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With: Anny Ondra, John Longden, Cyril Ritchard, Donald Calthrop, Sara Allgood, Charles Paton, Hannah Jones, Harvey Braban
Written by: Alfred Hitchcock, Benn W. Levy, based on a play by Charles Bennett
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 85
Date: 10/06/1929

Blackmail (1929)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Push Comes to Glove

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Alfred Hitchcock had made one previous attempt at the suspense genre, with The Lodger (1927), but Blackmail really showed the first hints of what was to come. Kino Lorber has released an excellent Blu-ray that contains three versions of the film. Made on the cusp of the sound era, the studio decided to make both a silent version (75 minutes) and a talking version (85 minutes) of the movie. The silent version includes a new score by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. Then, the talkie version is presented in two aspect ratios, a regular 1.33:1 version that is closer to what most viewers are used to, and a 1.20:1 version, or "pillarboxed" version, that presents a narrower picture, and arguably closer to what the original theatrical experience was like. (This is the one I watched.)

In the movie, a woman, Alice White (Anny Ondra), has a fight with her boyfriend, Scotland Yard Detective Frank Webber (John Longden), in a restaurant. He storms out, and she keeps a secret rendezvous with a new man, artist Crewe (Cyril Ritchard). He invites her up to his flat. She looks at paintings, and attempts to paint one of her own. He coaxes her to try on a dress, and she does, but he tries to steal a kiss, and then to take advantage of her. They move behind a curtain, she grabs a knife, and his dead hand splays out into view. She escapes the scene, but leaves behind a clue.

Webber is assigned to the case, and finds her glove at the scene. But as he and Alice discuss what to do, Tracy (Donald Calthrop) arrives, the other glove in hand, and blackmails Alice. Everything culminates in a great chase scene through a museum. Hitchcock's moving camera is impressively sophisticated here, including a rising shot that follows characters as they climb several flights of stairs, in addition to the strikingly staged museum scenes. Yet he also relies on silent-era visual cues, such as Alice continually seeing hands that remind her of her victim's, or the gimmick of the couple conversing in a phone booth, where they can't be heard, but can be seen.

The actors in Blackmail aren't especially dynamic, and the film contains a few awkward passages in which sound seems to have been forced upon sequences that were shot silent, and but it also contains an innovative use of early sound as Alice picks out only the word "knife" during an overheard conversation. Overall, it's an essential early Hitchcock, showing the master confidently finding his stride. (He can be seen, in one of his signature cameos, being pestered by a small boy on the London Underground.) The Blu-ray also contains a commentary track by Tim Lucas, an audio excerpt of a Francois Truffaut interview, an introduction by Noël Simsolo, and Anny Ondra's Screen Test.

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