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World Film News (1937) - Re-seeing Blackmail



Re-seeing Blackmail

Hitchcock made Blackmail during that hectic period just after Al Jolson's sobsongs had knocked the film business for a hoop. It was started silent, and had gaily gone halfway on its schedule before it was realised that silent films were dead and sound films had really arrived. So with new equipment, new technicians and a new medium, Hitch finished Blackmail as his first sound film. And he made a grand job. There is a freshness about the approach to sound in it that is positively startling in these days of stereotyped dialogue and balanced background. Of course, the quality of the sound was frightful. Burps and hoops punctuated the conversations. Anny Ondra mouthed her shop-girl's words in front of the camera, while Joan Barry minced Mayfair into the microphone off the set. But in spite of all this the fact remains that in Blackmail Hitch didn't think of sound as a new trick to put words into his characters' mouths—he thought of it as a new dramatic medium, something with which to build up suspense, drama, and interest. In the silent sections he used music. Music for reels at a time. And it worked. The action was quicker and just as intense. There was no feeling of artificiality through lack of speech. And where there was speech it was used almost wholly for dramatic effect, not to prove to the audience that the actors had uvulas and larynxes.

The story is of a shop-girl who, tiring of her police boy friend, gets off with an artist who takes her to his flat and tries to rape her. He gets stabbed to death with a knife in the struggle. The girl is seen leaving the flat by a cadger type who recognises her. After the killing the girl wanders the streets all night and then goes home and slips into bed just before the time her mother comes to waken her. She is in a state of complete hysteria, expecting to be arrested at any moment. Meanwhile the police boy friend is investigating the case. He finds the girl's glove at the artist's flat and comes round to her house to question her. The cadger turns up too, and tries to blackmail him. Eventually, the cadger gets accused of the murder and, in a panic, runs away and is killed.

By intelligent use of sound, Hitchcock made this sordid story memorable. The first time he did it was when the girl was wandering in the street after the killing. The last she had seen of the dead man was his hand sticking out from a curtain. So as she wandered the streets she was obsessed with hands. She saw huge hands everywhere: policemen's, paper-sellers', touts'. Suddenly she saw a beggar asleep. His hand lay just as the dead man's hand had done. She opened her mouth to shriek. And the shriek came from the mouth of the artist's landlady finding the body! It's been done again but never so well as this, the first time. Again, when the girl has sneaked home to bed, just before her mother comes in to waken her, the mother fusses with the canary that sings of freedom and happiness while the camera concentrates on the girl, half mad with fear of imprisonment and hanging. And then when she comes down to breakfast, the talk is all of the near-by murder. A gossipy neighbour, full of it, begins to elaborate on the horror of knifing. She harps again and again on the word 'knife'. Gradually the rest of her words become weaker but 'knife' goes on. Soon to the distorted mind of the girl, the neighbour is no longer gossiping. We hear, as the girl hears, the shrill voice repeating horribly, monotonously, "Knife—Knife—Knife." And we grip our seats with the sheer terror of it.

To her every ring of the bell means the police. The bell seems to be always ringing. And every one louder, more ominous. Suddenly, the bell rings again. But this time it rings differently. It is higher, fiercer, more metallic. The sound is forced up until it seems to go through you. It frightens you. And it introduces the blackmailer!

All through the film there occur these imaginative uses of sound. They may be criticised as unreal but in point of fact they are not. Everyone helped to get across to the audience the reality of the girl's terror, the reality of her suspense. Why should sound on the screen always be real? We all know that a door bangs or a clock ticks. But what we should want to hear is how the noises sound to the characters we are seeing. In Blackmail you saw an imaginative melodramatic director suddenly given an extra medium to play with. And he accepted it as one would expect, solely to produce extra dramatic effect. With such a beginning we could have hoped that by now imaginative sound in films would have been an accepted fact. But it is not. Almost always any sound that is not the direct complement of the picture is looked on as highbrow and arty. It is sneered at as being vague and obscure. Why? The sound in Blackmail didn't obscure. It clarified, every time. How much could be done with modern films overloaded as they are with dialogue, by the use of these early "tricks',' if you like to call them that. But no, the characters must sit around and tell us just how they feel and exactly what they're going to do next. None of Hitchcock's latest films use sound with the same imagination. Why has screen sound become dead? One solution may be that the creative minds have been overwhelmed by the large new body of sound technicians, terribly clever, terribly earnest, and terribly dull. Their one desire seems to be to get sound more and more like the real thing. But no fancy stuff. "A bell is a bell, old boy. Never a gong."