The first talkie film… and the oldest film I have reviewed.
I have always been a fan of Alfred Hitchcock, but it is easy to forget how important he is to the history of film. Blackmail is the first full-sound full-length film, and for no other reason than that, it is important. When most people (including myself) think about Hitchcock, we tend not to think of the films he was doing in the 1920s, but rather his later ones.
There might be some spoilers in this review, but if you haven’t watched a movie made in 1929 yet, you probably won’t watch it now.
Hitchcock is one of those directors who truly existed ahead of his time. One can almost feel the limitations that surrounded him while making films. His efforts to push the envelope as much as possible are an example of him wanting to do more. I truly wonder if Hitchcock was ever fully satisfied with any of his films, or if he knew that his vision was not translated properly. I think the only director who dares as much as Hitchcock is Lars von Trier, but that is an argument for another day.
Blackmail works on a couple different levels. Our base level is that Alice White, our young and charming heroine, breaks away from her fiancé Detective Frank Weber to meet up with Mr. Crewe. Crewe, an affable artist, who seems almost boyish in his charms, eventually badgers Alice to his home where he rapes her. Alice strikes the man dead in self-defense, and what follows is Frank trying to cover up her crime whilst being blackmailed by Mr. Tracy—a sleazy man who has physical evidence of Alice at the scene.
The base level (the narrative) functions well enough, though without analysis, some of the scenes with Mr. Tracy drag on a bit. We have seen this type of movie before (certainly now), and they always raise some questions. Was Alice’s killing of Mr. Crewe justified? After all, she did go up into his apartment alone, you know, blah blah blah. The same rhetoric swirling around date-rape exists in this movie, which shows how endemic of an issue this truly is.
The second layer of the film, which I also argue is the more interesting one, is the self-reflexive criticism of what is happening on the screen. Hitchcock dares our social sensibilities (more so he dares them of the time) by having Alice out with a man alone. The audience is meant to condemn her, only to reflexively recognize that she is in fact the victim of a heinous crime. Hitchcock undermines moralistic gender coding by showing the ugliness of it in full swing, which is something else I argue he has in common with Trier. In these critical aspects, the movie is a slam dunk.
If I had to say anything bad about the film it is the production limitations. Watching black and white films on an HD television tends to wash everything out a little. The silent film aspects are a little jarring, and the opening sequence doesn’t make sense with the revised (albeit I think better) ending. Some of the pacing seems a bit off—the first chunk of the film moves fast (and builds suspense well), but the second half drags a bit. Why Frank didn’t just beat the holy hell out of Mr. Tracy and take the evidence is beyond me. Granted, I am imposing a significantly different viewership on the film with these critiques. The film is worth watching for the cultural commentary and the historical importance. 8.5/10