Blackmail was Alfred Hitchcock’s tenth picture in England, his second thriller and first British talkie—and it marked an important crossroads in film history. Hitchcock shot the film in 1929 as a silent picture, but when it was ready for silent editing, John Maxwell, the producer of the movie, set up a temporary sound stage with RCA equipment imported from America. It was then very costly and technically difficult to add post-dubbing, and Hitchcock had to reshoot part of the film with live music and off-stage sound effects. But the leading actress in the film, Anny Ondra, was Czech and German and had an accent you could cut with a knife. So Hitchcock hired a young actress named Joan Barry to speak Anny Ondra’s Cockney lines off-camera, while Ondra mouthed them in front of the camera.
Blackmail was based on a hit play by Charles Bennett, who went on to write some of Hitchcock’s greatest films: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935), Secret Agent (1936), Sabotage (1936), Young and Innocent (1938), and Foreign Correspondent (1940), for which he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Screenplay.
Blackmail had all the ingredients of the perfect thriller, and Hitchcock had some clever tricks with sound, like the repetition of the word knife which rises to a scream as Anny Ondra relives the moment of her crime. The film has the visual appeal of a silent film and an incredible suspense that builds and culminates during the chase at the British Museum. The spectacular climax anticipated the Statue of Liberty scene in Saboteur (1942), the Mount Rushmore scene in North by Northwest (1959), and other classic Hitchcock sequences.
Hitchcock shot the British Museum scene using transparencies and the Shuftan process (which combines painted and live-action imagery in the camera, using a windowed mirror). Maxwell thought that the shooting of special visual effects would delay the production and put the film over budget, so Hitchcock did the effects without Maxwell’s knowledge. As a cover, Hitchcock set up a camera on the sidelines, photographing a letter for an insert in case someone from the production office showed up uninvited. When Maxwell saw the film, he was totally surprised.
Blackmail marked Hitchcock’s first cameo appearance—on a train, sitting behind his two leading actors. Hitchcock had appeared in his first thriller, The Lodger, in 1926. “It all started with a shortage of extras in my first thriller,” Hitchcock once said. “It was in for a few seconds as an editor with my back to the camera. It wasn’t really much, but I played it to the hilt. Since then, I have been trying to get into every one of my pictures. It isn’t that I like the business, but it has an impelling fascination that I can’t resist. When I do it, the cast, the grips, the cameramen and everyone else gather to make it as difficult as possible for me. But I can’t stop now.”
Blackmail was an event when it was released in November 1929, advertised as “The First British Talkie!” Critics loved the film, and Michael Powell, the famous British screenwriter-director-producer of Peeping Tom (1960), who had been the still photographer on Blackmail, wrote in his autobiography that it put Hitchcock “on top of the heap . . . When the film reached Hollywood, Hitch was deluged with offers. But he wasn’t ready to go. Yet.” Hitchcock moved to America in 1939, ten years later.
Hitchcock proved with Blackmail that he understood perfectly the visual flow of the film medium, as well as the possibilities that sound could offer. Blackmail was, according to one critic of that time, “the most intelligent compromise between talk and pictures that has yet been found, and, as one would expect from Mr. Hitchcock, it is a blaze of pictorial cleverness and technical skills.” And as such, a preview of the dark brilliant films to follow.