With BLACKMAIL, Hitchcock continued to refine his unique ability to mix murder and suspense with generous helpings of comedy. There are quite a few laughs in the first twenty minutes before the serious business of killing makes an appearance; the audience might almost forget they are watching a film whose plot revolves around an attempted blackmail. Other familiar Hitchcockian ingredients also come in to play: the police detective unable to help, and the spectacular climax set against a famous landmark (here, the British Museum).
One can see Hitch growing in technical confidence with each successive film…
After a prologue which follows (in almost forensic detail) the arrest and detention of a wanted criminal by London’s Flying Squad, Scotland Yard detective Frank Webber (John Longden) meets up with girlfriend Alice White (Anny Ondra) for a date, which ends abruptly after a tiff. Alice bumps in to a rival for her affection however, and they head back to his flat. When he tries to rape her though, she is forced to defend herself with the use of a knife, and flees the murder scene. But she leaves behind incriminating evidence, which leaves her at the mercy of someone who saw her leave the flat that night.
One can see Hitch growing in technical confidence with each successive film. BLACKMAIL features several memorably effective shots: one immediately preceding the death scene as the would-be rapist goes in for the kill, the camera perched just above and behind his left shoulder, almost giving the audience an attacker’s Point of View. Later the camera zooms in on Alice’s hand as she fumbles for something to defend herself with, finally picking up a bread knife. And the frequent cuts back to the painting of the Joker, pointing and laughing at the viewer, only re-enforces the suspicion that for Hitch, death is a giant black joke.
BLACKMAIL was famously Hitch’s transition from silent movies to talkies; it was the former version that was shown in a newly restored print at the Cambridge Film Festival. The silent version shows greater evidence of Hitch’s cinematic inventiveness, and the lessons he learned during these early years are plainly visible through the rest of his career.