It took me fifteen minutes to figure out what the heck was going on… but once I finally found my whereabouts I was pleasantly surprised. It began (both the film itself and production) as a silent but was later changed into a sound feature film, one of the very first British talkies. (It was later released as a complete silent, something I have yet to see). Blackmail is based on the play by Charles Bennett of the same title and the plot is just that. Blackmail. Starring the ever enchanting and delightful Anny Ondra as well as John Longden, Blackmail starts cooking when Alice White (Ondra) ditches her boyfriend detective Frank Webber (Longden) for a date with a Mr. Crewe (Cyril Ritchard), an artist she had agreed to meet. Their “meeting” takes them to Mr. Crewe’s private studio where Alice naively flirts the night away, unaware for much too long of Mr. Crewe’s obviously lewd intentions. Unaware, that is, until he attempts to take advantage of her and she stabs him to death.
The following day Frank is assigned to investigate the mysterious murder case. He immediately discovers Alice’s connection after finding her glove in the studio. He, unfortunately, is not the only one who knows of Alice’s involvement. Local thief Tracey (Donald Calthrop), who had seen her with Mr. Crewe the previous evening, comes to confront Alice and Frank at her father’s shop in attempts to, you guessed it, blackmail them. The film concludes with a surprisingly intense chase-scene and a satisfying end.
Chronologically speaking this is my “first” favorite. For a film made in 1929, I was genuinely invested, genuinely frightened for our leading lady, and genuinely intrigued by its plot. One scene in particular stands out to me. After Alice has returned from her rather horrifying evening, she’s sitting at the kitchen table with her parents. Another woman in the room is commenting on the murderer’s choice of a knife, and each time the word is uttered Alice’s eyes get a little wider. The word is emphasized to the point that you can practically see it typed in bold-face on the screen. Soon all we (and Alice) hear is “knife… Knife, KNIFE…” until she drops a knife onto the table. It’s so perfectly tense.
I think the thing I’m most impressed with is how gripping the story is. Many other films of this time period are far from that (The Farmer’s Wife for one). And, I mean, if we’re comparing this to something like Speed of course it isn’t similarly jam-packed with action. Nevertheless, from beginning to end it moves quickly and captures your attention.
Though stunted by awkward lip-syncing (talkies were too new to dub over in post production, and her Czech accent was too thick to suit), I am delighted with Anny Ondra. She’s as cute as they come, I also enjoyed her in The Manxman.
Overall, Blackmail is a well-made early talkie, worthwhile to any film historian or movie lover and essential to a Hitchophile. The beginning is misleading, but stick with it for fifteen minutes. It picks up. 7/10
p.s. Hitchcock’s trademark cameo in this is a new personal fave.