Welcome to another Film Friday! Today, we’re continuing our coverage of films released in 1929! In the title, I refer to 1929 as a year of firsts and lasts. I’m primarily speaking of the transition to sound, which went into full swing by 1929, and had every major studio technologically converted to the process — most notably M-G-M. Stars we’ve covered here like Norma Shearer and Joan Craford made their sound debuts. But the year wasn’t completely all-talking just yet — 1929 also saw the slow burning off of the silent films, which essentially ceased production by the time the year was over. The few films I’ll be featuring here (both talkies and silents) show an industry on the cusp of the biggest turning point in cinema history. So how do the films of 1929 stack up? I’m just as curious as you are to find out! So far we’ve looked at Pandora’s Box, Their Own Desire and Applause! Next up… Blackmail!
A shopkeeper’s daughter fights off blackmail after she kills a young artist who had tried to rape her. Starring Anny Ondra, Sara Allgood, Charles Paton, John Longden, and Donald Calthrop. Based on the play by Charles Bennett. Adapted by Alfred Hitchcock. Dialogue by Benn Levy. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
Based on a play that originally starred Tallulah Bankhead, Blackmail became notable not only for Hitchcock’s direction, but for being the first official talkie produced in Britain. In fact, production on the film had already begun as a silent when the decision was made to film it with sound. As a result, two versions of Blackmail are available — the talkie version and the silent version. While the former is still the most frequently seen of the two, both are available on DVD.
While having dinner in a fancy English nightspot with her husband-to-be Scotland Yard Detective Frank Webber, Alice White begins to flirt with an artist seated at the next table. Later, he invites her up to see his studio, and she goes. She is surprised when he askes her to pose nude for him and politely declines. But when the request becomes a demand, Alice stabs him to death. She then rejoins her fiance and tries to forget the murder, but her conscious keeps bothering her. Her troubles are not over however, as she soon finds herself being blackmailed by the opportunistic Tracey. (This brief summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)
I suppose it’s difficult to appreciate the lesser works of famous performers and directors because of the high standards that they set in the works that brought them notability. I bring this up in regards to Blackmail because I was disappointed. I’m known for my high expectations, but I generally try to view every new piece of entertainment with unobstructed eyes. So I went into the film hoping to be nothing more than moderately entertained for 85 minutes. Unfortunately, I was bored for about half the time. Simply: the picture moves to slow. The most exciting and engrossing part of the film occurs about half-an-hour in — when the heroine kills the artist who tries to rape her (played by Cyril Ritchard, Mary Martin’s future Captain Hook) and after that… well things are appropriately tense, but there isn’t enough life. And when I say this, I mean it truly, because I’m not a typical 21st century viewer that needs action 24/7, but I needed to be “grabbed” by the characters and their story. And that’s what disappointed me most about Blackmail: I wasn’t able to become invested.
Most of this can be pinpointed to the shallow script. (The play had a notoriously short run.) But Hitchcock’s direction — while obviously trying to ratchet up the psychological torment of the heroine — hasn’t yet found the distinction of his later works. However, some moments do play extraordinarily, like the one I mentioned above: the scene in which the heroine kills her appropriately obnoxious attacker. Speaking of performances, however, I would be remiss not to warn you that the actress who plays the lead, Anny Ondra, had a heavy Czech accent, so when the decision was made to produce the film with sound, another Anglican actress spoke her lines. And I don’t mean ADR; she stood off-camera and said the lines while Ondra mouthed them. The results, while not completely noticeable, do seem stilted at times. Not surprisingly, Ondra works best in the quiet moments (and even though this is a TALKIE, there are several sequences — like the beginning — that play without words).
I could recommend this film to Hitchcock fans, and if you’re fond of the director’s work, you’ll certainly want to see this, though I fear you may be disappointed. Still, perhaps my attempt to lower my expectations wasn’t as successful as I had hoped. To be sure, view the film for yourself and form your own opinions. Then subscribe and comment below with your thoughts!
Come back next Friday for another 1929 film! And tune in on Monday for the start of a whole new week on That’s Entertainment!