Saturday, 31 August 2013

Love versus duty… Blackmail (1929) at the BFI with Cyrus Gabrysch

“Hitchcock is one of the greatest inventors of form in the entire history of cinema.  …an entire moral universe has been elaborated on the basis of this form and by its very rigour.” Eric Rhomer and Claude Chabrol

Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous silent film is pretty much the last of the BFI restorations I’ve seen* and I still regret missing last year’s gala showing at the British Museum (up a mountain in Wales at the time). Tonight the restoration was shown with piano accompaniment from Cyrus Gabrysch who did this sparkling, intense, invention full justice.

Hitchcock’s last silent film was also, cleverly, his first sound film or “part-talkie”. He planned out both versions in pre-production and rather than have to over-lay sound after shooting he was prepared, with, for example, Anny Ondra’s Polish tones being replaced by the voice of Joan Barry who spoke her lines live on set, just off-camera. Blackmail therefore avoided the stilted pitfalls of many early talkies whilst at the same time it remaining one of the most accomplished British silent films and certainly one of the best of the “Hitchcock Nine”.

John Longden, Anny Ondra and Donald Calthrop
The silent film on show is not improved by sporadic sound effects and voices – it is one of Hitchcock’s most intensely dramatic tales and, along with The Lodger, best represents the style of film he spent most of his career refining.

Blackmail was adapted from Charles Bennett’s play of 1928 by Hitchcock along with Benn W. Levy and with some help from Bennett (Michael Powell also later claimed responsibility for the setting of the grand finale**).  The “vision” was entirely Hitchcock’s own from the flashing drinks ad at Piccadilly that mutates to show stabbing  knives – Alice White’s guilty obsession – to the guest appearance as “man harassed by young child on tube”.

The flying squad
The film starts with a police van surging through the London traffic and the restored film makes this window on our grandparents’ world that much clearer: street spotting reveals more as they race around the West End.

This chase mirrors one later in the film when the seemingly inexorable “process of the law” is in full swing and here we see two policemen relenetlessly closing in on a miserable looking suspect in a squalid flat.

Harvey Braban and John Longden
One of the “peelers” on patrol is Detective Frank Webber (John Longden) who is now late to meet up with his sweetheart Alice White (Anny Ondra) who is less than impressed at his tardiness (and more besides). They head off for supper at Lyons’ Corner House and after just about grabbing a table, the full extent of her discontent is revealed.

Alice has had another offer from a man who turns out to be an artist called Mr. Crewe (Cyril Ritchard) who arrives just as she is giving poor Frank the brush-off. Crewe joins Alice and the two walk out much to the jilted copper’s dismay as he glances back...

We feel for Frank at his girl’s callous double-dealing but Alice’s night has only just begun.

Alice thinks she can do better...
She and Crewe head out to his apartment where he has promised to show her his studio (oh yeah, pull the other one sonny…)… on the door step, Crewe has to speak to a man who has seemingly been waiting for him: an unsettling foretaste of what is to come.

Alice and Crewe walk up the stairs, followed flight by flight by the camera tracking their guilty progress to an inappropriate encounter.

The scene of the crime
Once in Crewe’s studio Alice loses herself in fascination of his other-wordly life, her eye being caught by his painting of a jester, who appears to laugh straight at the viewer’s gaze. She makes a few brush-strokes of her own and Crewe holds her as he completes them. Then Alice tries on a ballerina’s costume and Crewe says how much he would like to paint her…

There is no doubt that Alice is deeply intrigued by Crewe but whether she can cross the boundary of perceived good behaviour is another thing. The painter becomes increasingly emboldened and proceeds to try and take hold of what he thinks is being offered.

Alice's world is about to turn...
It’s a misunderstanding, perhaps, but Crewe cannot hold himself back... in her panic Alice grabs hold of a bread knife and strikes him down… All happens off-camera, behind a curtain leaving the struggle to the viewer’s imagination – still horribly effective.

Alice reels in shock and driven by instinct starts to cover her tracks… Ondra is quite amazing during these scenes, her face a blank mask of disbelief at her own reactions: someone who had never suspected that they could kill.

Alice is literally out of focus as she arrives home...
Alice escapes home to her parents humble newsagents round the corner just in time to be greeted by the morning comfort of her mother (Sara Allgood) bringing her tea in bed. Breakfast normality is swiftly dissolved as her father (Charles Patton) talks of the killing…

Things are about to get worse, as Frank has been put on the case and in examining the murder scene finds one of Alice’s gloves just before he turns to recognise the murdered man… He knows that Alice was with him but does he yet suspect the full extent of her involvement?

Home comfort fades...
He arrives at the newsagent and manages to return the glove to Alice: is he being loyal or opportunist? Either way a crucial third party enters the mix as the man who was waiting for Crewe arrives knowing far too much about the events.

Donald Calthrop is superb as the subtle blackmailer Tracy, so controlled when he has the upper hand but with a quicksilver shift to fright once the tables begin to turn. He enjoys the dominance his spying has bought him and gets the couple to buy him a fancy cigar and make his breakfast.

Keeping watch: Donald Calthrop
All the while we sense that Alice is nursing her guilt and preparing herself to take her punishment and yet Frank gets in the way. Curious that the policemen should be the one obstructing justice or does he see beyond to the probably circumstances of the killing: self-defence? Why is he so keen to defend this woman who had previously dumped him - can love overcome duty?

Hitchcock keeps up the suspense and the narrative moves along quickly and uncomfortably… We have to make our own judgement over whether Alice deserves or wants to “get away with it” and whether she will or not is always in doubt. Suspenseful and intense, Blackmail is the first great sustained instance of the magic Hitchcock formula.

Inside the museum... sort of.
Of course, Anny Ondra is ideally suited to conveying what Charles Barr highlights as the intense “interior qualities” of the narrative – a rare capability especially when combined with her startling features. What could she have gone on to achieve had her accent been as tame-able as Garbo’s?

Anny Ondra
The restored print is of course excellent and far better than watching the existing murky DVDs… The BFI were able to use the original negatives with a good deal of technical re-working. The print clarity also shows up the director’s use of back projections as well as the Schüfftan process which involved shooting against scale miniatures for the Museum scenes – not so impressive in this digital age perhaps but a real break-through in terms of showing characters in situ.

When the re-release happens I hope they include the sound film for comparison as well as Neil Brand's super score which went down so well at least year’s restoration premier. That’s not to say that Mr Gabrysch didn’t do a very fine job of accompanying Mr Hicthcock’s darkest silent hour (and 17 minutes… )  with his energetic classical lines seamlessly blending with the ebb and flow of the drama.

*Just Easy Virtue to go…

**Michael Powell took still photographs on the film whilst Ronald Neame operated the clapperboard...  both went on to direct a few films of their own.


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    1. Good to see Anny Ondra in her earlier work! Thank you for showing me your blog - a lot to see!! Best wishes. Paul