Why, hello, Mr. Hitchcock. I wasn’t expecting to meet you so soon.
Blackmail wasn’t Hitchcock’s first-ever film – he actually did six other silent films before this one. This was originally meant to be a silent film as well – but midway through production, the studio asked Hitchcock to make it a sort of half-way talkie, with only one or two scenes scored with incidental sound and some dialogue and the rest of the film covered with intertitles. But Hitchcock was reluctant, partly because he thought the idea of a half-talkie, half-silent film was pretty stupid. If you’re going to use sound, use sound through the whole thing, dammit – and that’s what he wanted to do.
However, Hitchcock had another problem. His lead actress, Anny Ondra, was a Czech émigré who had a very thick accent. It hadn’t been a problem for Ondra in the days of silent films, but for talkies, she was nigh-incomprehensible. She was the lead, however, and it was too late to recast. But Hitchcock was determined to turn the whole film into a talkie – so he hired a second actress, Joan Barry, to speak the lines off camera during each scene, while Ondra lip-synced her way through the whole film. It works better than you’d think; I didn’t know this detail before watching the film, and was tremendously surprised to learn that, as I hadn’t noticed anything amiss. At most, Ondra’s performance seemed a little stilted for the first few scenes, but that was it; when the story really picks up, Ondra’s emotive face carries the day, and I didn’t notice anything amiss at all.
And the story really picks up for Ondra/Barry’s character. She/they play Alice White, a London shopgirl and the steady girlfriend of junior detective Frank Webber. But Alice is getting a bit bored with Frank; she picks a fight with him while out on a date early in the film, because she secretly has arranged to meet up that same night with another fellow who’s caught her eye. When Frank storms off in a huff, she scurries over to her second date with Mr. Crewe, a dashing painter who lives on her street. He invites her to come check out his studio and his paintings – but Crewe has some ulterior motives, and won’t take “no” for an answer, even though Alice is very much opposed to the idea of hooking up. During the struggle, a panicked Alice grabs a knife from a nearby cheese plate and stabs him.
That’s where the story really picks up, believe it or not. A panicked Alice tries to cover her tracks, but Frank – who is conveniently on the squad assigned to the case – discovers her glove left behind on the scene. He secretly pockets it, and goes to Alice to get her side of things and maybe figure out how to get her off. But unfortunately for both Frank and Alice, there was a witness – at least, someone who saw Alice following Crewe home, and also saw her leaving all by herself. Instead of going to the police, though, our witness Mr. Tracey has decided to blackmail the pair.
And that leads to the scene that I felt was the most gripping. It’s a wholly psychological showdown; Tracey has been toying with Alice and Frank for most of the morning, as Alice is wracked with guilt over her actions. But Frank gets word that Scotland Yard now suspects Tracey himself of the act – he’d been trying to blackmail Crewe over something wholly different, and had just left a subtly threatening message for him with the landlady. Frank locks himself and Alice in a room with Tracey, then springs the news. And for the next several minutes there is a three-way standoff – Tracey taunts Frank with the point that Alice’s involvement looks shady, while Frank taunts him back with the point that so does Tracey’s; while Alice, the only one who knows what really happened, is torn between letting Tracey take the fall, or fessing up. It’s a deliciously suspenseful scene, even though it’s only a few minutes long.
From what little I know about Hitchcock, that suspense was his signature. But Hitchcock also did some nifty things to play up Alice’s state of mind immediately after the stabbing – including a scene (linked here) where a gossipy neighbor stops by the shop to discuss the murder. She has a lengthy monologue about how shocking a murder by stabbing is in principle; but after only a few seconds, Hitchcock pans to Alice’s face and fades the sound down on the other actresses’ speech – except for the word “knife”, which rings through loud and clear, and is a word she perversely repeats over and over, making Alice increasingly jumpy each time.
So yeah, I dug this.