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"Blackmail (1929), Hitchcock and Film Nationalism" - by Mark Glancy




Blackmail (1929), Hitchcock and Film Nationalism

Mark Glancy

By any reckoning, Blackmail is now considered to be a 'classic' film. There are several criteria on which this may be judged. First, Blackmail has continued to draw the attention and interest of modern audiences, as witnessed in frequent revivals in specialist cinemas, screenings on television, and re-releases on video and DVD. Second, it stands as a landmark in film history because it was long assumed to be Britain's first feature film with dialogue. Although film historians latterly have shown that there were other contenders for this title, Blackmail retained its status due to the sheer originality with which the new technology was deployed.1 It demonstrated that sound could be used with imaginative flair, and at a time when many talkies aspired only to reproduce dialogue, this was a landmark in itself. Third, Blackmail had a remarkable (and complicated) production history that has become one of film history's legends. Originally produced as a silent feature, it was only when filming was nearly completed that the studio, British International Pictures (BIP), decided that a talking version should be made as well. This brought a host of challenges, and not least because the leading actress, Anny Ondra, was Czechoslovakian and therefore unsuited to her English-speaking role. None the less, both a silent and a sound version were released in 1929, and comparisons between the two have captivated cineastes for decades.2 Fourth, and most importantly for the purposes of this chapter, from the time of its release until the present day, Blackmail has inspired extensive critical and scholarly attention.

Initially, Blackmail was deemed to be worthy of critical attention on the basis of its inventive use of sound. Soon after its release, for example, the intellectual film journal Close Up and Paul Rotha's weighty survey of world cinema, The Film Till Now (1930) considered the film as an exception to the artless din of most talkies. Blackmail gave hope that sound could make a progressive contribution to film form.3 Subsequently, the enduring interest in Blackmail has rested primarily in its reputation as one of the key films of cinema's most celebrated and admired auteurs, Alfred Hitchcock. In this context, it is seen as an early but nevertheless quintessential 'Hitchcockian' film, and not least because of the story's focus on a tormented blonde heroine (Anny Ondra's role). This approach to the film was apparent in the very first book-length study of Hitchcock's work, Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol's Hitchcock: The First Forty-Four Films (1957), which positioned Blackmail as an early work that 'prefigures' Hitchcock's important later films.4 It has also drawn considerable attention from feminist critics, including Tania Modleski, who devoted a chapter to the film in her highly regarded study The Women Who Knew Too Much (1988).5 More recently, Patrick McGilligan's biography of the director, Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and in Light (2003), has placed Blackmail at the very heart of the director's oeuvre. As McGilligan states, 'if there is one film, one character, one actress at the heart of Hitchcock's work, it is Anny Ondra in Blackmail.'6

Like other classic films, then, Blackmail has endured because it has suited the interests and preoccupations of successive waves of critics and audiences. This chapter is not concerned with demonstrating that any one interpretation or approach to the film is superior to another. Rather, the concern here is to explore the extent to which the significance and meanings attached to the film have shifted over time...

[ to view the rest of the chapter, please see the book ]


  1. See the discussion in Rachael Low, The History of the British Film, 1918-29 (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1971), p. 205; and in Tom Ryall, Alfred Hitchcock and the British Cinema (London: Croom Helm, 1986), pp. 94-5.
  2. For an authoritative comparison of the two versions, see the chapter in Charles Barr, English Hitchcock (Dumfriesshire: Cameron 8c Hollis, 1999), pp. 81-97.
  3. Kenneth MacPherson, 'As Is', Close Up, 5:4 (October 1929), pp. 257-63; and Paul Rotha, The Film Till Now: A Survey of World Cinema (London: Jonathan Cape, 1930), p. 321.
  4. Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol, Hitchcock: The First Forty-Four Films (Oxford: Roundhouse, 1979 (1957)), p. 23.
  5. Tania Modleski, The Women Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory (London: Routledge, 1988), pp. 17-30.
  6. Patrick McGilligan, Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and in Light (New York: Regan, 2003), p. 122.
  7. The critical standing of the thriller was particularly low in the 1930s. See James Chapman, 'Celluloid Shockers', in Jeffrey Richards (ed.), The Unknown 1930s: An Alternative History of the British Cinema, 1929-39 (London: I. B. Tauris, 1998), pp. 75-97.
  8. Rohmer and Chabrol, The First Forty-Four Films, p. ix.
  9. Robin Wood, Hitchcock's Films Revisited (London: Faber & Faber, 1989 (1965)).
  10. Hitchcock and Truffaut discuss this story in François Truffaut, Hitchcock: The Definitive Study (London: Paladin, 1986 (1968)), p. 20.
  11. John Russell Taylor, Hitch: The Authorised Biography of Alfred Hitchcock (London: Abacus, 1981 (1978)), p. 6.
  12. Donald Spoto, The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock (New York: Ballantine, 1993 (1983)).
  13. Modleski, The Women Who Knew Too Much, p. 3.
  14. Rohmer and Chabrol, The First Forty-Four Films, p. 23.
  15. Modleski, The Women Who Knew Too Much, p. 30.
  16. Ibid., p. 3;
  17. Spoto, The Dark Side of Genius, p. 132.
  18. For a discussion of the film's sound qualities, see Elisabeth Weis, The Silent Scream: Alfred Hitchcock's Soundtrack (New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson, 1982), pp. 28-33.
  19. Most of the newspaper reviews cited in this essay were drawn from the Blackmail Clippings Scrapbook, Alfred Hitchcock Collection, Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The Hitchcock Collection also holds scrapbooks on 13 other Hitchcock films (all are hereafter referred to as HC/AMPAS).
  20. Daily Mail, 27 June 1929, HC/AMPAS.
  21. Cedric Belfrage, 'Alfred the Great', Picturegoer, March 1926, p. 60.
  22. See, for example, the reviews in the Daily Telegraph, 19 January 1927, and the Sunday Pictorial, 19 September 1926. Both are held within The Lodger, HC/AMPAS.
  23. Evening Standard, 1 October 1927, The Ring, HC/AMPAS.
  24. The Farmer's Wife, HC/AMPAS.
  25. Rohmer and Chabrol, The First Forty-Four Films, p. 22.
  26. Modleski, The Women Who Knew Too Much, p. 18.
  27. Times, 24 June 1929, HC/AMPAS.
  28. Kinematograph Weekly, 27 June 1929, p. 43; Picturegoer, August 1929, pp. 14-15.
  29. Alexander Walker, The Shattered Silents: How the Talkies Came to Stay (London: Elm Tree, 1978), pp. 87-9.
  30. Times; Daily Mail; Sunday Pictorial, 23 June 1929; all HC/AMPAS.
  31. Newcastle Chronicle, 24 June 1929; and Glasgow Bulletin, 29 June 1929; both HC/AMPAS.
  32. Morning Post, 24 June 1929, HC/AMPAS.
  33. Daily Mail, 24 June 1929, HC/AMPAS.
  34. Tom Ryall, Blackmail: BFI Film Classics (London: British Film Institute, 1992), p. ii.
  35. The Times, for example, noted that 'someone has clearly improved, if not stolen, her voice'. Times, HC/AMPAS.
  36. Morning Post; Morning Advertiser, 24 June 1929; The Cinema, 26 June 1929; all HC/AMPAS.
  37. Sunday Express, 23 June 1929, p. 4.
  38. Daily Mirror, 24 June 1929, HC/AMPAS.
  39. Newcastle Chronicle, HC/AMPAS.
  40. Daily Chronicle, 24 June 1929; HC/AMPAS.
  41. Sunday Dispatch, 23 June 1929; HC/AMPAS.
  42. Box-office reports are generally few and far between in the British trade weeklies. In February and March of 1929, however, Kinematograph Weekly took note of the talkies' success in brief articles that refer to record-breaking and sell-out crowds in several cities. See, for example, 'Talkie News', Kinematograph Weekly, 14 March 1929, p. 48.
  43. Film Weekly, 16 May 1931, p. 6.
  44. Picturegoer letters from E.R.S., Scarborough, June 1929, p. 60; H.H., July 1929, p. 60.
  45. Letter from L. D. Sanders, Picturegoer, July 1929, p. 61.
  46. Letter from M.K.R., Brighton, Picturegoer, November 1929, p. 80.
  47. Letter from L. Ritchie, Preston, Picturegoer, March 1930, p. 71.
  48. Letter from M.W., London SW17, Picturegoer, March 1930, p. 71.
  49. Picturegoer letters from Miss Molly Lambert, Sheffield, November 1929, p. 76; and E.K., Bournemouth, January 1930, p. 71.
  50. Glasgow Herald, 24 June 1929, p. 15.
  51. Sunday Express, 28 July 1929, p. 4.
  52. Kinematograph Weekly, 27 June 1929, p. 43.
  53. Picturegoer letters from Mabel Bell, Glasgow, 7 November 1931, p. 29; David Jolly, Angus, 28 November 1931, p. 30; Miss J. Fisher, London E2, 7 November 1931, p. 30; A. E. Gorman, Cleveland, 7 November 1931, p. 29.
  54. See 'The Stars Talk', Picturegoer, 20 June 1931, p. 26.
  55. Rotha, The Film Till Now, pp. 405-6.