While known alternately as both Great Britain’s first and Alfred Hitchcock’s first sound movie, Blackmail in truth was released simultaneously as a talkie and as a silent film. To make sure it was seen by as many people as possible, Hitch made two versions, the one silent to ensure theaters not yet equipped for sound in 1929 could still show it.
Blackmail is a tale of passion, betrayal, murder, and yes, blackmail, based on a play by Charles Bennett, who also helped Hitch adapt it for the screen. Bennett would end up working with the director in this capacity many times over the years, on films like Secret Agent, Sabotage, The 39 Steps, Foreign Correspondent, and The Man Who Knew Too Much. On his own he would also go on to adapt the TV version of “Casino Royale” and Curse of the Demon.
While originally a stage bound story, Hitch, and Bennett, do a wonderful job of opening the story up to many locations and sets. Many adaptations like this of the time were limiting and almost claustrophobic. The film’s climax is an edgy mad chase through the British Museum, similar to scenes Hitch would continue to construct throughout his career.
Lead actress Anny Ondra, primarily a Czech and German actress is stunning as an early Hitchcock blonde. All the other roles are played with precision but Ondra is the standout by miles. She was so well liked that the studio refused to let Hitch do the ending he wanted. The studio insisted Ondra walk free at the end, rather than pay for her crimes.
Hitch’s directing and storytelling skills are at their height here, and seriously, when aren’t they? Even before he was the master of suspense, he was always a master filmmaker. As with all Hitchcock films it is key you pay attention at all times, the devil is in the details. Simple yet complex, the dynamic storytelling style that would make Hitch one of our era’s greatest directors is evident and already honed here at the end of the 1920s decade.
I recently caught the rarely seen silent version on “Silent Sunday Nights” on TCM, and it was stunning. Must see for any Hitchcock fan or student of the medium, recommended.