Blackmail (Alfred Hitchcock / United Kingdom, 1929):

A spinning wheel -- Fate, the Law, a reel of celluloid -- kicks off the overture, shot silent as a ruthless police procedural. The capture, interrogation and booking of a suspect in the tenement show off “the entire machinery of the Scotland Yard” at work, a sense of parallel worlds forever intruding into one another. Sound trickles in as the drama is briskly sketched, the neglected coquette (Anny Ondra) who meets the painter (Cyril Ritchard) following a quarrel with the complacent detective (John Longden). "Ever been to an artist’s studio?" The atelier’s curtains and dividers make for an ominously split screen, the date’s loaded dance of flirtation and assault passes from roving paintbrush to Degas frock to gleaming blade. The sponger oozing with incriminating info (Donald Calthrop) completes the equation, "one’s got to live, you know." A Teutonic experiment in ambiguity and an astringent comedy of wandering relationships, Alfred Hitchcock’s first talkie offers scene upon scene of ingenious synergy of camera and meaning. When Ondra stumbles out of the studio in a daze, every single light and noise of nocturnal London seems to drill into her psyche; when Calthrop is chased through the British Museum, a montage connects the institute’s Mesopotamian stone visages to the heroine’s own mask of guilt, all of them staring straight at the audience. Langian hands, outstretched lifelessly and accusatorily; predator and prey as society’s shifting roles, the arrival of sound as the eager stabbing of silence. The landlady’s shriek from The 39 Steps is already here, so is The Wrong Man’s spectral superimposition (from the inspector rubbing his hands to the blackmailer repeating the gesture at the breakfast table he’s just crashed) and the macabre Hitchcock jest. ("Knives is not right," argues the neighbor who prefers a brick to the skull, "there’s something British about that.") Un Chien Andalou is concurrent with the cocktail-shaker metamorphosis and the paralyzed couple at the close, the pagliacci canvas is recalled to different effect by Renoir (La Chienne) and De Palma (The Black Dahlia). With Sara Allgood, Charles Patton, Hannah Jones, Harvey Braban, and Phyllis Konstam. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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