The era of talking pictures arrived while Alfred Hitchcock was working on his crime thriller, Blackmail, in 1929. The film had already been shot as a silent feature but during post-production the studio asked the director to convert it to partial sound so it could be marketed as a talking picture. Hitchcock, as was his way, had his own ideas. He began to tinker; scenes were reshot with dialogue, additional scenes with dialogue were added. In the end, Hitchcock had two films - his and Britain's much touted "first full length all talkie film" - and the original silent version. In 1929, most theaters in Britain were not equipped for sound, so it was the silent Blackmail that was for a long time the most widely seen and popular of the two films.
On Monday night, July 19, the California Film Institute presented a special screening of a 35 mm British Film Institute archive print of the silent version of Blackmail in Theater 1 at the Rafael Theater in San Rafael, California. Accompanying the film with an original score was the Alloy Orchestra, one of the world's foremost silent film orchestras. In attendance was an enthusiastic sold-out crowd.
Blackmail was Hitchcock's second film of the thriller genre; the first was The Lodger (1927), the picture that first brought him widespread acclaim. Blackmail, a film that critic and Hitchcock author/scholar David Sterritt declared "has a strong claim to being his first masterpiece," is a clear forerunner of Hitchcock's later work. Visually sophisticated and gimlet-eyed in its observation of human nature and motives, it includes a delicately lovely blonde in grave danger (who spends much of the film in a dazed fugue state) and a grisly murder; the climactic chase scene at a landmark location, the British Museum, is the first of such Hitchcock signature set-pieces...and there is no shortage of moral ambiguity.
The story, which Hitchcock conceived as a conflict between love and duty, centers on a middle-class young woman of London, Alice White. Alice lives with her parents, helps out at their neighborhood tobacconist's shop and is dating a dedicated Scotland Yard detective. After a tiff with him over dinner, she recklessly goes out with an artist/Casanova and ends up involved in a killing; as a result her straight-arrow beau is drawn into a blackmail plot.
Blackmail stars Anny Ondra as Alice, John Longden as her detective boyfriend, Cyril Ritchard as the artist and Donald Calthrop as Tracy, the not-so-innocent innocent man. The plot is well constructed, the action is tight and Hitchcock's early mastery of suspense is unmistakable.
Though clever and fast-paced, Blackmail is a film of depth and darkness. Ultimately, the integrity of both central characters is permanently compromised and the ending is bleak (closer to Vertigo than Shadow of a Doubt, to which Blackmail, with its depiction of bourgeois life, has been compared). Though a messy situation is conveniently resolved, the truth comes out between the girl and her man and the film's ending implies an unsettled future for the two who now share a terrible knowledge and guilt.
The performance of the Alloy Orchestra artfully accented Blackmail's action and moods with inventive virtuosity. The Orchestra was in the Bay Area not only for this performance but also for the annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival which ran July 15 - 18. The Alloy Orchestra is a group of three musicians whose instruments include keyboards, accordion, clarinet, musical saw and a famous "rack of junk." A combination of percussion and electronics allows them to create an array of sounds and effects. The Orchestra has performed worldwide - for major film festivals, AMPAS and even at the Louvre.
The Art Moderne Rafael Theater, a 1938 renovation of the fire-damaged 1918 Orpheus Theater, was closed after being heavily damaged in Northern California's 1989 earthquake. It was renovated, largely rebuilt and reopened in 1999 by the California Film Institute. It now houses three screens and specializes in independent and foreign films; it is one of the few non-profit theaters in the United States.