Now this is what I expected to find when I bought that Legends Of Horror box set. What I did not expect was the gem I got with today’s movie. See, in the late 1920’s movies were just starting to switch from silent pictures to “talkies”. Now Alfred Hitchcock had directed a few silent movies before this and today’s movie had started out as another one but British International Pictures decided to make it a “talkie” during production, making it the first successful European dramatic talkie. So let’s see what this bit of history has in store for us as I watch Blackmail (1929).
The plot: A group of detectives from Scotland Yard are riding in a mobile unit truck when they are given an address to head to. Arriving there, two of the detectives head up to one of the rooms and find a man lying in bed reading a newspaper. The man, seeing the detectives in the reflection of a mirror, tries reaching for the gun he has on the nightstand but the detectives rush in and grab it from him and take him down to the truck. Heading back to Scotland Yard, the man is placed in a line up, where a woman identifies him, and he is subsequently booked and placed in a cell. Afterwards, one of the detectives, Frank Webber, gets cleaned up and heads to the lobby to meets his girlfriend, Alice White, who is upset with Frank for being late. The two go to a fancy tea house and manage to find a table but as they are waiting to be served, they begin arguing, with Alice feeling that Frank cares more about his job than he does about her. During the argument, while Frank is distracted, Alice notices a man approaching the table and she motions with her eyes to wait. When the two continue arguing about, this time about going to the movies, and Frank gets fed up and leaves some money on the table before walking off. Frank leaves the tea house but soon decides to go back for Alice only to see her leaving with the other man. The man, an artist named Mr. Crewe, says he will escort Alice home but along the way, he convinces her to come up to his flat, which is a block from her place. Inside, Crewe goes to start a fire while Alice looks at some of his paintings. She laughs at a painting of a clown face and then paints a cartoon face on a blank canvas. Crewe guides her arms and paints a feminine body under the face and then they sign both their names to the painting. Crew asks Alice to put on a dancer’s uniform so he can paint her, then plays the piano and sings while she changes. Afterwards, Crewe has Alice pose for him but uses the opportunity to kiss her. Alice pushes him away and then goes to change but Crewe steals her dress and attempts to rape her. Alice struggles with him and eventually manages to grab a bread knife, which she uses to kill Crewe. In a daze after what happened, Alice gets dressed, punching a hole in the painting of the clown after she grabs her dress, then painting over her name on the picture before she leaves and wanders the streets. When Crewe’s body is discovered, Frank gets assigned to the case and as he is looking around the flat, he sees one of Alice’s gloves and, after seeing the body and recognizing it, quickly pockets it. Meanwhile, Alice returns to her father’s shop but goes about the day in a daze. When Frank gets there, he pulls Alice inside the shop’s telephone booth and asks her about what happened that night. As they are in the phone booth, a man named Tracy enters the shop and, when he is alone with Alice and Frank, admits to seeing Alice going up to Crewe’s flat and he has Alice’s other glove which she dropped as she was leaving the flat. Tracy plans to blackmail Alice and Frank and Frank agrees to it at first but as he places a call to Scotland Yard, he learns that Tracy is wanted for questioning due to his having a record and being spotted near Crewe’s flat. Frank returns to the room that Alice and Tracy are in and has Alice lock the door, then tells Tracy that the police are on their way and that Tracy will be the one arrested for murder. When Tracy says he will tell everyone that Alice was there, Frank says that no one will take Tracy’s word over Franks due to his criminal record. Tracy gets nervous and when the police arrive, he jumps out the window and tries to escape. Frank and the other officers give chase and eventually corner him at the British Museum. Tracy climbs up onto the roof to escape the police but he ends up breaking through the skylight and falling to his death, with the police believing him to be the murder. Meanwhile, Alice is feeling more and more distraught and, unaware of what had happened with Tracy, goes to the police with the intent of turning herself in. She is brought in to see the Chief Inspector but before she can say anything, he takes a call and asks Frank, who had just walked in, to take care of her. As Frank is escorting her out of the office, Alice admits to Frank that she killed Crewe in self defense to keep him from raping her but Frank tells her not to worry about it. As the two leave the police station, they pass by an officer carrying the damaged clown painting and the painting with Alice’s name painted over.
Blackmail (1929) met with high praise from the critics, holding a 90% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. While there isn’t a critical consensus on the site, the majority of the critics enjoyed the camera work and the story. When he was told to turn portions of the movie into a sound picture, Alfred Hitchcock chose to film the entire movie in sound, except for the first 6 minutes of film as well as a few small scenes, but also filmed the movie as a silent film for theaters that were not equipped for sound. While both versions were a hit, the silent film actually performed better due to the lack of theaters equipped for sound. While the talkie is the more widely available version, many film historians consider the silent version the better movie.
This is one of the earliest Hitchcock movies I think I have ever seen and while I personally don’t think it is as good as some of his later movies, I can definitely see where some of his directing styles started to evolve. The acting was ok, though there were times it seemed like the actors weren’t comfortable with the talking roles. The story was really good, with several sub-plots that made for some interesting drama. While there weren’t really any special effects, the story moved along pretty well with the drama carrying the weight of the plot. A good movie and worth watching, if for no other reason the historical aspects of it.
Rating: 3 out of 5