Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production: British International Pictures, black and white, 35mm; running time: 96 minutes. Released 1929. Filmed in studios in London and on location in the British Museum.
Producer: John Maxwell; screenplay: Alfred Hitchcock, Charles Bennett, Benn W. Levy, and Garnett Weston; from the play by Charles Bennett; photography: Jack Cox; editor: Emile Ruello; production design: Wilfred C. Arnold and Norman Arnold; music: Campbell and Connely, finished and arranged by Hubert Bath and Henry Stafford, performed by the British Symphony Orchestra under the direction of John Reynders.
Cast: Anny Ondra (Alice White); Sara Allgood (Mrs. White); John Longden (Frank Webber); Charles Paton (Mr. White); Donald Calthrop (Tracy); Cyril Ritchard (The artist).
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* * *
Hitchcock's last silent film, Blackmail was also his first sound effort—and one of the first British "talkies" as well. A resounding popular and critical success, Blackmail prefigures some of the director's most famous themes and demonstrates techniques for which he would be noted.
As critic Eric Rohmer points out, the entire film "focuses on the relationships among characters." Victims and victimizers alternate from scene to scene (a technique Hitchock would later perfect in his 1951 film Strangers on a Train). Sometimes within a single shot, for example, the moral positions of the characters shift, while the placement of the characters illustrates visually the relationship that we also know from context. As many other critics have detailed, this type of shift is "pure Hitchcock": scenes such as those between the blackmailer and the detective parallel scenes from the director's future work, most notably the relationship between a tennis pro and his psychotic "fan" in Strangers on a Train. This visual affirmation of moral ambiguity and transfer of guilt combines with other elements— such as the use of cinematic means to direct point of view, often at the expense of a linear storyline—that would later be considered typical of Hitchcock's films. The thematic concerns of Blackmail also appear in Hitchcock's Hollywood period, for example, the depiction of a woman's torments, as in Suspicion. Blackmail demonstrates an intriguing use of sound, especially since it was originally conceived and produced as a silent film. One notable example occurs in the use of sound for scene-to-scene continuity: the protagonist's shriek becomes the basis for transition to the next scene in which a charwoman finds a dead body. (This technique, too, was incorporated into another film, The Thirty-Nine Steps.) Even in this very early sound venture, Hitchcock's awareness of the possibilities of sound represents a major experimental advance in his ability to "make the inexpressible tangible."
Hitchcock said that he used a good many trick shots in the picture. During a sequence in the British Museum, he told Francois Truffaut, "we used the Shüfftan process because there wasn't enough light in the museum to shoot there. You set a mirror at an angle of 45 degrees and you reflect a full picture of the British Museum in it." Hitchcock had nine of the pictures made, showing various rooms. But the producers knew nothing of the Shüfftan process, and since they might have objected, Hitchcock performed his magic without their knowledge.
Blackmail has an important place in cinematic and Hitchcockian film history. Not only is it one of the first British talking pictures, but it is also a prototype for Hitchcock films to follow in terms of theme, the use of sound and cinematic style. Blackmail initiated the suspense sub-genre many call the "Hitchcock film," while innovatively transforming use of the then new sound medium within an established visual style and in the service of unique thematic purposes.
—Deborah H. Holdstein
black·mail / ˈblakˌmāl/ • n. the action, treated as a criminal offense, of demanding money from a person in return for not revealing compromising or injurious information about that person: they were acquitted of charges of blackmail. ∎ money demanded in this way: we do not pay blackmail. ∎ the use of threats or the manipulation of someone's feelings to force them to do something. • v. [tr.] demand money from (a person) in return for not revealing compromising or injurious information about that person: trying to blackmail him for $400,000. ∎ force (someone) to do something by using threats or manipulating their feelings: he had blackmailed her into sailing with him. DERIVATIVES: black·mail·er n.
The crime involving a threat for purposes of compelling a person to do an act against his or her will, or for purposes of taking the person's money or property.
The term blackmail originally denoted a payment made by English persons residing along the border of Scotland to influential Scottish chieftains in exchange for protection from thieves and marauders.
In blackmail the threat might consist of physical injury to the threatened person or to someone loved by that person, or injury to a person's reputation. In some cases the victim is told that an illegal act he or she had previously committed will be exposed if the victim fails to comply with the demand.
Although blackmail is generally synonymous with extortion, some states distinguish the offenses by requiring that the former be in writing.
Blackmail is punishable by a fine, imprisonment, or both.
73. Blackmail (See also Bribery.)
- Rigaud adventurer and extortionist. [Br. Lit.: Little Dorrit ]
- Rudge extorts to achieve personal ends. [Br. Lit.: Barnaby Rudge ]
- Sextus threatens murder and dishonor to bed Lucretia. [Rom. Lit.: Fasti; Livy ; Br. Lit.: The Rape of Lucrece ]
- Wegg, Silas attempts to blackmail Boffin. [Br. Lit.: Our Mutual Friend ]
Blackness (See NIGHT .)
Blasphemy (See APOSTASY .)