Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Written by: Alfred Hitchcock & Benn W. Levy
Starring: Anny Ondra, John Longden, Cyril Ritchard, Charles Paton, Donald Calthrop
Self-defense is vital to the survival of women living in a misogynistic world that only sees them as objects. A reality that comes to fruition for a particular character in this film, as her defense leads to an action, which will cause herself and her family harm in this incredibly tense and expertly paced classic film.
Alice White (Anny Ondra) lives with her family and dates a Scotland Yard detective named Frank Webber (John Longden). After being dodgy about going to the movies with him, he leaves angrily and she meets up with another man named Mr. Crewe (Cyril Ritchard). After some flirtation, she decides to go up to his apartment, where she then decides to leave despite his wishes for her to stay the night. After pushing her onto his bed and attempting to assault her, she grabs a nearby knife and kills him. She leaves the scene, but there happens to be a witness.
Reader, I was stunned by the material this film covered, especially with it being released in 1929. I can only imagine the pearl-clutching that must have taken place when Blackmail hit the screen. It serves as one of Alfred Hitchcock’s first talkies but it does not make itself obvious at first. The story begins with Frank and his path with his fellow officers to arrest a man. Everything is silent as they enter the room and apprehend the suspect. The silence does not break until they’re back at the precinct and on their way out. Shifting from the silence to the sound of voices opens up the world and introduces human speech and the sad tale about to transpire.
The survival journey of Alice puts her in a place where she killed someone out of self-defense in order to avoid being sexually assaulted. It’s something she wishes not to share with anyone, and it shows through the performance of Anny Ondra. It shows in the scene where she explores the apartment of Mr. Crewe has the underlying feeling that things will not go well for her. She’s fascinated by his art but he gets more aggressive with trying to make her stay. After she kills him, she has this blank look upon her face. The face of someone who has experienced a traumatic situation and needs to process what just happened. That blankness stays on her face all the way until she gets home and climbs into bed. It’s haunting and something no one should have to experience. She can’t share this information because the death of Mr. Crewe is discovered and she does not want to answer questions as to why she had been in his apartment. If you think victim-blaming is bad now, I’m sure it was much worse back then.
It puts Alice in such a terrifying situation, as she hears others speak about the murder as if some vile person did it. They keep mentioning a knife was used and how inhumane it must have been to kill someone with a knife. Using that sharp utensil feels much more personal than using a pistol, as you must be close to the person and plunge it into them. Alice can only sit there and try to forget everything that happened but she has to deal with her boyfriend discovering she was there and that a witness saw her enter, struggle, and leave. That’s when the moments of tension enter the story.
After Frank discovers her glove at the scene of the crime, he discreetly pockets it and visits her at her parent’s shop. There he asks what happened that night only for a shady man to walk in. A former criminal, but someone who could point out Alice being there that night. At that moment, the criminal gets chummy with Alice’s father as he tries out a cigar, only to look over at Frank to pay for it because he must have forgotten his wallet. It creates a shift in power, where this criminal has control over a detective and a woman who could go to jail for defending herself.
The scenes that follow create this air of tension where the criminal could spill the information at any moment and he relishes the opportunity to get what he wants. I had to hold my breath because the air was being sucked out of the room with how tense everything became, which showed the mastery of Hitchcock even early in his career. The moments of Blackmail where the titular word occurs harbors its greatest moments. Not only would Alice be arrested for murder, but Frank could be in hot water for taking away evidence to aid and abet a potential criminal.
Interestingly enough, the film touches upon a future it must have not been aware of. For example, the criminal named Tracy (Donal Calthrop) gets into an argument with Frank about the legitimacy of his claim of seeing Alice. Frank attempts to leverage the fact of Tracy’s criminal record and whose word the police will believe. In an era where women do not get believed for the trauma they experience, the word of a woman versus a criminal follows what happened then and continues today unfortunately. I doubt the creatives behind this feature had that larger scope of an idea in mind with this film, but it remains resonant nearly a century later.
Blackmail saw Alred Hitchcock transition into talkies but he’s always enjoyed himself some tense films. He made what could be considered a romantic comedy in The Farmer’s Wife, but one of his first major films that still receives recognition today is The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog. A feature about Jack the Ripper and how a mob mentality could go after one guy without the facts. Known for creating palpable tension, even early in his career, he creates something with incredible pacing. Even with it being a shorter film, it flew by so quickly because of the intrigue continually building and whether the truth will come out. If Alice is revealed to have killed Mr. Crewe then would her self-defense truth be accepted? If Frank insists that it would be Alice’s word versus Tracy, would there be any reality where the former would be believed? It opens up a can of worms, which the film puts a capper on.
If you happen to be interested in early Hitchcock films, this would be a great one to watch, as it shows how he tinkers with his style and how it will translate to the works he becomes more famous for. It’s incredibly tense and flies by quicker than you would believe. A tragic yet comforting story about survival and how the truth can be twisted by the worst of men.