Archive for Blackmail

The Sunday Intertitle: Knife!

Posted in FILM, Radio with tags , , on May 13, 2018 by dcairns

I took part in Good Evening, an Alfred Hitchcock Podcast recently, but I forgot to tell you guys. The podcasters Tom Caldwell, Chris Haigh and Brandon-Shea Mutala are doing what I did nine (!) years ago, working their way through all of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, and they kindly invited me to join them in a discussion of both sound and silent versions of BLACKMAIL. I had a lot of fun and hope to take part again if they’ll have me.

You can listen here. My original blog post from Hitchcock Year is here.

Fiona thinks we should podcast together. Any takers?

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The Sunday Intertitle: Things I Read Off the Screen in Blackmail

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 26, 2015 by dcairns

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Glasgow! With silent film accompanist Jane Gardner, to see BLACKMAIL with live score by Neil Brand, under the baton of Timothy Brock. This was preceded by a special concert of Hitchcock scores — Webb, Rosza, Tiomkin, Waxman and of course Herrmann. It’s quite something to have VERTIGO blasted at you live. As for PSYCHO, a young couple to my left obviously regarded the shower scene as their song: as the violins shrieked, he mimed stabbing her in the back with an invisible knife, to her apparent delight.

Getting there, mind you, was a journey of Hitchcockian suspense — taking the bus to meet Jane we got caught in football traffic (ugh! the worst kind of traffic — even worse than badminton traffic) and arrived late, then scooted off in her Fiat 500, struggling to find a parking spot near the venue and then struggling to find the venue, eventually arrived seconds before the lights dimmed.

The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra did us proud, and there was a surprise treat in the form of a theremin for SPELLBOUND — I wasn’t at all sure such a thing would be provided — there are, after all, entire recordings of the SPELLBOUND score without a theremin — some wretched fiddler taking the part, I guess, I haven’t troubled to listen to such abominations. This was a delight.

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Then BLACKMAIL, which I hadn’t seen since Hitchcock Year, Maestro Brand’s score was thrilling, of course — with many playful references to the musical spirit of Hitchcock to come. The most overt was the extract from Gounod’s Alfred Hitchcock Presents theme (I know, I know, he didn’t write it for TV) played when Hitch makes his first true guest appearance. I wondered whether such references would distract me,  but in fact, the playfulness was discrete — it must have taken restraint not to turn the scene where artsy rake Cyril Ritchard waits while Anny Ondra changes into something more comfortable into a straight reprise of the similar scene in VERTIGO.

The score, in fact, worked wonderfully, the proof being that despite the visible presence of the orchestra between us and the screen — Brock’s hands would occasionally rise into the bottom of the frame as he signalled a particularly vigorous moment — for much of the show we forgot the music except as part of the enjoyable experience of watching a story unfold on a screen. A smooth artistic synthesis was achieved!

Hitch’s cameo got me noticing how incredibly well handled all the extras are. The small boy who torments Hitch on the underground ends the scene, having been told off, standing on his seat and simply glowering malevolently at Hitch, like a raven from THE BIRDS. He doesn’t realize that Hitch has a short way of disposing of children on public transport. From then on, I was aware that each individual walk-on character, however crowded the scene, had a bit of personal business to distinguish them, and each performed his role perfectly.

I also started noticing writing. Some of what follows was noted during the show, some found afterwords, perusing the DVD.

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Receiving a radio message — “Flying Squad Van 68 — Proceed at once to Cambri” — the rest is unfinished — the van makes a 180 turn into Looking-Glass Land, where all the shop signs run backwards into a kind of cod-Russian cypher. Evidently nobody had shot a background plate traveling in the right direction, so they simply flipped the film. The store Dollond & Aitchison glimpsed here, is also advertised on the London Underground scene later.

Perhaps due to this confusion, when the Sweeney arrive at their destination, it isn’t Cambridge Street or Place or Circus of Terrace, it’s Albert Street. Perhaps close to Eastenders‘ Albert Square? Certainly in the mysterious East. Less salubrious than Hitch’s native Leytonstone.

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A slew of text inside. The criminal is reading The Daily Herald. An ad for Wrigleys in the bottom corner. Another newspaper lies on his desk, bearing his watch and revolver. We can read a headline about MURDER TRIAL and, at the bottom, the words I’VE FOUND IT! — probably another advertisement. Most amusingly, above the bed is a religious motto, GOD HELPS THOSE WHO HELP THEMSELVES. Ironic, since it seems our friend in the nightshirt has been helping himself a little too freely.

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The note Anny has received proposing a secret assignation ~

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Torn from a cocktail menu, it suggests a whole furtive nocturnal backstory. I like the abbreviated slogan “NIPPY” COCK — a partial directorial signature?

Anny’s despondent walk after she’s killed Ritchard is full of printed cues and clues. For one thing, she passes a poster advertising the climactic fight from THE RING, Hitchcock’s previous film, starring Carl Brisson, Anny’s lover from THE MANXMAN. The fight is staged at the Albert Hall, looking forward to THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH.

A neon sign in Piccadilly Circus, advertising Gordon’s Gin “The Heart of a Good Cocktail” dissolves so that a cocktail shaker outline becomes a hand stabbing with a kitchen knife — a ludicrous idea, but bold, and the call-back to the “nippy” cocktails is appreciated.

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IS PRAYER ANSWERED? A significant question in Hitchcock, directly addressed at the film’s climax, when Ondra apparently prays, and her decision to confess her crime is answered with the death of the blackmailer. See also THE WRONG MAN.

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Ondra’s family newsagent yields a plethora of signage! My eyeballs dart like frightened mice, from one corner of the screen to another to try and catch all the little textual nudges. Alice’s first sight of home is viewed through the reverse side of a shop sign, so we get mirrored lettering AGAIN — Alice is through the looking glass! The earlier accident begins to look deliberate. Confirmed when Alice stares at herself in her dressing table mirror just moments later.

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PICTURE SHOW — lower right. Ah, if only Anny had gone to the pictures with John Longden, we wouldn’t be where we are now. The reference may also remind us of the pieces of art in Ritchard’s sex garret, each of which has an accusatory role in the narrative. One is a laughing, pointing jester, the other is a sketch on canvas signed by Ondra.

When we see the phone booth again, from Longden’s POV, that sign has vanished, in the best ROOM 237 manner. On the left of frame is a possible explanation — a MYSTIC ERASER. Just what Anny needs to obliterate the past 24 hours as neatly as she obliterated her incriminating signature from Ritchard’s canvas.

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The booklets and other props around the phone booth will continue to change randomly throughout the scene, an uncanny peekaboo of discontinuity.

Ondra’s dad, Mr. White, is explicitly framed with a halo reading the word WARLOCK. Not sure why. But the shopkeeper dad is obviously a stand-in for Hitch’s own father, with whom he associated his fear of arrest. So although Mr. White is kindly, Hitch makes him a source of anxiety with this supernatural halo of occult lettering.

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Ondra has mentioned Edgar Wallace earlier — now a poster at floor level refers to Sexton Blake, stalwart hero of schlock thrillers, whose exploits had been printed in the Union Jack since 1894. The threat from ‘D’ (no idea who he is), “If Sexton Blake comes to Yorkshire, I’ll get him!”, gives the blackmailer’s first appearance a further underscore of menace.

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And finally ~

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SHAG (middle left). Obviously a reference to another fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes, whose favourite pipe tobacco this was.

Talkie

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on November 14, 2012 by dcairns

Britain really lucked out with its first talkie — what made Hitchcock’s BLACKMAIL great was that he’d made it first as a superior silent. Shooting sound scenes and dubbing Anny Ondra made it less great in most ways, but it was so good to begin with it survived the conversion. It took Hitch several more films before he could repeat the trick, internalizing the balance between dialogue and purely visual storytelling.

LES TROIS MASQUES is your Pathe-Natan film for this week. It’s officially the first French talkie, but because no sound stage was ready in France, it was shot in England, at the studio of John Maxwell, the Scottish barrister turned movie mogul who also produced many early Hitchcocks. Although already filmed in 1921 as a silent, this version is every inch the early talkie, with all the longeurs that implies. The camera never seems to be in entirely the right place, as if it’s shunted sideways to make way for a microphone, or maybe another camera. Scenes trundle on, mere records of time passing, and though pleasing design (by future director Christian Jacque) means there are some attracting images, nothing catches dramatic fire. Use of sound is generally for novelty value rather than really creative, with some background music and a storm scene no doubt adding interest, and the novelty of hearing their own language spoken probably wearing off for French audiences before the film ends.

Still, this was a throwing down of the gauntlet. While other producers in France saw sound as a death-blow, Bernard Natan seized it as an opportunity — films that spoke French in their original form would have an edge in the marketplace over dubbed American films. That might not be enough to conquer Hollywood, but it could allow the national cinema to carve out its own personal space — and it did. And this after MGM’s vice-president Arthur Loew had declared that, thanks to talking pictures, in ten years time English would be the only language spoken in the world. Against this background, the decision to make French talkies looks momentous.

Director Andre Hugon would make several films for the company, and to his credit he does throw in a few close-ups here, saved for moments of maximum dramatic impact. The film is in fairly wretched condition, with no good elements known to exist, and my copy comes from a VHS off-air recording which is likewise showing its age, so the movie may have other virtues obscured by the poor resolution.

Still, this was just the beginning, and the studio’s very next production, filmed on French soil, would be fluid and even dynamic, and creatively intermingled visual and auditory rhythms. It’s a slight piece, but I think it’s worth posting in its entirety…