Early Hitchcock: BLACKMAIL (1929) and MURDER! (1930)

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!

 

Halloween Havoc!: Lon Chaney in THE UNHOLY THREE (MGM 1930)

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Hollywood’s first true horror star was the inimitable Lon Chaney Sr, ‘The Man of a Thousand Faces’. Chaney’s superb pantomime skills, having been brought up by deaf parents, served him well in silent cinema, and his grotesque makeups in PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME sent shivers down 1920’s audience’s spines. Most notable were his ten bizarre collaborations with director Tod Browning,  including THE UNKNOWN (with young Joan Crawford ), LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT (Chaney as an ersatz vampire, now a lost film), and WEST OF ZANZIBAR (remade as the Pre-Code shocker KONGO).   Chaney and Browning scored a big hit with 1925’s THE UNHOLY  THREE, which Chaney remade in 1930 as his only talkie before succumbing to throat cancer later that year. While THE UNHOLY THREE isn’t an out-and-out horror film, it’s got enough weird elements in it and, since it’s you’re only chance to see the great Lon Chaney talk onscreen, deserves a look this Halloween season.

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We begin in a sideshow where the collections of oddities include sword-swallowers, bearded ladies, and conjoined twins. Chaney plays Echo, billed as ‘The World’s Greatest Ventriloquist’, who performs his act while his crony Rosie O’Grady picks the enthralled rube’s pockets. Echo keeps an ape locked in a cage for gawkers, which the strongman Hercules fears. Then there’s Tweedledee, a midget with a bad attitude, so bad he kicks a little child in the face and causes a riot to break out!

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These three (and Rosie) escape the melee and form a crime ring called ‘The Unholy Three’, planning robberies from their pet shop headquarters. Since they’re on the lam after the riot, Echo becomes Mrs. O’Grady (in full drag), a sweet old lady using his ventriloquist talents to sucker rich patrons into thinking they’ve bought talking parrots, then casing their homes to rob them. Tweedledee is disguised as baby Willie, Mrs. O’Grady’s grandson, while Hercues acts as his son-in-law. Rosie is the front, and Hector McDonald is a clueless clerk, unaware of the gang’s real intentions. Rosie and Hector get along a little too well for Echo’s liking, and his jealousy causes him to stay behind while Hercules and Twedledee take it on themselves to rob Mr. Arlington, resulting in murder.

The crooks decide to kill two birds with one stone by setting up Hector for the job, getting rid of Echo’s rival in the process. A ruby necklace is found in Hector’s coat pocket and he gets arrested, while The Unholy Three take it on the lam once again, forcing Rosie to come along. Hiding out in a mountain cabin while Hector’s trial goes on, Rosie begs Echo to do the right thing, vowing to stay with him if he helps free Hector. Echo returns to the city as Mrs. O’Grady and takes the stand, while at the cabin Hercules tries to persuade Rosie to leave with him and split the loot. Angry Tweedledee hears this and sets the gorilla loose on Hercules, but not before he’s strangled by the strongman. Rosie escapes with her life, but Echo’s ruse is discovered by the D.A. and he makes a full confession. Sentenced to five years, Echo frees Rosie from her vow so she can be with Hector, and repeats his words to live by, “That’s all there is to life… just a little laugh, a little tear”.

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The ending has been changed from the silent version, and to be honest I prefer the original. But like I said, it’s the only chance to see Chaney talk, and he’s just as good as in his silent vehicles, plus he gets to use his vocal skills doing four different voices. Jack Conway took the director’s chair from Browning, and does a fair job with the material. I also like the 1925 cast better, with Mae Busch (Rosie) and Victor McLaglen (Hercules) in the roles now played by Lila Lee and Ivan Linow. Harry Earles repeats his role as the evil dwarf Tweedledee, and his performance is chilling, though it’s sometimes hard to understand his thick German accent with the then-new recording technology being what it was. Earles is well-known to horror buffs as the lead in Browning’s FREAKS, and can be seen as one of the Lollipop Guild in THE WIZARD OF OZ.

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Without Lon Chaney Sr. paving the way, the horror of the cinema as we know it wouldn’t be the same. THE UNHOLY THREE is a curio to be sure, but one classic film fans should see for the talents of ‘The Man of a Thousand Faces’ in his only speaking part. It’s said Tod Browning was considering Chaney to star in his DRACULA, but sadly that wasn’t to be. How different would horror movies of the thirties be if Chaney had lived? The world will never know.