'Blackmail' and the Birth of the British Talkies

Michael Curtis Nelson

Originally conceived as a silent film, Blackmail was quickly converted to sound, making it the first British talkie. To accommodate theaters that were not equipped for sound, it was reissued as a silent film. The differences in the two versions are here compared.

Last fall I watched Blackmail in the company of several witches, a dozen zombies, a fairy princess, and more vampires than I could count. The costumed crowd at Indiana University’s Halloween screening of Hitchcock’s 1929 silent thriller, with live musical accompaniment by organist and IU alum Dennis James, was a fitting audience for a film with multiple guises. Blackmail was first released as a talkie—advertised as Britain’s first—with the silent version following a few months later for exhibition in theaters not equipped for sound. While a number of talkies produced during the transition to sound were essentially silent films with a final reel featuring spoken dialogue and sound effects that showcased the new technology, the sound and silent Blackmail are distinct films based on the same scenario, and as such invite the cinematic equivalent of a twin study; consideration of both versions provides a unique opportunity to explore the methods of an artist, and an industry, in transition.

Adapted from Charles Bennett’s popular West End drama, Blackmail follows the fortunes of Alice White (Anny Ondra), a young London woman living at home and working in the family news agent and tobacco shop, and Frank Webber (John Longden), her boyfriend and Scotland Yard detective. After a spat with Frank, Alice accompanies another admirer—artist Crewe (Cyril Ritchard)—to his flat, where after some mutual flirtation, Crewe tries to rape her, and Alice stabs him to death in self-defense. Enterprising extortionist Tracy (Donald Calthrop) finds evidence incriminating Alice and attempts to shake down both the young woman and Frank, who has been assigned to the case and who has discovered Alice’s part in the death. Frank threatens to blame the killing on Tracy, who flees, only to fall to his death after a chase through the British Museum. The film ends with the case closed, and Alice’s secret safe (for now) with Frank.

Thanks to Tom Ryall’s 1993 BFI monograph on Blackmail, and to Charles Barr, who compared silent and sound versions for Sight and Sound in 1983, we know that while the seven-minute opening sequence detailing a police raid that establishes the film’s procedural bona fides is nearly identical in both silent and sound versions of Blackmail (there is neither spoken nor intertitle dialogue), many subsequent scenes are markedly different, with alternate shot sequences, set decoration, camera angles, and even casting.

Since the rape attempt sequence is the most often analyzed part of Blackmail, it will serves as the basis of comparison between the two films. Both versions have the same basic trajectory. After the pair enter Crewe’s top-floor walk-up, Alice discovers Crewe’s painting of a jester who points and sneers scornfully at the viewer. She laughs and points at the canvas, mimicking the portrait. (Robin Wood and Tania Modleski discuss this figure in detail, as part of a pattern of jokes in the film at characters’ and perhaps the viewer’s expense.) Alice paints a head on another, empty canvas, and Crewe, guiding her hand, finishes the figure by providing a nude body for it. The two have drinks, and then Crewe convinces Alice to change into a tutu so she can pose for him. When he embraces, then kisses the costumed Alice, she pulls away and decides to leave. In an attempt to prevent her exit, Crewe takes her dress, and when Alice tries to retrieve it, he drags her to his bed, where, obscured from view by bed curtains, he tries to rape her. Alice stabs him with a bread knife she finds on the bedside table. In a daze, Alice attempts to cover up her presence in the flat, gathers her things, and leaves.

As far as I’ve been able to determine, the silent Blackmail is available on DVD only in German and Spanish PAL releases. So, having viewed the talkie on DVD, but with just my recollection of the Halloween screening to go on for the silent version, I can only make rough, impressionistic comparisons between the two. Both versions have a powerful impact, but the silent sequence strikes me as more fluid and economical. Barr corroborates, timing the sequence at 9 minutes in the silent version, 15 in the talkie. There’s also a sense that Crewe’s attack is inevitable in the silent Blackmail, perhaps because, as Barr points out, the viewer’s experience of the scene is carefully controlled by editing. Barr counts 48 shots with an average length of 11 1/2 seconds in the silent sequence, 36 shots at 24 1/2 seconds on average in the sound version.

The silent scene emphasizes impulse, spontaneity, the rapid escalation of desire, then rage, propelled by looks, by touch; the sound scene underscores premeditation and the power of persuasion through verbal repartee, as Crewe carries out the stages of (an oft repeated?) seduction, and Alice experiments with other identities than daughter and shop girl.

As Barr suggests, if the silent scene highlights Hitchcock’s mastery of montage, the sound version showcases the actors. Because the sound version of the rape scene remains more static than its silent twin, due to the limitations of early sound production—the need to enclose the camera in a soundproof booth, and to keep the microphone out of frame but close to the actors, for example—it relies more heavily on Ondra and Ritchard to animate the segment.

Hitchcock uses to advantage the requirement that early talkies include sound set pieces—in this case Crewe’s singing of “Miss Up to Date” to his own piano accompaniment; Crewe convincingly plays the scene (absent from the silent sequence, as is the piano itself), as a calculated attempt by the artist—at times aloof, at times attentive—to win over Alice. Ondra makes the most of the lingering camera and the longer run time of the segment to move believably from flirtatious, to anxious, to—after the killing—nearly catatonic.

Despite the severe limitations of post-production sound editing, Blackmail here, and throughout, uses sound both naturalistically—capturing multiple conversations in a crowded restaurant, for example—and subjectively—as in the film’s famous sequence in which the guilt-ridden Alice hears the word “knife” amplified in the words of a gossip describing Crewe’s death. The first dialogue in the film, just after the opening sequence, defies the expectations built up during first seven “speechless” minutes. Two Scotland Yard detectives making small talk about their plans for the evening ushered in the sound era in Britain.

The setting of the rape scene establishes the psychological underpinnings of both silent film and talkie. The artist’s flat, at the top of a long flight of stairs, filled with costumes, a mask, and large canvases that look like theatrical backdrops, has the air of a lumber room of the unconscious, a place where suppressed impulses irrupt far away from societal restraints (represented by the shot of an unsuspecting Bobby walking the street below, intercut with the attack sequence in both versions).

Taken together, the two attack sequences prefigure the films of Hitchcock’s mature period: the facility with silent-era montage evident, for example, in the heavily edited shower scene from Psycho, and the ability to “cut sound”, in Hitchcock’s words, like images, as in the gradual introduction of street noise as the camera leaves the murder scene in Frenzy.

If you live near a theater that regularly screens silent films, keep an eye out for showings of Blackmail. Bioscope reports that the film was exhibited in Bologna in 2008 with a new score by Neil Brand, and that a screening is planned in London, on Halloween of this year, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra playing Brand’s music. If you can make it to the Barbican in October, I recommend sitting well away from the zombies.

Michael Curtis Nelson has a Ph.D. from Indiana University, where he is Director of Publications and Graphics.

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