Alice White is the daughter of a shopkeeper in 1920’s London. Her boyfriend, Frank Webber is a Scotland Yard detective who seems more interested in police work than in her. Frank takes Alice out one night, but she has secretly arranged to meet another man. Later that night Alice agrees to go back to his flat to see his studio. The man has other ideas and as he tries to rape Alice, she defends herself and kills him with a bread knife. When the body is discovered, Frank is assigned to the case, he quickly determines that Alice is the killer, but so has someone else and blackmail is threatened.
Hitchcock’s – and Britain’s – first full-length sound film, Blackmail (1929), made for BIP, was only his second foray into the crime genre which was to make his name. According to legend, the studio gave Hitchcock the go ahead to shoot a proportion of sound footage, but the director surreptitiously shot almost the entire film in sound, back to back with a silent version for distribution to the many cinemas still not equipped for talking pictures.
The result was a critical and commercial triumph, noted for its innovative use of sound, most famously in the ‘knife’ sequence, and confirmed him as the most admired British director of the time. Even the left-wing film journal Close-Up – a magazine not generally known for its enthusiasm for British cinema – was generous in its praise, describing the film as “perhaps the most intelligent mixture of sound and silence we have yet seen.”
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). Its British Library climax is the first of the director’s characteristic ambitious set pieces.
Blackmail was adapted from his own stage play by Charles Bennett, the first in a string of collaborations during Hitchcock’s early sound phase. Anny Ondra’s Polish accent was deemed unsuitable for the role of Alice White, and her lines in the sound version were spoken by another actress, Joan Barry (who, in the absence of post-dubbing technology, spoke off-camera). In a tragedy that was repeated throughout English-speaking cinema, Ondra’s career was destroyed by the coming of sound, and she soon left for Germany, where she appeared in only a few more films before retiring.