TCM is running Alfred Hitchcock movies all month long under the umbrella of “50 Years of Hitchcock” and, in conjunction with Ball State University, conducting a six-week course on The Master of Suspense’s life and works. Since I’m participating, I figured it would be a good excuse for me to write some blog posts on Hitchcock’s films, sort of killing two birds with one stone. Today I’d like to discuss two of his early talking films, both produced at British International Pictures. Let’s start with Hitchcock’s first “talkie”, 1929’s BLACKMAIL.
BLACKMAIL was originally scheduled to be a silent film with some sound sequences, but Hitchcock clandestinely shot the whole thing with sound. Producer John Maxwell liked what he saw and released it in both silent and sound versions. BLACKMAIL is considered the first British talkie, though some of its scenes are silent with music only, and Hitchcock, ever the innovator, was there first. It was only his 11th film in the director’s chair, and evidence of “The Hitchcock Touch” was already emerging.
The plot centers on Alice White, who ditches her police detective boyfriend Frank Webber for a date with Crewe, an artist. Crewe invites her up to his studio apartment, and after persuading her to put on a ballerina outfit, attempts to rape her. There’s a struggle (unseen behind a curtain), Alice reaches for a knife, and stabs her assailant to death. Horrified by the act, Alice wanders in a daze down the streets of Chelsea, imagining a neon sign touting a shaker of gin turning into a stabbing knife, and a wino’s arm the would-be rapist’s lifeless limb. Frank, one of the investigators assigned to the case, stumbles upon Alice’s glove in the flat and hides it from his colleagues. But there’s a fly in the ointment: a small time crook named Tracy, who was outside casing the joint when the murder occurred, has possession of Alice’s other glove, and isn’t above indulging in a little game of… blackmail!
Hitchcock seems to be enjoying this new toy of sound, utilizing it to add punctuation to scenes. When the local gossip chatters on and on about the murder while a still freaked out Alice and her parents have breakfast, the word “knife” is repeated over and over, until all Alice (and the viewer) hears is “knife”, the rest becoming garbled noise, as Alice tries to slice bread, finally throwing the repulsive object across the room, jolting both her parents and the audience! Music, figuring so prominently in Hitch’s later films, is featured to great advantage, as the soon-to-be dead rapist (who’s played by Cyril Ritchard, known to millions of baby boomers as Captain Hook in the oft-repeated TV production of PETER PAN) croons a ditty to Alice called “Miss Up-To-Date”.
For an early talkie, the film is rarely static, as Hitchcock keeps a lively pace despite the limitations of the new sound equipment. His black humor is showcased when, while Alice walks down the street in a stupor, we see a marquee advertising “A New Comedy”, and in the ending’s strange turn of events. Hitchcock’s voyeurism fetish shows up as we see Alice dress and undress several times, as do his shots of imposing staircases and a chase scene in a highly public place (in this case the British Museum, juxtaposed among some bizarre artifacts). And of course, Hitchcock does one of his famous cameos, being annoyed by an obnoxious brat aboard a train (another familiar Hitch motif).
MURDER! is Hitchcock’s only whodunit, a genre he allegedly detested. Unlike BLACKMAIL, MURDER! is very static, only really coming to life during the final scene set in a circus. Herbert Marshall plays Sir John Menier, an actor sitting on a jury pressured to convict a young actress of the title crime, who opens his own private investigation before she’s scheduled to hang. It’s a Hitchcockian theme, the amateur sleuth thrown into an extraordinary circumstance, but the film dragged for me, hampered by the conventions of the genre. It’s based on a play by the director’s friend Gerald du Maurier, whose daughter Daphne’s books were later adapted into Hitchcock films – JAMAICA INN, REBECCA, and THE BIRDS.
Classical music is used in the soundtrack, but since the entire orchestra was on set to play it live, it’s too damn loud and drowns out some of the dialog. Marshall had to record his lines ahead of time and mouth them, but he’s still nearly unintelligible in one scene. The film starts off well, with a scream, but soon gets bogged down by its slow, deliberate pace. There are traces of the “Hitchcock Touch” (black humor, voyeurism, mirror reflections), and even a brief cameo, but on the whole MURDER! is lesser Hitchcock, and I’d recommend it only to completests and students of the director. In MURDER!, the director is dabbling in a genre he wasn’t really interested in, and despite a few “Hitchcock Touches”, doesn’t hold up well. BLACKMAIL, on the other hand, is an engaging film that shows Alfred Hitchcock adapting well to the new medium of sound films, and foreshadows greater things to come. And there’ll certainly be more Hitchcock to come here in the very near future!