“I’m not bad really. Things have gone wrong lately, and one’s got to live, you know.”
Before Rear Window, Psycho, or any other classic Hitchcock (there are 17 on the list, by the way) – there was Blackmail. I’m glad this film ended up being the first in my journey. It’s a stunning reminder that older cinema can still be incredibly compelling with a strong artistic vision behind it. Although he hadn’t perfected his trademark style just yet, Hitchcock was nearly there, and Blackmail is a milestone work in the thriller genre.
Alice White (played by Anny Ondra) is a blonde damsel-in-distress who finds herself evading a police investigation after she is forced into committing murder while defending herself from rape. Pretty heavy stuff for 1929, although the social implications aren’t addressed. The rest of the movie is a slow simmer of tension as she faces guilt over her actions and is blackmailed by a certain Mr. Tracy who is down on his luck and takes advantage of her situation while she is defended by her boyfriend and police officer Frank Webber (John Logden.)
The acting is pretty standard for the time, but with a standout performance from Donald Calthrop for his sleezy portrayal as Mr. Tracy. The real takeaway from the film, though, is that Hitchcock really was a master of suspense. He didn’t need any psychopaths or killer bird gimmicks for this one; just wonderful pacing and great direction bring this simple story some high stakes. The camerawork was clearly ahead of its time (the spiral staircase bit from Vertigo even shows up here), and the tension comes from deliberately slow scenes. Little moments like Alice walking across the street or Mr. Tracy taking his sweet time to smoke a cigar are just chilling, and this technique could certainly see more successful use in modern cinema. The real wonder in 2016 is that such a slow, tense movie can keep its run time at 1 hour 24 minutes.
I also see the imagery as crucial to building suspense. The repetition of a sadistic clown painting serves as a continuous reminder to Alice of what she’s done. The breakfast scene the morning after the murder may have been the best in the film though, as Alice can only hear her mother say the word “knife” over and over, indicating her mental descent.
While it has some flaws by today’s standards that I need not go into, Blackmail is a tense script with a smart director that knows how to tease out the drama. It may not be at the top of his canon, but the film is a blueprint for films like Vertigo that would go on to define his career. You can see hints of a terrifying genius popping up all over the place when you watch Blackmail, and the years to come would breed one of the most influential and chilling directors in the history of cinema. More on that to come.
Films Left to Watch: 1000