Skip to main content

You know, detectives in glass houses shouldn’t wave clues.

Blackmail
(1929)

(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s first sound film (also shot as a silent), Blackmail finds him hitting his groove, a step on from The Lodger, where he first landed in his natural crime genre habitat. This is where we his suspense muscle really begins firing on all cylinders, though, adapting Charles Bennett’s play (Bennett would go on to further cement the director’s milieu with The 39 Steps, Secret Agent and Sabotage) and using every opportunity to milk the tension from every situation for all its worth.

The plot finds Alice (Anny Ondra, working with the director again following The Manxman) fobbing off her Scotland Yard detective boyfriend Frank (John Longden, his first of three with the Hitch). The reason? To meet with artist Mr Crewe (Cyril Ritchard), who promptly attempts to rape her. Alice stabs him in self-defence and flees the scene, only for Frank to be assigned the case and find her glove. Before he can figure on a plan, they are approached by Tracy (Donald Calthrop, who’d appear in another three Hitchcocks), who has Alice’s other glove and is intent on a spot of the titular business.

Hitch gives us silence for the first seven minutes, before unveiling dialogue when Frank and Harvey Braban’s Chief Inspector have finished booking a subject. But he really comes into his own when Alice has been lured to Crewe’s flat, teasing out the predator’s sinister mind games as he first flirtatiously teaches her to paint before persuading her into a dress with the promise that he will sketch her (Ritchard could certainly draw on the basis of the scene). When he forces a kiss and she decides to leave, he takes her own dress; the whole scene plays out with a queasy rising tension, particularly due to Crewe’s casual confidence in what he’s doing. When it comes to the assault itself, Hitch plays it from behind a curtain, Alice’s hand fumbling into shot and seizing a bread knife.

It's an early classic sequence from the director, complete with punctuating cuts to an unnerving laughing jester portrait that initially elicits mirth from Alice; after the deed, she tears a hole in it. Ondra’s dialogue was performed off camera by Joan Barry due to the former’s Czech accent; I didn’t find this a distraction, though, and Ondra’s playing of Alice’s post-deed shock is particularly impressive. Hitch goes to town with the repercussions on her mental state, as a lit-up cocktail sign becomes a stabbing dagger, and the following morning’s breakfast table finds her quietly freaking out as a neighbourhood gossip (Phyllis Monkman) goes on and on about the murder; the word “knife” echoes around her head until dad (Charles Patton) asks her to cut him a slice of bread and she sends the bread knife flying across the room.

Calthrop is also highly effective as the weasely blackmailer, the sort of role you could see Fulton Mackay playing, as he cockily makes Frank pay for a cigar and then demands breakfast, even sitting in dad’s chair. It makes his comeuppance all the more satisfying when the tables are turned, with Tracy himself becoming a suspect. The subsequent chase through The British Museum (apparently suggested by Michael Powell) is also first rate, even more so considering it was mostly a cheat (Hitch used the Shufftan process in order to lend the scene appropriate lighting).

Like many a later Hitchcock, the picture revolves around the repercussions from unwise choices. We never learn why Alice wants to meet the artist (perhaps because, as an artist rather than a policeman, he is exotic and exciting), but Frank doesn’t think twice about covering up for her, so instantly digging a hole for himself.

Notably, the “happy ending” was at the behest of the producers; Hitch wanted Ondra arrested and Longden “would have to do the same things to her that we saw at the beginning: handcuffs, booking at the police station, and so on” before his partner (also per the opening) would ask “'Are you going out with you girl tonight?' and he would reply 'No, I’m going straight home'”. That’s very neat and symmetrical, but the moral chasm of the actual ending makes the picture more consistent with what has gone before and the quandaries in which the leads have found themselves.

One of the best Hitch cameos appears here too, with the director pestered by a small boy on a train; he shoos away the child, who then returns to pester him some more. For the most part, the director’s pictures up to this point are inessential (only the aforementioned The Lodger is really a must-see), and one gets the impression favourable verdicts tend to be from critics attempting to weave a coherent oeuvre for the auteur from the first. Something that doesn’t really reflect the haphazard and often ill-fitting material of his silent days. Blackmail changes all that with a considerable flourish.




Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You're not only wrong. You're wrong at the top of your voice.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
I’ve seen comments suggesting that John Sturges’ thriller hasn’t aged well, which I find rather mystifying. Sure, some of the characterisations border on the cardboard, but the director imbues the story with a taut, economical backbone. 

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s Jaws, there’s Star Wars, and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy, to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “mainly boring”.

Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the system when Burton did it (even…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

To defeat the darkness out there, you must defeat the darkness inside yourself.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010)
Easily the best of the Narnia films, which is maybe damning it with faint praise. 

Michael Apted does a competent job directing (certainly compared to his Bond film - maybe he talked to his second unit this time), Dante Spinotti's cinematography is stunning and the CGI mostly well-integrated with the action. 

Performance-wise, Will Poulter is a stand-out as a tremendously obnoxious little toff, so charismatic you're almost rooting for him. Simon Pegg replaces Eddie Izzard as the voice of Reepicheep and delivers a touching performance.
***

Just make love to that wall, pervert!

Seinfeld 2.10: The Statue
The Premise
Jerry employs a cleaner, the boyfriend of an author whose book Elaine is editing. He leaves the apartment spotless, but Jerry is convinced he has made off with a statue.

That Freud stuff’s a bunch of hooey.

Spellbound (1945)
Spellbound is something of a stumbling follow-up to Rebecca, producer David O Selznick’s previous collaboration with Hitchcock. Selznick was a devotee of psychoanalysis, and the idea of basing a film on the subject was already in the mind of the director. To that end, the producer’s own therapist, May Romm, was brought in as a technical advisor (resulting in Hitchcock’s famous response when she pointed out an inaccuracy, “My dear, it’s only a movie”).

Hello Johnny, how are you today?

Twin Peaks 3.10: Laura is the one.
(SPOILERS) I’ve a theory that all it takes to tip a solid episode of Twin Peaks (in any season) into a great one are three or four slices of sublime strangeness. The rest can hum along amiably, in contrast to that electricity the Log Lady has something to say about, but it’s those scenes that define the overall shape and energy. Laura is the one has a good three or four, and maybe the funniest sustained Lynchian visual gag so far.

That comes in the form of the Mitchum brothers, or to be more precise Robert Knepper’s Rodney. He’s aided and abetted by Candie (Amy Shiels), part airhead, part fruit bat, attempting to swat a fly while Rodney examines casino surveillance logs. And like most of the director’s comic gold, this goes on and on and on, and you absolutely know it will end with Rodney getting clobbered. I wasn’t expecting it to be with the TV remote, though.

I’m not certain Candie’s mental state, sustained though it is, is going to be about anyth…

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.