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The Times (25/May/1936) - "Blackmail"

(c) The Times (25/May/1936)




The fourth programme in the Everyman Theatre's account of the history of the film consists of two of the early talking pictures, one English and one American — Blackmail, directed by Mr. Hitchcock, who signs his name to his pictures as surely as Whistler did with his butterfly, and The Front Page, a hectic story of what lengths American journalists will go in order to get their "scoops." Mr. Hitchcock's long and strong suit is suspense. He can hold up a scene and keep it held up, for, although action may be momentarily suspended, he has caught the interest of the audience by his early establishment of character and his insistence on motive. He knows, too, the value of details and how to give details, in this case a glove and a kitchen knife, significance without making them tiresomely symbolic. The clue is always there, and in that particular sense Mr. Hitchcock's films resemble the more intelligent and conscientious works of detective fiction. There is no fool's mate — the pawn, as manoeuvred by Mr. Hitchcock, is always a potential queen, but not necessarily so. To make his end game more expert and more effective the pawn may turn into the bestriding figure of a knight. Blackmail, based on the play by Mr. Charles Bennett, is full of doom moving with fatal deliberation to its end. While the young Chelsea artist (Mr. Cyril Ritchard) is entertaining the tobacconist's daughter (Miss Anny Ondra) at his studio the rhythm is slow, the scene artless, but the sense of impending tragedy is always there. The blackmail of the girl by the man in possession' of the glove (Mr. Donald Calthrop) is conducted with mesmeric coolness. The scenes at Scotland Yard, in the British Museum, and the final chase over the Museum's roof are so well handled that personal drama and objective reality are fused into one. Blackmail, apart from its many intrinsic merits, is interesting in that it shows how, in spite of the verbal felicity of the dialogue, speech, which now seems so natural, then seemed forced, and in that Mr. Donald Calthrop is an actor to whom the film with profit, might turn again.

The script of The Front Page is written by that interesting collaboration Mr. Ben Hecht and Mr. Charles MacArtur, who know the inside of the procedure of the American "yellow" Press, and give the half-a-dozen or so reporters in this film both individuality and what looks suspiciously like authenticity. Nothing is too underhanded or too unexpected—the "front page" has to be filled, and whether the "scoop" leads to the electric chair for one man or to the editorial for another is a matter of no consequence except to the immediately interested parties. While "scoops" and executions are in the air, reporters play poker, discuss crime, philosophize, and drink. Mr. Adolphe Menjou, casting aside his suavities, successfully poses as a managing editor.