A restoration by the BFI National Archive in association with Studio Canal, Hitchcock’s silent Blackmail is one of the best British films, if not the best, of the late 1920s. Made in 1929, during the transition to the sound era, it was commissioned as both a silent and as a part-talkie with music and some dialogue scenes. With remarkable skill (and an eye to building a solid career in the new medium), Hitchcock managed to produce both a beautifully crafted silent and a groundbreaking sound version. Indeed, he tackled the considerable technical obstacles with such imagination that the latter has tended to obscure the reputation of the silent version, which is in fact superior in a number of ways. As Hitchcock said ‘The silent pictures were the purest form of cinema’ and indeed the film contains more shots, more camera movement and the fluidity of the cutting conveys the narrative with greater style. Every scene counts and every shot either enhances the atmosphere or moves the story along. The opening eight minutes of the film is a tour de force of montage in which we see the forces of the Law hunt down and ‘process’ a career villain from capture to the police cell. The Restoration: Fortunately the BFI National Archive holds the original negative of the silent version. However the negative had suffered extensively from ‘curling’ as a result of one side of the film stock having shrunk more than the other. This, in combination with very narrow joins between shots, meant careful digital scanning was required to prevent further damage and to make the film lie flat in the scanner’s gate. Without this, the sharpness of the images would have been severely compromised. Eventually, despite the curl of the film emulsion and the delicate splices, a sharp scan with excellent tonal range was achieved. Blackmail displays many of the stylistic elements and themes with which Hitchcock would come to be associated: particularly a fascination with male sexual aggression and female vulnerability. Like the later Sabotage (1936) it features a woman who is protected from the Law by her policeman lover. It is also one of a number of Hitchcock’s films to feature a heroine who enters a dazed or ‘fugue’ state in which she acts mechanically and apparently without control of her actions – other examples are Murder! (1930), Sabotage and, more ambiguously, Vertigo (1958) and Psycho (1960).
Alfred Hitchcock (Charles Bennett’in oyunundan from the play by Charles Bennett)
Emile de Ruelle
British International Pictures
19th Festival on Wheels