Monday, 13 July 2015

Concerto for the conscience… Blackmail (1929), Saffron Hall with Timothy Brock, BBC Symphony Orchestra

When the Hitchcock Nine restorations were premiered through 2012 this is one I managed to miss – the big one! The film was screened with a full orchestra playing Neil Brand’s score at the British Museum but I was on holiday… I thought about cancelling, but, you know…

Anyway, patience is its own reward, especially if a second chance comes your way, which is why I set off in search of Saffron Walden (no, you can’t really turn straight off the M11, you need to go via Stansted Mountfitchet… or at least print out a map Paul!) to see the film being screened with Timothy Brock conducting the mighty BBC Symphony Orchestra in playing Mr Brand’s score and… I don’t think things could have been any better at the Museum.

Impressive, isn't it?
Saffron Hall is a purpose-built concert hall tacked onto Saffron Walden County High School; it has a generous stage with more than enough room for an 80 plus piece orchestra, excellent acoustics – we were wrapped in sound – and very comfy chairs. We kicked back and re-watched Blackmail in a new context as Anny Ondra’s gaze drew us in once more.
Blackmail shows how massively an evening can go wrong and how anyone can be dragged into a new world in an instant - a world that floods your very being with the sickness of guilt and the dread of consequence. It is also clearly about desire – Miss Ondra is at the centre of almost the whole story – and the danger of following you primal heart too far, as Cyril Ritchard’s character, the artist Mr Crewe, finds out.

Every aspect of Alice's life is changed...
It is also a morally open film that challenges the audience to adjust their expectations even 86 years after release – we’re all guilty and complicit by the end with the director putting us all in the picture. 

We root for Anny’s character Alice White (see what he did..?) and we hope she and her policeman Frank (John Longden) will find themselves after the twist of hate that leaves the more clearly-defined bad-guy, Mr Tracy, the blackmailer of the title, conveniently in the frame. But the ending is purposefully ambiguous – you can escape “justice”, even get away with murder but in the end, the characters will judge themselves and each other. That much is clear when Frank’s previously supportive hand, drifts slowly away from Alice’s hand…

Tracy applies the pressure...
The restoration is of course superb leaving the images as spic and span as when they were first projected and from our vantage point we were eye-level with the sequence of marvelous location shots, close-ups and interplays that make this film one of Hitchcock’s most visually pleasing. Everything that was to come is pretty much in this film and it is one of the most disciplined of British silent films that almost needs no titles cards to explain itself.

All of which has been a gift to Neil Brand  and his composition manages to amplify the film’s emotional content whilst carefully under-scoring the narrative by matching the director’s pacing. There are powerful Herrmann chords and huge emotional shifts that well up in tune with the tears at the corner of Anny’s eyes. There are also interjections that sum up the re-assuring, yet humorous presence of a policeman even in the moments leading up to Alice’s crisis. These details are the essence of Hitchcock’s very British appeal and Neil obviously knows him very well!

Music and role-play what could possibly go wrong?
Timothy Brock’s orchestration brings out the full flavour of Brand’s score and the orchestra was simply irresistible creating that unique meld of sound and vision that can make silent film the most truly immersive of all cinema – yes, even without IMAX, 3D and maximum volume. It is “hot media” alright calling on the instinctive 90% of our communication that does not rely on spoken words and filling that missing 10% with a sweet overload of sounds in sympathy.

Donald Calthrop
This succeeds in adding flavour to the expression on view with great performances brought into new focus. Cyril Ritchard’s artist is a typically-nuanced creation: was he intending to go all the way with Alice, maybe not at first but certainly after she’d put on the ballet dress and subsequently re-buffed him. Even in these desperate moments we still expect him to back down and to be the gentleman he appeared to be.

Donald Calthrop’s Tracy is a mean man, preying on the vulnerable and living off other’s misfortune. Nothing will prevent him from trying to take advantage of Alice and Frank’s situation and yet when the tables are turned his own fear is brought to the surface, bringing out Alice’s compassion even when it may cost her dearly.

John Longden
John Longden’s Detective Frank Webber, is all action in the opening sequence and appears to be pure metropolitan police blue-blooded. He’s dedicated to his work and often leaves his girlfriend Alice waiting, she is seeking more adventure and dumps him for the artist and yet he is still willing to help. Doubts appear at the end making Frank feel even more real.

But it’s really all about Anny as Alice runs the full gamut from bored tease to a girl who will fight for her life and then condemn her own actions: she was well-brought up in that news agent! We saw it all and as a modern audience have no doubt it was self-defence but how did contemporary audiences feel. Perhaps the clue is on Anny’s face as she walks out of the police station at the end: eyes glazed and in a daze.

Hitchcock’s later films were more specifically about blood and horror here the fear is so much more effective for being contained: there is no blood, just repeated images of the knife, knives, the dead man’s hand resonating in others' hands: Alice is haunted by her actions and we can only hope Fred or someone else will help relieve her burden.

Blackmail is available but, frustratingly and unlike The Lodger, the restored version has not yet been released. As with that film it really does deserve a dual-disc release with Neil and Timothy’s music on it. OK, who’s in charge? When do we start the petition!?

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