing in guilt-ridden angst and fear throughout the remainder of the film. Meanwhile, Hitch effectively employs both visual and aural cues via strategic editing for heightened suspense and impact — as when Ondry continually hears the word “knife” being used in punctuated bursts during a conversation following the homicide, or when she looks up at a flashing neon sign for a cocktail which has transformed into a plunging knife. Atmospheric cinematography (by Jack Cox), a smarmy turn by Calthrop as Ondry’s would-be blackmailer, and an exciting (if too brief) climactic chase scene through a famous location add to this film’s overall enjoyment — it’s certainly worth a look.

P.S. Hitchcock’s use of real-time off-camera dubbing for Ondry’s voice — she had a heavy German accent — has been called out as somewhat obvious, but I must admit I was never bothered by it.

P.P.S. Hitchcock filmed a silent version of this movie as well, which is available on the DVD release. Even the “talkie” edition, however, starts off (for the first 8 minutes) mostly like a silent film, with just a few noise effects added — so be patient. (I mention this because I wondered for a while whether I was watching the “right” version.)

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Anny Ondra as Alice
  • Nice use of the British Museum for the climactic final chase — though the scene is over far too quickly
  • Atmospheric cinematography
  • Creative use of sound for heightened effect (as in the “KNIFE” scene)
  • A clever sense of visual play

Must See?
Yes, for its historical relevance — and also as an enjoyably tense thriller. Listed as a film with historical importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

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(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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