84m 27s (film)
approx. 84m (commentary)
11m 28s (supplementary)
Written by: Charles Bennett
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Anny Ondra,
Sara Allgood, Charles Paton, John Longden, Donald Calthrop, Cyril Ritchard
Having already made a name for himself in the silent films, director Alfred Hitchcock's entered the world of sound with his 1929 suspense-thriller Blackmail, Great Britain's first sound motion picture. Blackmail was originally begun and completed as a silent film production (and a different silent version still exists), but as sound was becoming a viable commodity for films, the decision to add sound to Blackmail was made after the film was already completed. In those early days of sound, post-production sound editing was an arduous task, but as Hitchcock suspected that his film might go the sound route at some point, he shot important scenes in such a way to allow for easy reshooting and editing of any future sound sequences. While the end result of this "post-production" sound revision/editing often comes across as awkward by today's standards, Hitchcock did use sound to the fullest possible degree at the time, and Blackmail does benefit greatly from it.
Okay, so we've talked about the sound, but what about the film? Well, I'm pleased to say that this early Hitchcock effort definitely does not disappoint, and Blackmail comes across as an effective thriller. As you came to expect from him in later films, Blackmail is an extremely stylish effort, with first-rate direction and camerawork, and those certain little Hitchcock "touches."
Thanks to Hitchcock's direction and influence, not to mention the storyline itself, I can only imagine that Blackmail took many moviegoers by surprise when it was original released theatrically. Based upon a play by Charles Bennett (who was also responsible for the film's screenplay), Blackmail concerns the tale of a young girl, Alice White (Anny Ondra), who soon finds herself the object of a "date rape" courtesy of a potential suitor (Cyril Ritchard). In self-defense, Alice stabs him with a bread knife, and then wanders off in utter shock. Her regular steady boyfriend, Frank Webber (John Longden) is a Scotland Yard detective assigned to the murder case - he discovers evidence that leads him to believe that Alice committed the murder, and, being the sweetheart that he is, attempts to protect her from any persecution. The only problem is, someone else knows all about the murder and seeks to blackmail these two unfortunate souls. As became standard in his later film endeavors, Hitchcock makes his first-ever (or so I understand) cameo appearance early on in the film as a train passenger (side one, 10m35s).
As mentioned back in the first paragraph, both silent and sound versions of Blackmail exist, and while I would have loved to have seen them both included on the laserdisc edition, The Voyager Company has opted to include only the latter sound version (which is still fine by us) on their "Criterion Collection" offering. The source materials used for the transfer are by no means pristine - in fact, the disc jacket contains the following disclaimer: "Although this master was made from the finest elements available, there are some audio and video deficiencies. We believe, however, that this version of Blackmail is the best available." And indeed, while there are deficiencies, the the image quality is still very good considering. The print has a fair degree of clarity and sharpness, and though the image density itself is variable (due to the original film stock, age, source materials, and probably a slew of other factors), I don't see anyone having a problem with the black & white imagery here. The only annoying part of the transfer was a quick segment on side two from approx.5m01s to approx. 5m03s, with a splice appearing and the image jumping around a bit. The digital monaural sound originated on an R.C.A. Photophone System; the audio definitely has an aged quality, not to mention some background noise, but it is completely understandable. The disc is not CX-encoded (due to an included audio commentary, which I'll talk about in a bit).
Voyager has included some nice supplementary materials following the conclusion of the film. First up is "The Sound Test," an actual talking screen test between Hitchcock and star Anny Ondra, and Hitch is goofing around a bit. "The Sound Test" itself runs about 35s (there is also a 7s introductory text segment appearing immediately before), and the image has a soft focus and is a bit blurry, although still very watchable. Ondra's real voice appears here, complete with her heavy Czech accent, and you'll understand completely why Hitchcock decided to have someone dub her voice for the final film.
Next is a short silent segment entitled "Directing the Kiss," which features Hitchcock "trying" to show star Cyril Ritchard how to initially attack co-star Ondra. Hitchcock himself boldly jumps right in at the chance to demonstrate on Ondra, attacking her, tickling her and trying to peek under her skirt skirt (now, now, Hitch...don't be fresh). "Directing the Kiss" runs only 25s (there's also an 8s intro text segment), and the image quality is in extremely poor condition (and I mean really poor). The image is incredibly fuzzy, blurry, indistinct, grainy, scratched up, and probably anything else you can imagine, but at least one can make out the pranks Hitchcock is up to with Ritchard and Ondra.
Lastly, Voyager has included a 9m 45s (with an additional 28s intro) excerpt of a sound demonstration piece dating from October 27, 1927. The Voice on the Screen was produced by the Vitaphone Corporation and is hosted by an incredibly stiff Edmund B. Craft, Executive Vice-President of the Bell Telephone Labs, Inc. The amazingly-bulky sound and camera equipment of the time is demonstrated, and includes a Vitaphone sound demo of Witt & Berg, two ukelele-playing twits (and their heavy, white facial makeup makes them look like undead ghouls).
Rounding out the disc is what can only be called a remarkable and absolutely invaluable audio commentary by the 91-year-old Charles Bennett, Blackmail's screenwriter (Bennett also wrote the original play upon which Blackmail is based), which in intermixed by commentary from producer/screenwriter Stuart Birnbaum. Bennett's commentary is invaluable, provided a fascinating insight into his work and his characters, as well as a generalized look at Hitchcock and the filmmaking process. In comparison, Birnbaum's commentary, written by Laurent Bouzereau, which switches between focusing on the director and an ill-fated analysis of the film, is dry and fails to fully capture the listener's attention. Bouzereau previously provided commentary for Criterion's edition of Carrie, and his comments regarding Blackmail follows in Carrie's footsteps far too closely for my liking. While the remarks are fairly incisive, they again manage to contain some erroneous information. Additionally, Bouzereau once again strays off whenever possible into discussing the symbolism present in the film, which would be fine if Bouzereau would manage to interpret them correctly. In any event, we sincerely hope the Criterion would leave Bouzereau out of the picture (or more specifically, the commentary) on any future Criterion Collection releases.
Blackmail was pressed at 3M and is encoded with 27 listed chapter markers (22 for the film, 3 for supplementary features, and 2 for disc production credits and color bars).
Review by Jeff Krispow
From "Pond Scum" #30, unpublished|
Original Review: 09/92
Last Updated: 04/01/97