The great Alfred Hitchcock’s first talkie was screened to cinema distributors and press on 21 June 1929 at Regal Arch’s Marble Cinema, and had its grand première on 28 July at London’s Capitol cinema. Though it started production as a silent, Hitchcock decided to switch to the new technology.
Producer John Maxwell gave him permission to make it a hybrid. Hitchcock didn’t like that idea very much, and secretly filmed almost everything in sound, using RCA Photophone. He also made a silent version for theatres not yet wired for sound.
Leading lady Anny Ondra (pictured above) had a thick Czech accent, which was considered undesirable for her role. Since post-dubbing technology didn’t yet exist, and Hitchcock didn’t want to replace her, Joan Barry was called in to speak her dialogue off-camera while Anny lip-synced.
Critics and the public loved Blackmail. It was one of the most popular and successful 1929 releases, and voted the best film of that year. Because most British theatres weren’t wired for sound, the silent version proved more popular, and had a longer running time.
Blackmail was filmed at British and Dominions Imperial Studios of Borehamwood, Hertfordshire, Europe’s first purpose-built sound studio. Though there were prior British talkies, Blackmail was one of the first all-talking features, with sound recorded in real time instead of dubbed in later.
Though both sound and silent versions survive, the sound version is more widely-available and better-remembered. Some critics, however, still prefer the silent version.
Hitchcock’s cameo starts about ten minutes in, and is one of his longest, at nineteen seconds. The director is bothered by a little boy as he reads a book on the London Underground.
Frank Webber (John Longden), a Scotland Yard detective, is dating Alice White (Anny Ondra). While they’re at a teahouse, the couple begins arguing, and Frank becomes so annoyed and frustrated at Anny’s refusal to attend the movies, he cuts their date short.
Frank is rather displeased to presently see Alice leaving with artist Mr. Crewe (Cyril Ritchard), who previously communicated with her via body language at the teahouse. When they arrive at Mr. Crewe’s studio, Alice is reluctant to go inside, but ultimately is convinced to enter.
Alice is immediately put at ease, and finds mirth in Mr. Crewe’s painting of a laughing clown. She then gets a painting lesson. To her simple face Mr. Crewe adds a naked female figure, and guides Alice’s hand as she signs her name.
Alice sees a ballerina dress while Mr. Crewe fetches drinks, and is convinced to model it for him. She’s outraged when Mr. Crewe kisses her, and starts changing her clothes.
Mr. Crewe takes away her original dress and tries to rape her. No one hears Alice’s cries for help, and she reaches through a curtain for a knife.
After Alice emerges from behind the curtain, she slashes the painting of the clown and paints over her name on the other painting. She very stealthily leaves the building after putting her clothes back on, but forgets her gloves.
All night, Alice wanders the streets of London in a daze, driven crazy by images of knives and thinking about those missing gloves.
Mr. Crewe’s body is discovered by his landlady, and Frank is assigned to the investigation. While in Mr. Crewe’s studio, he recognises one of Alice’s gloves and the dead artist both, but keeps mum.
In the morning, Alice’s mother informs her there was a murder around the corner during the night, and wonders why she’s still in bed. After Mrs. White leaves, Alice gets out of bed, still in her clothes from last night.
Alice goes downstairs to her dad’s tobacco shop, and is extremely rattled by talk about the murder and the repetition of the word “knife.”
Frank comes to speak with Alice and show her the glove, but she’s too shaken-up to say anything, even when they step into a phonebooth for privacy.
Customer Tracy (Donald Calthrop) arrives with the other glove. Even worse, he saw Alice going into Mr. Crewe’s studio and now discovers Frank has the first glove.
Tracy begins blackmailing Alice and Frank, with more and more outrageous demands. When it comes out Tracy has a criminal record, Frank calls the cops, who chase Tracy all the way onto the roof of the British Museum.
And the plot twists don’t end there.
Blackmail is one of the best early talkies I’ve seen. It doesn’t have the awkward, stagey style associated with most others. It easily feels like a 1930s film.