Blu-ray Review: Blackmail

Blackmail Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Kino Lorber

Release Date: August 13, 2019

Region: Region A

Length:

Silent Version – 01:16:07

‘Talkie’ Version – 01:25:47

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: 2.0 English DTS-HD Master Audio (48 kHz, 1557 kbps, 16-bit)

Subtitles: English

Ratio:

Silent Version – 1.33:1

‘Talkie’ Version – 1.20:1 / 1.33:1

Bitrate:

Silent Version – 32.85 Mbps

‘Talkie’ Version – 30.92 Mbps (1.33:1) / 30.73 Mbp (1.20:1 Version)

Notes: This “special edition” Blu-ray will also include the rare silent version of the film accompanied by a new score by The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. This is the first time either version of this film has appeared on Blu-ray in North America. A DVD edition of this title is also available. In fact, the DVD edition is the film’s North American debut on that format as well. Blackmail has only been available previously on unofficial “public domain” labels, and the transfers used for these releases were horrendous. Of course, none of this takes into account the various VHS and Laserdisc releases of this title since those are dead formats.

Title

Blackmail: Alfred Hitchcock’s First “Talkie”

“Making a talkie film I had only just completed as a ‘silent’ …gave me a tremendous advantage over most other directors. For one thing, I was able to improve on my original ideas; and for another, I was not handicapped by having a stagey subject to handle.” –Alfred Hitchcock (My Screen Memories, Film Weekly, May 02-30, 1936)

The introduction of sound revolutionized the motion picture industry, but it seemed that the so-called “talkies” were a one-step progression and a two-step retreat (at least in the beginning). It completely changed the way that films were shot, and the new methods made the camera difficult to move. Worse, actors were glued to stationary positions so that the microphone could pick up their voices. Suddenly, sound recording took precedence over a film’s visual aesthetic. It is no wonder that the British film industry faced this new art-form with a certain amount of anxiety. It would mean building expensive soundstages, buying sound equipment, and completely relearning how to efficiently shoot a motion picture. This, of course, doesn’t even take into consideration the challenges faced by exhibitors—and what if talkies were a passing fad?

Luckily, Alfred Hitchcock worked best when he was challenged and often turned technical limitations into creative triumphs. It was impossible for the director to know for certain if British International Pictures would be prepared for a sound production in time for his next project, but most sources agree that he planned the film as both a sound and silent production just to be on the safe side. He decided to embrace the new innovation instead of being threatened by it, and the result was probably his strongest effort since The Lodger. Of course, this is at least partially due to the fact that Blackmail would return him to the thriller genre.

Alfred Hitchcock and Charles Bennett.

Alfred Hitchcock and Charles Bennett

CHARLES BENNETT’S ORIGINAL STAGE PLAY

In fact, the film is actually based on a stage play by Charles Bennett—a man who would eventually become an instrumental collaborator on The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935), Secret Agent (1936), Sabotage (1936), Young and Innocent (1937), and Foreign Correspondent (1940).

“Being a somewhat conceited individual, I like to believe that I subscribed in no small way to Hitch’s reputation. In fact, I know that it was my sense of suspense which moved Hitch to enlist me as his regular writer for seven of his early sound movies beginning with the ‘FIRST SUPER TALKIE,’ Blackmail (1929), for British International Pictures (BIP)…

His film was adapted from my second play… which during its London run caught the fancy of the rotund but highly talented young director. Hitch loved the story—his kind of stuff (and mine). Attempted seduction. Murder. The young innocent murderess being blackmailed. The switch in which the blackmailer himself becomes the suspect of the murder. Suspense.

Anyway, in 1928 Hitchcock had BIP lease the film rights to Blackmail…” –Charles Bennett (Hitchcock’s Partner in Suspense, 2014)

Of course, this is a slightly misleading quote, because—by his own admission—Bennett didn’t actually assist the director in adapting his play into a film. However, his influence is certainly felt in Hitchcock’s film version, and it is worth examining the origins of Blackmail for this reason. Luckily, much of what is known about this subject can be extracted from a short section from Charles Bennett’s autobiography:

“[Al Woods] advertised for authors to send their manuscripts for review, and to my satisfaction he chose my play ‘Blackmail’ from among three hundred submissions. The play was based on the experiences of a girl of whom I was once very fond, an adventure she had after attending the Chelsea Arts Ball. ‘Blackmail’ opened at the Globe Theater on February 28, 1928, [was] produced by Raymond Massey, and starring Tallulah Bankhead, then in her mid-twenties.

I remember that during the run Tallulah Bankhead invited me into her dressing room for a drink—she was stark naked. It wasn’t an invitation to an affair; it was just the way she was. But the play met a stormy reception, as Tallulah’s enthusiasts rushed the gallery stairs and the police were called. There was press notoriety concerning her role, then the play flopped. Critics remarked that if this was the best of several hundred plays, exactly how bad must the others have been? I had to go around apologizing, eventually replying to the criticism in a letter to the Sunday Express. When it was mentioned that I was the author, people thought it was funny. Fortunately, S. Rossiter Shepherd, Film critic for the Sunday People, published the truth about the miserable business, revealing how the original play had been hacked about and spoiled by Al Woods. This cleared me, as I could not really say a word in my own defense without repercussions among producers…

An interesting side note: I was actually knifed during a June 1928 performance of ‘Blackmail’ at the Regent Theatre, King’s Cross. I was playing the artist Peter Hewitt and, during the rape scene, the bread knife slipped from the grasp of the actress Violet Howard and sliced into my left ear. I received treatment at the Royal Free Hospital and then was able to return to the stage, head bandaged, for the curtain call.

When the original version went on tour with multiple touring companies, it proved the success it should have been in London’s West End. Thank God. One reviewer wrote kindly of me, ‘His object is to show the moral murderousness of blackmailers, and he succeeds vividly. He not only shows the tortures of the blackmailed, but lays bare also the state of mind of the blackmailer. The subtlety of alternating drama and psychology demands from the cast an unfaltering accuracy of interpretation.’” –Charles Bennett (Hitchcock’s Partner in Suspense, 2014)

Tallulah Bankhead 1928

Tallulah Bankhead portrayed Alice White in the Globe’s 1928 stage production of Blackmail. She would later portray Connie Porter in Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat.

It isn’t known whether Alfred Hitchcock attended one of these performances of Blackmail, but it certainly seems likely considering that he was an avid patron of the theatre, and this particular subject would have appealed to his tastes. However, Bennett’s memoir raises an important question. Which ending was included in the text that Hitchcock and his team used as the source for the eventual film? If you remember, the play was produced with two endings:

“One encounters a problem attempting to study [the play’s] third act. The version that Al Woods insisted on, and which the press panned, is presently unknown. Because Tallulah Bankhead’s fans behaved riotously, one suspects that Alice’s integrity was compromised by Al Wood’s version. But Charles said the play reverted back to its original ending on tour and was then successful.” –John Charles Bennett (The Avenger, Hitchcock’s Partner in Suspense, 2014)

Did Hitchcock have access to both the Al Woods and the Charles Bennett ending? This question is impossible to answer, and it might not matter very much since the play’s ending was jettisoned in favor of the film’s museum chase.

Even so, such changes should not keep us from examining the published script (which was provided to us by John Bennett as he is currently the holder of all rights to the play). First of all, it is interesting to note that the characters have different names in the original play than their cinematic counterparts, and the reasons for these changes seem somewhat arbitrary. For example, Alice maintains her given name in the film, but her surname has been changed from Jarvis to White. Her detective boyfriend maintained the surname of Webber, but his given name was changed from Harold to Frank. We learn from the play that the blackmailer’s given name is Ian. He is referenced only as “Tracy” in the film. Finally, Mr. Crewe (the doomed artist) was originally named Peter Hewitt. It is also worth noting that Alice has a brother named Albert in the play that never appears in Hitchcock’s film.

The first act of Bennett’s play takes place entirely in the artist’s apartment, and there are two lengthy scenes that play out as one in real time. The first of these scenes has Tracy (the eventual blackmailer) entering the vacant residence uninvited. It is clear that he is intoxicated, and he soon makes himself right at home. The louse even sits down to eat a meal that is laying out after helping himself to a beer that can only aggravate his particular condition. However, these actions are soon interrupted by the artist’s landlady (who is named “Mrs. Cook”), and she quickly tosses him out after their brief exchange makes it clear that he is a former resident who once lived in the building before being evicted. It seems that he was never able to pay his rent. The landlady puts everything back into order, turns out the lights, and escorts the man out of the building (we hear them leave).

This scene is twelve pages in length (the entire Act is less than thirty-five pages), and has absolutely no counterpart in the film. Instead, Hitchcock opens on the arrest of an unknown man, and then follows the detective (Harold/Frank) out on a date with an annoyed Alice. Alice picks a fight with Harold/Frank and ends up leaving with the artist, and this new couple runs into Tracy on their walk to his apartment. However, the next scene in Bennett’s play does have a counterpart in the film.

After the landlady and Tracy are heard leaving, the audience waits in “comparative darkness” for a time before “a distant church clock is heard chiming the hour … twelve strikes.” This sound is followed by the sound of someone entering the building, ascending the stairs, and approaching the door before the artist enters cautiously:

[…He strikes a match for illumination. He speaks in a whisper over his shoulder.]

Peter: It’s all right. Come in.

[Alice Jarvis comes forward out of the darkness of the passage. She passes Peter and advances hesitatingly into the room. The match splutters and goes out and in the darkness Peter closes the door—quietly turning the key and pocketing it afterwards. He speaks to cover the noises of the lock.]

Wait a moment. I’ll switch on the light.

[He strikes another match and going to the divan-bed switches on the red shaded light beside it. He doesn’t switch on the center light, probably because he knows that the more subdued illumination is more suitable for his purpose…]

–Charles Bennett (Blackmail, 1934)

It is painfully obvious from the outset that the artist is on the make and probably not entirely trustworthy here. Whether this is also true of the film version is up for argument, but the play proceeds in a more straightforward and blatant manner than in the film. In any case, Bennett’s stage directions proceed to paint Alice as trying to hide her nervousness, and states that she regrets coming into his apartment.

[…He comes down and takes her caressingly by the shoulders. His voice is low and always seductively suggestive.]

Peter: Darling thing to come up here.

Alice [nervously]: I don’t know why I did.

Peter [with meaning]: I do.

[Alice looks at him, not sure of his trend and he smiles knowingly. She senses danger and lowering her eyes, breaks away towards the window, changing the subject as she does so.]

–Charles Bennett (Blackmail, 1934)

Alice sees something or someone outside of the window and inquires as to who the man was that addressed him as they were entering the building. We learn that Tracy is always bothering him for money, and she tells him that he is still hanging around outside. This doesn’t surprise the artist in the least as this seems to be his habit. This goes on for about a page, but the Artist soon takes the conversation back into uncomfortable territory.

[…She realizes that she must keep the conversation going if ‘unpleasantness’ is to be avoided and plunges into it.]

Alice: It’s — It’s a nice room.

Peter: Like it?

Alice [Looking around.]: Yes. I — I Like your big window.

Peter: Oh — That’s where I work.

Alice: Yes, I knew that — by the easel.

Peter: Do you paint then?

Alice: No — I wouldn’t know how to begin.

Peter [smiling]: I see I’ll have to teach you…”

–Charles Bennett (Blackmail, 1934)

It would be reasonable for anyone who is familiar with Hitchcock’s film versions of Blackmail to assume that this leads into a scene wherein Alice’s hand is guided into painting a primitive nude, but the subject is immediately dropped here as the artist begins making himself a drink. However, this moment still has importance since it would have planted the seed in Hitchcock’s mind for that particular exchange in his film. The line, “I see I’ll have to teach you” undoubtedly suggested that bit of business.

Bennett’s play takes another route. As Peter/Mr. Crewe makes himself a drink, he offers one to Alice only to discover that she is a teetotaler. He continues to apply some light pressure on her to no avail, so he instead offers her a cigarette. She doesn’t smoke either. This refusal to accept anything seems important as it should send a message to the man that his goals aren’t her own. The topic of conversation soon turns to her job, and we learn that she works selling clothes at “Horridge’s.” The man tries at every turn to steer the conversation where he wants it to go until he finally insists that she take off her coat and relax:

Alice: Oh, but I must be going in a minute.

Peter: Not yet.

Alice [quickly]: Yes. You see — it’s some way down the road.

Peter: But I’ll see you home. There’s nobody sitting up for you, is there?

Alice: No

[Too late. She wishes she had said ‘Yes.’]

Peter: Got a key?

Alice: Yes.

Peter: Then what are you worrying about? Here — Give me that coat.

Alice: But I really oughtn’t to —

Peter: Silly. Come on —

[He undoes her coat and in spite of her protests, removes it, revealing a pale blue dance frock beneath. It is short, close fitting, and very pretty in a simple way. Poor Alice, though, feeling positively naked before Peter’s gaze, looks down, abashed. Peter smiles and puts the coat on a chair by the table, then comes back and takes her hand. She speaks in feeble protest.]

Alice:I wish you wouldn’t make me take it off.

Peter: Why?

Alice: Oh, I don’t know. I feel so — so silly without it, somehow.

Peter: You don’t look it. Besides — you hadn’t got it on at the dance.

Alice: It wasn’t the same there.

Peter: How do you mean?

Alice [looking down]: Oh, I don’t know.

Peter [smiling at her]: Sit down.

Alice [nervously]: No. — I don’t want to sit down.

Peter: Of course you do. You must be tired out. [He sinks on the end of the bed and draws her to him.] Come on. — Don’t be shy.

Alice [terribly self-conscious]: I — I can’t help being shy. It’s — It’s the way you look at me, I think.

Peter: I won’t look at you then. [He draws her down onto his knee and she hangs her head, half ashamedly. Peter decided to adopt more subtle methods.] Did you enjoy the dance?

Alice: Yes. Did you?

Peter: Rather. I met you.

Alice [pleased but abashed]: Oh!

Peter: I’ve seen you there before, you know?

Alice: Have you?

Peter: Two or three times.

Alice [shyly]: I’ve seen you too — often.

Peter [a little flattered]: Have you—I say, that’s splendid! By the way, who was the fellow who looked so annoyed when you danced with me?

Alice: Oh. [She giggles a little.] That was Harold.

Peter: Harold?

Alice [looking down]: My young man.

Peter: Oh — So you’ve got a young man, have you?

Alice [glancing up shyly]: Of course.

Peter: Going to marry him?

Alice: One day.

Peter: Lucky beggar. What’s his job?

Alice: Well, he used to be a policeman, but he’s a detective now.

Peter: I say, that sounds imposing. Is he much older than you are?

Alice: Only six years. We’ve been walking out ever since I was fifteen.

Peter [lifting his eyebrows]: And you’re not tired of him yet?

Alice: Tired? Why, of course not. What funny things you say.

Peter [ruefully]: He didn’t seem to like the look of me much.

Alice [giggling again]: No, he didn’t. You should have heard some of the things he was saying about you out in the passage. We had quite a row.

Peter: A row?

Alice: Well — words anyway. That’s why I let you see me home — to teach him a lesson.”

–Charles Bennett (Blackmail, 1934)

This discussion about Harold may have suggested to Hitchcock and his team the idea for Alice’s row with Frank in the restaurant. However, the film suggests that Alice was expecting to see the artist there, and she starts another row after finding him to ensure an opportunity to meet with this handsome stranger. As a result, her motives are less clear in the film version. It might be argued that this ambiguity makes the following episodes more interesting and sets up his decidedly grim ending.

In any case, this conversation continues as Alice and Peter discuss their former encounters at various dance-related events. We learn that Peter never approached her because she had always been with Harold before he goes on to insult his dancing abilities. Belittling her boyfriend is the precursor to asking her on a date, but she tells him that she couldn’t possibly see him in this manner. He continues to press the issue and insists that she see him again and assures her that Harold would never know about it. She tentatively relents, but it is unclear if this is merely her way of ending this topic of conversation or if she actually wants to see him. There are several more pages of Peter’s attempt to wear her down before he asks Alice if Harold’s jealousy was the only reason that she left with him.

Alice [looking down]: I — I’ve forgotten.

Peter: Perhaps I can help you remember. [He lowers his voice.] Was it — Was it because you wanted the same thing as I did?

Alice: I don’t know what you wanted.

Peter [meaningly]: Shall I tell you?

Alice [scenting danger]: No.

Peter: Why not?

Alice: It — It mightn’t be something I’d like.

Peter: Oh — You’d like it all right.

Alice: No. [She feels Peter’s gaze on her head and looks up, realizing desperately that she must keep talking.] I don’t know why I came up really. I — I think I thought it would be funny.

Peter: Funny?

Alice: Yes — You know. To — To go into a man’s room at night. I’ve never been in a man’s rooms [sic] before — at night.

Peter [congratulating himself on the way she is playing into his hands]: Never?

Alice: No.

Peter: So you were looking for new experiences, were you?

Alice: I — I suppose I was.

Peter: And you thought you’d start with me?

Alice [not knowing what to say]: Er — Yes.

Peter [softly]: I’m flattered. [Alice lowers her eyes and Peter smiles.] Are you — Are you glad you decided to start with me?

Alice [breathing quickly]: I — I don’t know.

Peter: Don’t know?

Alice: Not yet —

Peter [pretending to see a meaning which isn’t intended.]: Oh — I shan’t disappoint you. — You darling little devil.

[His face is very close to hers. She is trembling. He lifts her chin with his hand and looks into her eyes, then leans forward to kiss her lips. She realizes his intention though and draws her head back quickly — speaking as she does so —]

Alice: No.

Peter [taken aback]: Why?

Alice: I don’t want to be kissed.

Peter: Don’t want — ? But you didn’t mind half an hour ago at the town hall.

Alice: That was different.

Peter: I don’t see it.

Alice: It was.

Peter: Why?

Alice: You know. It’s — It’s not right now we’re alone.

Peter: Now we’re — But I don’t see — [He stares at her for a moment, then his eyes light up with well-affected amazement.] Why — I believe you’re afraid of me. —

Alice [quickly]: No I’m not.

Peter: I believe you are. Why?

Alice: I’ve told you — I’m not.

Peter: Really and truly?

Alice [nodding]: Yes.

Peter: Then — [He looks at her fixedly for a moment, then speaks very seductively.] Then prove it — by letting me kiss you.

Alice [frightened]: No.

Peter [His lips are very close to hers.]: Prove it —

Alice: I’ve asked you not to —

Peter [very softly]: Silly — [Alice is breathing quickly—her breast heaving. For a moment Peter gazes into her eyes—then he draws her to him and their lips meet. There is a long pause—then Peter speaks again—his voice very low.] Stay with me tonight.

Alice [shrinking]: No —

Peter: You’ll like it as much as I do. — I promise you that.

Alice: You know I can’t.

Peter: Why not?

Alice: Well — We — We’re not married.

Peter: Does that matter?

Alice: You know it does. Besides — I’m not that sort of girl.

Peter: What sort?

Alice: The sort you want me to be.

Peter [As if puzzled by her attitude]: But I don’t understand. I — I’m not trying to insult you, you know. I’m asking you to stay because — Well, because I like you.

Alice: I can’t stay.

Peter: You mean—you don’t want to?

Alice: Yes.

Peter: You don’t like me?

Alice: I never said so.

Peter: Then why — ?

Alice: Oh — You don’t understand. [She shakes her head.] I do like you. — I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t. It’s — It’s not because it’s you. It would be just the same whoever it was. It’s just — I’m not that sort. You know what I mean, don’t you?

Peter [after a slight pause]: I suppose I do. You mean — You mean you’d like to stay, but you feel you oughtn’t to.

Alice: Not quite that.

Peter: What then?

Alice: Oh — Can’t you see?

Peter: No.

Alice: Well, I’m going to be married one day.

Peter: I don’t see what that’s got to do with it.

Alice: It’s got a lot — [Simply.] You see — I’d like my husband to be the first man I ever — You know what I mean.

Peter [slowly]: Y—es. [Pausing reflectively, then smiles and rises. Going to the fireplace — lighting a cigarette.] Afraid I can’t see your point of view, you know.”

–Charles Bennett (Blackmail, 1934)

The kiss in this portion of the scene may have suggested the threatening kiss in Hitchcock’s film versions, but the scene has a later kiss as well. It seems likely that the endless dialogue would have been cut in any case as it would have been too direct to pass the censors, but Hitchcock was also planning a film intended as a silent endeavor! He had to come up with a more visual means of seduction, and dialogue had to be both simple and brief. Hitchcock was prone to cinematic means of expression, and Bennett’s play was written for the stage. It’s difficult to imagine him taking this approach as he disliked “filmed theatre.”

In the play, the pair argues about whether Alice’s Victorian values are outdated and whether marriage is a worthwhile institution. Obviously, Peter is a man who isn’t going to respect her wishes if they get in the way of his own desires. Peter argues that their escapades wouldn’t be a sin. “What do you think we were sent into the world for? Not to sit and look at each other… The whole thing is a matter of conscience, and if you have a healthy mind, that needn’t bother you much. … Marriage laws were instituted by evil-minded old puritans—too damned prurient to see that if young people loved each other, they’d stick together anyway!” His argument has no effect. In fact, Alice outwits him:

Alice: If they loved each other! [She thinks it over for a minute—then looks at Peter.] Yes. But you don’t love me.

Peter: How do you know that?

Alice: I do know.

Peter: Well — I like you anyway — More than any girl I’ve met for years.

Alice: But you said – ‘If young people loved each other.’

Peter [realizing that he has made a slip.]: Well — You know what I mean.

Alice: Yes. — I think I do. [She speaks very simply.] And I think I agree with you too. If young people loved each other it might be different. Maybe marriage wouldn’t matter so much, then. But you don’t love me. —

Peter [uncomfortably—feeling he has lost ground.]: Well — not exactly — but — [He forces a smile.] Well — you don’t love me for the matter of fact.

Alice: I haven’t offered to stay.

Peter [flinching]: Now you are being cruel…”

–Charles Bennett (Blackmail, 1934)

Peter tries insisting that he does love her out of sheer desperation. When it becomes clear that he isn’t winning her over, he turns away and broods like a child. Soon after this moment, Alice announces that she will be going. Her words seem to set off some sort of trigger in the man’s ego, and “he turns to look at her. The fact that she has repulsed him has only made her more desirable in his eyes.” This leads to a second kissing moment that may have also helped to suggest the scenes in Hitchcock’s film versions.

Peter: Not yet.

Alice: Why not?

Peter: There’s something else I want to say.

Alice: What?

[Peter is staring at her. He is obviously losing control of himself. He takes her hand—drawing nearer.]

Peter: You know what it is —

Alice: I don’t.

Peter: I — I want you.

Alice [frightened again]: No.

Peter: I do. [He is breathing very quickly.] Do you know how beautiful you are? Do you know?

Alice: Don’t. —

Peter: I can’t help it. — I want you — so much.

Alice [moved by his obvious sincerity]: You mustn’t say that. —

Peter: But it’s true. Alice —

[Their faces are close together. Suddenly, Peter takes her in his arms and kisses her passionately. For a moment, she doesn’t resist. Peter’s hand drops caressingly to her knee and he leans over—thrusting her back on the cushions. Suddenly though, she gasps and her hands beat him convulsively. She tears herself away—speaking quickly as she does so.]

Alice: No — Not like that.

Peter: Like what?

Alice: Like that. [She is obviously very frightened and she is rubbing her hand quickly backwards and forwards across her mouth.] I’ve never been kissed like that before. — It’s — It’s wrong.

Peter: It isn’t.

Alice: It is.

Peter: Nonsense. Besides — you liked it.

Alice: I didn’t.

Peter: You did. D’you think I don’t know?

Alice [hysterically]: I didn’t like it. How dare you talk to me like that. —

Peter [nervous at the noise she is making]: Here — For God’s sake keep your voice down. —

Alice: What — ! [She stares at him for a moment—arrested by his tone—then, with great effort, she steadies herself.] Alright. I will. You needn’t hear me anymore.

Peter: What do you mean? [Alice doesn’t reply. She turns away from him and snatching her coat from the chair she wraps it quickly ‘round her shoulders. Her face is hard and set. Peter, realizing that she is going, speaks repentantly.] But look here, Alice. — I didn’t intend to —

[But Alice has crossed quickly to the door and he tails off weakly as he reads the determination in her eyes. He pauses — not quite sure what to do. Alice tries the door — finds it locked — and faces him again. She speaks quietly.]

Alice: This door is locked.

Peter [dully]: Is it?

Alice: You know it is. You locked it.

Peter [morosely]: Well?

Alice: When?

Peter: In the dark—before I switched on the light.

Alice: Why?

Peter: Oh, I don’t know. I didn’t want us to be disturbed by my landlady — that was all.

Alice: Give me the key.

Peter: But look here —

Alice: Give me the key.

Peter: You’re really going then?

Alice: Yes. Give me the key.

[They are facing each other. Peter stares at her for a moment, then gives in and lowers his eyes. He slowly puts his hand to his pocket and takes out the key. He sinks on to the end of the bed couch — looks at her again — then throws the key to the ground at his feet. He speaks sullenly. ]

Peter: Oh, blast you then — take it.

[Alice looks at him disdainfully for a moment, comes down to pick up the key. Peter watches her resentfully. He is breathing in quick gasps — evidently not master of himself yet again. He has intended to let her go but her defiant carriage and steady eyes are too much for him. His lips curl into a twisted smile — desire and bitterness warring — then, suddenly, as she stoops to pick up the key, he covers it with his foot. His voice is quiet but hoarse with passion.]

No. Why should I let you go?

Alice [taken aback]: What?

Peter [his eyes fixed on her]: You knew what you were coming to when you came in here tonight. —

Alice [frightened]: What do you mean? Give me that key.

Peter: No.

Alice: Give me that key — !

[She makes a dart for it but peter’s hand shoots out and seizes her wrist. She writhes as he twists it and her coat slips from her shoulders and falls to the ground.]

Peter: You knew —

Alice [in agony]: Let me go —

Peter: A girl knows what to expect when she comes into a man’s room at night.

Alice: Let me go.

Peter: I’m damned if I do.

Alice: Let me go, I say —

Peter: No. You’ve been playing me up. — It’s my turn now.

Alice: Oh — !

[Thoroughly frightened she is struggling desperately by this time. Suddenly she stoops forward and bites his hand. He lets go her wrists with an exclamation of disgust.]

Peter: God! You cat!

[Alice, free for a moment, darts away across the room — but Peter is just behind her. He seizes her frock at the neck but it tears right down revealing pretty ‘Cami-knickers’ beneath. Having lost her momentarily, he sways drunkenly almost falling — evidently the result of intense emotional excitement — and Alice, seizing her opportunity reaches the table and turns on him with her back to it. But Peter is after her again.]

Alice: Keep away from me —

Peter: What —

Alice: Keep away. I’ll shout for help.

Peter [closing with her]: No you won’t — you damned little cheat.

Alice [fighting desperately]: You—You—Help!!

Peter [thrusting his hand over her mouth]: Shut up — Blast you —

[Alice tries to scream but can’t. For a moment they are struggling fiercely—then Peter has her in his arms and is kissing her wildly, Alice is gasping for breath, but Peter is forcing her farther and farther back on to the table. He is obviously carried away with passion and doesn’t know what he is doing. SUDDENLY Alice’s right hand is disengaged, and somehow THE BREAD KNIFE IS IN IT! Peter tries to seize her hand, but it is too late. The knife whips through the air and a moment later is reeling back with an ugly wound in the throat. Alice drops the knife and staggers away from the table. Peter is writhing horribly — one hand to his neck — another to his heart. He falls but rises again. Alice watches him — horror stricken. He falls across the bed and for a moment is writhing in his death agony — then he lies quite still. Alice stares at the form on the bed for a while—her eyes wide with terror. Presently she speaks—intense fear in her voice.]

Alice: What’s the matter? What’s the matter with you? You’re trying to frighten me — aren’t you? [She draws a little nearer—speaking very appealingly.] Aren’t you? [She draws nearer still and her eyes dilate. She leans over, and putting out her hand, touches the dead man’s face, but snatches it back again with a stifled scream as she comes in contact with blood. She shrinks away from the bed — agony in her voice.] Oh—I didn’t mean to do it. You shouldn’t have — You shouldn’t have tried to —

[Her voice is shaking with fright and emotion and she tails off weakly. For a while she stands gazing at the silent form — obviously in a quandary as to what to do next, Presently she goes to the window and looks out furtively—then comes back to the bed again. She stands there for a moment — still undecided — then, suddenly, she makes up her mind. She picks her coat up quickly and draws it about her — gets the key — crosses to the reading lamp and switches it off — goes to the door and opens it stealthily — looks ‘round once more — then passes out into the blackness of the passage, closing the door behind her. For a while the creaking of the stairs is heard as she descends, and presently the closing of the front door is discernible. The room is left in darkness again as in the opening of the act — the hazy moonlight striking across the bed, just revealing the silent for that lies there. The distant church clock is chiming the hour again — and anon, the heavy stroke of one is heard.

There is a pause. Then the sound of gravel is heard being thrown from below and rattling on the window pane is heard — Tracy — trying to attract the attention of Peter Hewitt. After another pause, the rattle of the gravel on the pane is heard again.]

THE CURTAIN FALLS.”

–Charles Bennett (Blackmail, 1934)

There are obviously momentary similarities between the play and the Hitchcock versions, but there are also radical differences that go beyond the reduced dialogue, the off-screen nature of the murder, and the basic staging. The introduction of the clown painting accounts for a major addition to Bennett’s text, and it becomes a motif that carries through to the very final film. The aftermath of the murder is radically different in Hitchcock’s film. The film’s Alice is absolutely stunned and noticeably less at herself than the Alice of the play.

However, Bennett’s second act contains a curious amalgam of obvious similarities and major differences to Hitchcock’s adaptation. Some of these differences may at first seem rather arbitrary, but closer analysis will clearly show that these minor alterations change the manner in which scenes that are taken (almost) directly from the play are experienced by an audience.

First of all, Hitchcock alters the characterization of Alice’s parents and omits the character of Albert (Alice’s brother). However, it might be argued that the character of her brother has been replaced with the gossiping customer as Albert is responsible for gossiping about the murder in the play’s second act. Bennett describes Alice’s father as “fat, fifty, ponderous, dogmatic, and extremely like a sea lion. He has a tremendous respect for the profundity of his own wisdom and a child-like, if entirely erroneous, belief that he is… a wit.” Meanwhile, her mother is characterized as “an unsympathetic woman of forty-five or so,” and claims that “she might have been good hearted and human enough” if she had married anyone else. Instead, “she has developed a hard and nagging disposition. She takes great delight in scandal (other people’s), is sycophantish [sic] towards her betters and has a very strong ‘respectability complex.’” Hitchcock’s film reduces the importance of these characters but also makes them more sympathetic.

This portion of Bennett’s play also calls into question the validity of scholarly criticism about Joan Barry’s accent as inappropriate for “a cockney shop girl.” A study of the play’s text reveals that while Mr. Jarvis/Mr. White has a thick cockney accent, both Mrs. Jarvis/Mrs. White and Alice speak in a more proper manner (although this is less true of the mother). What’s more, there is a casual mention of the sacrifices made for Alice’s education, so Alice probably received speech training as part of her school’s curriculum. One could certainly argue a case for either point of view.

More interesting than this triviality is the fact that Alfred Hitchcock has Alice sneaking into bed and evading scrutiny about her late arrival while the play opens on her parents as they worry about her whereabouts. We learn that it is four o’clock in the afternoon and that she has been missing for sixteen hours. It is instantly clear that her mother is more concerned about the possibility of a potential scandal than she is about Alice’s safety. She is painted as an extremely unpleasant person. Of course, the same cannot be said about Sara Allgood’s portrayal in the film.

Albert (Alice’s brother) soon returns from his search for Alice and has no news to report about his sister’s whereabouts, but he has learned about the murder of a “young artist bloke” who was discovered “dead—up the road near the King’s Picture ‘ouse… Wound in the neck an’ a blood-stained knife on the floor beside ‘im.” Mrs. Jarvis/Mrs. White takes an intense momentary interest before remembering her own troubles. The scene, which is part of one long act that plays out in real time, takes place in the parlor of the family’s general shop.

A second scene runs into this one when Alice finally shows up.

[Mrs. Jarvis stares at her. Her relief has been intense, and for a moment she has been prepared to welcome her daughter with all the love that lies in her. But her words and intentions freeze into nonexistence as she appreciates Alice’s appearance. A germ of suspicion is immediately bred, rapidly grows and as rapidly finds confirmation. She is at once convinced that ‘the worst’ has happened and her voice and demeanor reveal the fact. She speaks slowly.]

Mrs. Jarvis: Oh! So you’ve come home, have you? Well — Where have you been?

[Alice is looking at her mother. She is obviously at the end of her tether. Her movements are quick and nervous. And there is a haunted look in her eyes. She looks at her father and then at her brother. Finding no sympathy in either of them, her eyes come back to the questioner. She speaks quietly.]

Alice: Walking.

Mrs. Jarvis: Walking?

Alice: Just — walking.

Mrs. Jarvis: And last night?

Alice [after a momentary pause]: Walking.

Mrs. Jarvis: What? [Alice can’t bear it any longer and lowers her eyes. Mrs. Jarvis stares at her for a moment — then follows up her attack.] What do you mean — walking?

Alice [suddenly — desperately]: Leave me alone. Let me be. I’m not going to say anything.”

–Charles Bennett (Blackmail, 1934)

Obviously, there is nothing at all like this in Hitchcock’s adaptation. However, it seems reasonable to suspect—as Charles Barr also noted in his essay, “Blackmail: Charles Bennett and the Decisive Turn”—that this scene suggested Alice’s incredible post-murder journey through the city in Hitchcock’s film. The cinematic sequence is one of the film’s most memorable stretches and was purely Hitchcock’s creation, but it seems likely that Bennett’s play once again planted the seed for the idea in the director’s mind.

The play continues down this same path as Mrs. Jarvis and (to a lesser extent) the other members of Alice’s family try to force her to tell them where she has been. She continues to refuse until finally snapping at them: “You all seem pretty sure of what really happened last night. All right, then — you can think what you like — but I’ll tell you one thing, though. Whatever did happen is a thousand times worse than anything you can imagine — any of you!” Obviously, this only exacerbates her situation.

As this article has already mentioned, Alice’s absence goes unnoticed by her family in the Hitchcock films. This allows for the brilliant scene with the gossiping customer—the infamous “knife” sequence. It’s quite a scene and may actually do an even better job at getting Alice’s anxiety across to the viewer. It somehow makes it worse that her family doesn’t suspect anything as she is entirely alone in her suffering here.

In any case, this interrogation continues until the entrance of Harold/Frank.

[The shop door-bell rings and a man enters the shop. Mrs. Jarvis glances through the door.]

Mrs. Jarvis: Here’s Harold. [Alice starts.] Yes—and you’d better think what you’re going to say to him. You won’t get any help from us.

Alice [nervously]: I can’t see him.

Mrs. Jarvis: We’ll see about that — Ah! [Harold Webber has entered the room. For a moment during the preceding dialogue he has lingered in the shop waiting for an invitation to come in — but suddenly seeing Alice, he dispenses with ceremony… He stands just inside the room — his eyes on Alice. Mrs. Jarvis addresses him at once.] Yes — you may well come here, Harold. There she is—home after sixteen hours. Maybe she’ll tell you more than she told us. Ask her where she was last night.

Harold [looking fixedly at Alice and speaking quietly.]: Yes — I want to ask her that. [Alice lowers her eyes. Harold pauses a moment, then turns to Mrs. Jarvis.] But I’d like to ask you alone — if you don’t mind.

Mrs. Jarvis [disappointed]: But I don’t see —

Harold [looking at Alice again]: If you don’t mind, Mrs. Jarvis.

Mrs. Jarvis [annoyed]: Oh — very well, then. — We’ll go to the kitchen.”

–Charles Bennett (Blackmail, 1934)

This particular portion of the play does bring to mind a moment in the film when Alice asks Mr. and Mrs. White to leave their parlor/kitchen in the film, but this doesn’t happen until after Tracy arrives as a threat to the couple. The Hitchcock version of Harold/Frank’s interrogation of Alice occurs much more simply and with very little dialogue in a phone booth located in the public area of the store. What’s more, the audience knows from one of the film’s earlier scenes that Frank has discovered Alice’s glove and is fully aware that he suspects that Alice is guilty of the artist’s murder. In the play, this actually comes as a surprise after an interrogation of Alice that lasts over nine pages in length. After asking where she has been, he tells her that he is currently investigating a man’s murder and reads her an excerpt from the newspaper that informs her and the audience that the police are currently working on a clue. He then asks her who she left the dance with the previous night, and it becomes clear that he saw her leave with the murdered man.

Harold: …Was it the fellow you were dancing with?

Alice [after a silent pause]: No.

Harold: It wasn’t?

Alice [turning away to avoid his eyes]: No.

Harold [doubtfully]: Um! Did he tell you his name?

Alice [evasively]: I can’t remember.

Harold [curiously]: Can’t you? I wonder if you’d remember if you heard it again. —

Alice [facing him—frightened]: Why? — Do you know it?

Harold [nodding]: I know it all right. Shall I tell you?

Alice [quickly]: No.

Harold: Why not?

Alice [turning away again]: I’m — I’m not interested.

Harold: No — ? [Alice looks into the fire and doesn’t reply. Harold changes his tone once more.] By the way, Alice — you lost your gloves last night. Did you know?

Alice: No

Harold: I found them. [He takes a pair of long, light, kid gloves from his pocket.] These are yours, aren’t they? [Alice takes the gloves from him and stares at them—but doesn’t reply.] Aren’t those the ones I gave you at Christmas?

Alice: I — I don’t know. Where did you find them?

Harold: Are they yours?

Alice [after a momentary pause]: No.

Harold: They’re not.

Alice: No

Harold [doubtfully]: Sure? — Where are yours then — ?

Alice [quickly]: Oh—somewhere—in my pocket, I expect.

Harold: Um! [He thinks it over a moment.] Oh, all right, give me those back — I’ll need them.

Alice: Why?

Harold [as casually as possible]: Well — as a matter of fact they’re a clue.

Alice [startled]: A clue?

Harold: Yes. I ought to have handed them over to my chief when I found them. I took a pretty big risk when I put them in my pocket instead.

Alice [staring at him]: Harold —

Harold [looking straight into her eyes]: To tell you the truth I found them in the room where Peter Hewitt died — [Slowly] Peter Hewitt — the artist you were dancing with at the town hall last night.

Alice: But — [She stops.]

Harold: What?

Alice [quickly]: I—I don’t know what you’re getting at.

Harold: I think you do.”

–Charles Bennett (Blackmail, 1934)

The play continues down this path with Alice refusing to admit her guilt and Harold becoming more forceful in his approach. It is only when she comes to understand that Harold has no intention of handing her over to the police that she breaks down and admits her guilt. Harold then promises her that he will stick by her and no one will ever know. In contrast, Hitchcock sets up the uniqueness of Alice’s gloves in the restaurant scene very early in his adaptation as we learn “there’s a hole in two fingers.” This allows him to show the audience the discovery of the glove and then allow the couple to interact with very little dialogue and very little exposition. The result is as follows:

Frank: What happened last night?

[Alice looks away from him not wanting to answer.]

Why won’t you tell me?

[After a beat, he realizes that she isn’t going to tell him and takes the glove from his pocket.]

Look. You know where I found that?

[Surprise and fear registers on Alice’s face as she nods that she does.]

It’s the only piece of evidence that you were there.

[She reaches for it, but he puts it back into his pocket.]

I’m keeping it back at present.

[She looks at him, at a loss for words.]

For God’s sake, say something!

[There is a knock at the phone booth’s door. It is Tracy. He has been watching them throughout the scene. He opens the door.]

Tracy: If you’re not using the phone, uh, may I? I — I want to get on to Scotland Yard.”

Interestingly, Tracy also interrupts the couple in Bennett’s play. After Harold/Frank promises that they are “the only two in the world who will ever know” that she killed the artist, they hear someone entering the store. We soon learn that their customer is Tracy, and he asks for Alice. Before she can refuse him, the man enters the parlor without asking and then proceeds to blackmail the couple for five pages. It isn’t unlike what happens in the film, but he milks money from them on the spot and even pressures Alice to take money from the store’s till to buy his silence. The biggest change here is that this shake down is allowed to play out, and the blackmailer leaves the premises after promising to be back regularly. In the film, the tables are turned on Tracy when Frank receives a phone call from Scotland Yard.

This never happens in Bennett’s play. Instead, Alice’s parents return to the parlor shortly after Tracy leaves their company. Mrs. Jarvis expects to learn from Harold what her daughter has been up to the previous night, but he refuses to tell her as she has told him in confidence. As a result, Mrs. Jarvis turns against him and suspects that “it’s a put-up job between them,” and accuses her of being with him the previous night. This continues until they again hear someone enter the shop. Albert has returned with more gossip about the murder.

[He is obviously very excited. Mrs. Jarvis transfers her attention to him at once.]

Mrs. Jarvis: Well?

Albert [at random]: Well — They’ve fahned out ‘oo did it!

Mrs. Jarvis: What?

Albert: Why, the murder, o’ course.

Mrs. Jarvis [exasperated]: What murder?

Albert [surprised at her ignorance]: O’ the young artist bloke up the road. ‘Is landlady — a Mrs. Cook, ‘as come forward an’ given the chap away.”

–Charles Bennett (Blackmail, 1934)

Of course, the chap in question is Tracy. Alice feels bad that the wrong man has been accused, but Harold believes that he deserves whatever he gets and calls it a “heaven-sent chance.” This is obviously what suggested the phone call from Scotland Yard that turned the tables on the blackmailer in Hitchcock’s film. The film version simply opts for economy.

The published version of the play’s third act has no counterpart in Alfred Hitchcock’s film adaptation as it finds an anxiety ridden Alice wide awake in the middle of the night as she tries to phone Harold/Frank. She is caught by Albert (who never even appears in the film version), and he makes it clear that he suspects that she is somehow mixed up with the Peter Hewitt murder. When Alice finally admits that she is the one who killed him, Albert leaves to discuss the matter with Harold. Meanwhile, Alice calls Harold to tell him that her brother is on his way to see him and admits that she is worrying about the welfare of Tracy. After this brief phone conversation, she hears someone at the shop door. This, of course, turns out to be an extremely exhausted Tracy. We learn that he has been chased by the police for hours and has come to seek shelter as it is storming. He tries to convince Alice to turn herself in to the police as they discuss their current situation. Alice assures Tracy that she has no intention of letting him take the fall for her, but she prefers to find another way around it so as not to get Harold into any trouble.

Soon, they see a policeman with a light peering in the store windows and hide. It seems that he is merely checking the premises as part of his nightly duty and hasn’t seen them. After more discussion, Harold arrives to talk to Alice. He tells her that Tracy was spotted entering the store and that other policemen are on their way to arrest him. There is an argument between the couple—with interjections, insults, and threats made by Tracy—about what she should do when the police arrive. She tells him that it would be wrong to let someone be punished for her crime and asks him to call the station to turn her in so that suspicion will be taken off of him. When he refuses, things become heated between Harold and Tracy. After absorbing a number of Tracy’s insults, Harold ends up pulling a gun on the man.

Harold:[He is staring at Tracy. There is a queer note in his voice.] Still — there’s another way, you know.

Tracy: What?

[Harold pauses a moment before answering. His hand is in his right pocket — his voice is steady.]

Harold: Besides us — Alice and me — you are the only person in the world who knows how Peter Hewitt died. I’m a policeman and there’s a warrant out for your arrest. If you tried to escape it’s my job to take you — and if you put up a fight — they’re not going to hang me for going a bit further.

Tracy: What do you mean?

Harold [suddenly whipping a light revolver from his pocket and covering Tracy]: THIS — !

Alice [terrified]: Harold — !

Harold [an insane glint in his eyes]: Look at that! Look at it, you swine. Murder to cover murder. It’s been done before, you know.

Tracy [cowering back]: You’re mad.

Harold: Perhaps

Alice [desperately]: Harold!!

Harold [throwing her back with his left arm.]: Keep out o’ this — [He lifts the revolver to shoot—but Alice has darted behind him and has seized his hand. He struggles with her.] Let go. — Let go. —

Alice: You can’t —

Harold [wildly]: Can’t I — ?

[He throws her off momentarily — AND SHOOTS! But Alice has knocked up the muzzle of the revolver and the bullet hits a picture, high above Tracy’s head. Alice seizes Harold by the wrist — desperate appeal in her voice.]

Alice: Harold!!

[Harold is staring at her — his eyes wild. Suddenly there is a loud knock at the shop door. Harold looks up and the revolver slips from his fingers and falls to the floor. Alice dives for it — then runs towards the left hand door evidently afraid that Harold might try to get it again. But Harold is standing as if in a dream — his muscles relaxed — his face expressionless. He speaks quietly.]

Harold: The police — !”

–Charles Bennett (Blackmail, 1934)

It is, in fact, the Sargent of police. He has arrived to arrest Tracy. Alice makes an effort of confession but is hushed by Harold. She tries again but is interrupted by Albert. He has returned from the police station, and he demands that Harold call the station before anything else happens. After a brief exchange of confusion and argument, he does as Albert asks and phones the station. It seems by Harold’s reaction that he is receiving surprising news. Once this conversation is finished and the call is ended, we learn what he has heard on the other end of the line.

[Harold looks at them — one after another. His eyes finally rest on Alice. At last he speaks — slowly — as if in a dream.]

Harold: Peter Hewitt! His doctor went to Scotland Yard tonight. He told them a thing or two and it made them think — [To Tracy] And then — because they were after you, a police surgeon was sent down to the mortuary at once. He found out who did it — He found out —

Alice [staring]: Harold —

Harold [almost laughing—on the verge of a breakdown.]: Did you think he was murdered? My God! What a lot of fools we’ve been. Why, the wound wasn’t deep enough to have killed. The jugular vein wasn’t touched. [His lips move convulsively for a moment — then.] He died — of HEART FAILURE!

Tracy [gasping]: What?

Harold [going on quickly as Alice starts violently.]: Heart failure — brought on by over excitement. His heart’s been weak for months so the doctor says and they worked it out — Oh, Lord — they’re so clever — [He sways a moment and steadies himself against a chair before going on.] He — He was about to have supper when something — something happened to upset him. He had a seizure — the bread knife was in his hand — he fell — ON THE KNIFE! He managed to crawl to the bed where he died a few minutes later of — of — heart failure — Heart —

[He staggers and nearly falls—his hand to his eyes. The Sergeant darts forward and catches him by the arm.]

Sergeant: Steady!—What’s up?

Harold [sinking into a chair]: Nothing. Dizzy. — It’s been a long day—[His eyes come to Tracy. He speaks thickly.] There’ll be no charge against him. Take him along. They’ll let him go again when he gets there.

Sergeant [looking at Tracy regretfully]: Um! Are you ready, sir? [Tracy doesn’t reply. He too seems knocked out by the sudden turn of events. He looks at Harold then at Alice—then slowly turns and goes up into the shop. The Constable follows him. The Sergeant turns up too — speaking to Harold as he goes.] You’ll follow us — ?

Harold [without looking at him.]: At once.

Sergeant [to Alice]: Goodnight, Miss.

[Alice doesn’t reply. She is gazing fixedly at Harold. The Sergeant smiles to himself — turns — and goes into the shop, closing the glass door after him. Albert goes with him. A moment later the outer door slams — signifying that they have gone. Harold is sitting very still — staring straight in front of him — at nothing. Suddenly the pendulum clock gives a whirring noise and strikes ONE. Alice starts and speaks—fear in her voice.]

Alice: Oh. — Twenty-four hours since — since — [Her voice trails off.]

Harold [looking at her at last—speaking steadily]: Peter Hewitt died of heart failure.

[Alice looks at him—her eyes light up—she comes toward him.]

Alice: Harold — Was that true?

Harold [rising to meet her — nodding his head.]: True. —

Alice [relief too intense for words]: Oh. —

[Harold takes her in his arms — affectionately–protectively. She nestles up to him—looking up into his eyes. He speaks very quietly.]

Harold: You poor kid.

THE CURTAIN FALLS”

–Charles Bennett (Blackmail, 1934)

The carryover from this portion of the original play was the idea for the chase sequence in the original film version. Tracy elaborates on his experiences after seeking shelter with Alice, and it seems likely that this planted the seed for Hitchcock’s third act (even if the action in the film adaptation is completely different than what was described by Tracy in Bennett’s play.

An unpublished version of the play entitled “24 Hours” actually had another ending. This early draft seems to have taken a much different path to its eventual happy ending. Apparently, Alice eventually admits to the crime so as to let Tracy off the hook in this version.

“A sensational trial, occurring during the curtained interval between the second and third acts, acquits Alice of murder because she acted in self-defense. Returning home from jail, she is introduced by her mother, Mrs. Jarvis, to Miss Potter, a nasty Victorian spinster. Miss Potter has been tasked to force the terrified girl into a workhouse, where, locked away, she will atone her family’s disgrace by ironing.” –John Charles Bennett (The Avenger, Hitchcock’s Partner in Suspense, 2014)

It is doubtful that Hitchcock ever saw this early draft of the play, but it might be worth including here as a comparison to the version that was published:

Miss Potter: You must remember that this is going to take a lot of living down. Your parents have their livelihood to consider. If you were here… Well… It isn’t a very pleasant reflection, is it? I mean… The disgrace.

Alice: But I don’t see. What disgrace? I’ve been acquitted.

Miss Potter: Acquittal isn’t everything.

Alice [losing control of herself]: But they said… Oh… you ought to have been there to hear them. It was proved I wasn’t to blame.

Miss Potter [soothing her … irritatingly]: Now try to keep calm. It’s alright. It won’t be for long. You can come back here in a year or so’s time.

Alice: A year or so! And where do you expect me to go in the meanwhile?

Miss Potter: That has been arranged. You will live for the next few months at the Southwark branch of the Fallen Women’s Aid Society… [Alice gives a gasp but Miss Potter continues] You will find your surroundings friendly and congenial and you will have time to reflect and to think about making a new start in life. You will…

Alice [suddenly … unable to bear it any longer]: Be quiet! You … dreadful … woman!

Miss Potter [staggered … and shocked to the depths of her soul]: What … !!

Alice [tensely]: So you want to put me in prison after all. Yes … that’s what it means … Aid Society! Why … [desperately] I’d rather go on the streets!

Mrs. Jarvis: Alice!

Alice [to her mother]: You. Do you consent to this?

Mrs. Jarvis: It’s best, Alice.

Alice: Best! [She turns away on the verge of hysterical laughter—but faces them again.] And this is my home. You don’t want me here. I killed a man to save myself from … from … [Her voice breaks but she carries on.] And yet you’d send me to a home, among women of that sort … as if … as if … [She is crying again.]

–Charles Bennett (24 Hours, as reprinted in “Hitchcock’s Partner in Suspense,” 2014)

Of course, Alice refuses to go to the workhouse and ends up selling her story to the press for a large sum of money before announcing that she will marry the detective. Even if this ending had been presented to the director, it seems highly unlikely that he would have used it in his film.

This is a photograph of Alfred Hitchcock that was taken during the production of BLACKMAIL (1929).

THE ADAPTATION

If Blackmail can be viewed as the beginning of Alfred Hitchcock’s association with Charles Bennett, it should also be seen as the end of the director’s collaboration with Eliot Stannard. Stannard had collaborated in some capacity on the scripts for each of his silent films, but Blackmail was the dawn of a new era. On November 07, 1928, The Times reported that Garnet Weston was working on the scenario, but in the end Weston only contributed a rather generalized treatment for the film—a treatment that didn’t include the film’s third act chase through the British Museum.

Of course, Alma Reville was always a primary collaborator (especially during this phase in the director’s career), but the duo usually wanted a third voice.

“…Hitchcock didn’t have to look far. With his instinct for discovering young talent, he remembered Michael Powell… Hitchcock liked him, and so did Mrs. Hitchcock…

…During the filming of The Manxman Hitchcock had handed Powell a copy of the Charles Bennett play, telling him that Blackmail was well-crafted until the weak third act. Hitchcock liked fireworks for his third acts, the dramatic set pieces he called ‘crescendos,’ which topped everything that went before.

‘See what you think of the play,’ Hitchcock told Powell, ‘and let me know how you think it might be improved for a film.’ It was the kind of remark Hitchcock often meant as a little test, but Powell passed swimmingly. He returned to tell Hitchcock he agreed with him—Blackmail would make a ‘swell movie.’ When Hitchcock then asked about the rotten’ third act, Powell said, ‘To hell with the third act. We’ll make it a chase.’” –Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Of course, many people in the director’s orbit at the time have laid claim to coming up with the initial idea for Blackmail’s chase sequence (including John Maxwell), but it seems fairly safe to assume that the idea was born out of script sessions with Hitchcock, Reville, and Powell. It would probably be very difficult for even these three participants to actually nail down who came up with an idea that was born out of group conversation, but Powell would have certainly participated in the idea. In any case, his account of the script meetings that produced the chase is worth noting:

“At one script session, according to Powell, the director ‘broached an idea that I had been nurturing for a while.’ Blackmail ought to conclude, Powell suggested, with an elaborate chase that takes place in ‘some bizarre location that is entertaining in itself.’

‘What do you mean?’ asked Hitchcock, raising his eyebrows. ‘What do you think Michael means, Alma?’ Right on cue, Mrs. Hitchcock gave Powell an encouraging nod. Powell had been pondering his boyhood visits to the British Museum Reading Room; that hallowed edifice with its glass dome. ‘Let’s have him [the blackmailer, pursued by police] slip into the British Museum at night,’ Powell offered, ‘and get chased through rooms full of Egyptian mummies and Elgin Marbles, and climb higher to escape, and be cornered and then fall through the glass dome of the Reading Room and break his neck.’ The Hitchcocks beamed.” –Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

With the film’s third act in place, the director could begin planning for the film’s unusual production.

Sound Proofing 2

PRODUCTION: SILENT AND SOUND VERSIONS

We know that the production began as a silent film, but the production history of Blackmail is somewhat convoluted. In some ways, Hitchcock’s own recollections seem to raise nearly as many questions as they answer.

“I was bitterly disappointed when I was told that it was to be a silent picture. I was convinced that talkies were no mere flash in the pan and that the day of silent films had passed. I felt certain in my own mind that, when the picture was finished, I should be asked to add dialogue to it, or to remake it entirely as a full-length talkie. Therefore, when producing the film in silent form, I was imagining all the time that it was a talkie. I was using talkie technique, but without sound.” –Alfred Hitchcock (My Screen Memories, Film Weekly, May 02-30, 1936)

As luck (or fate) would have it, the director was proven correct.

“…They told me that the last reel was going to be done in sound. I didn’t let them know up front, but I knew there was so much of the visual in it that here and there I could go back and drop certain sounds into scenes that were completed. Having seen it once since then, I think it shows a little bit that there’s no flow of dialogue where it should flow. The dialogue almost comes in like titles in the early part of the picture.” –Alfred Hitchcock (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

This, of course, implies that Hitchcock was able to lay in sound over most of the scenes that had already been shot for the silent version. However, Hitchcock told François Truffaut that the producers gave him “carte blanche to shoot some scenes over.” What’s more, an article written by Hitchcock in 1936 suggests that quite a few scenes were completely reshot (and a comparison of the two films confirms this).

“I was allowed to remake practically the whole of the picture in talkie form. There were certain difficulties. I had the same cast, except for Phyllis Konstam, who had gone off to fulfill a stage engagement. Phyllis Monkman replaced her.” –Alfred Hitchcock (My Screen Memories, Film Weekly, May 02-30, 1936)

The replacement of Phyllis Konstam was a relatively inconsequential change in casting as she was only in a few scenes. However, it would have been impractical to recast the film’s protagonist, and this impracticality created quite a bit of chaos when it came time to reshoot scenes for the sound version.

“The star was Anny Ondra, the [Czech] actress, who, naturally, hardly spoke any English. We couldn’t dub in the voices then as we do today. So, I got around the difficulty by calling on an English actress, Joan Barry, who did the dialogue standing outside the frame, with her own microphone, while Miss Ondra pantomimed the words.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock, 1966)

It is this particular production problem that bothers many scholars. It’s impossible to fathom that the film would have been as groundbreaking sound-wise without quite a bit of serious consideration and planning. However, it seems strange that Hitchcock would have cast Anny Ondra as Alice White if he truly anticipated from the outset that he would be shooting sound. This seems somewhat paradoxical! On one hand, his sound experiments couldn’t have been achieved seamlessly without serious preplanning. On the other hand, if he was planning for a possible sound production, why was Ondra cast in the first place?

It seems reasonable to assume (and there is evidence to support the theory) that a sound production was initially nixed by the studio after the director’s contingent planning for both possibilities but before casting the film. It is known that John Maxwell (the film’s producer) changed his mind and agreed to add a final sound scene after production was well under way, and that he signed off on a few more sound additions at the behest of Hitchcock at an even later date. Hitchcock and Ondra were good friends. He wasn’t about to dismiss her in the middle of a production.

Anny Ondra

Anny Ondra

Even actors with strong voices and appropriate accents had a rough go of it. The coming of sound made it necessary for actors to relearn their craft. Silent actors had to adapt their technique so as to give more understated performances. Studios also began hiring stage actors, but acting for the screen required a different technique than what was required for the stage. Alfred Hitchcock remembered how veteran stage actress, Sara Allgood, had trouble adjusting her technique during the production of Blackmail:

“I remember a terrible moment in connection with her. As it was her first film we got to discussing [sic] the technique of the screen, and I was pointing out how stage actors rarely used their expressions and only their voices—they never had to project their expressions. Filmmaking was exactly the opposite; everything depended on pantomime.

‘How does one acquire the technique of pantomime?’ Sara asked me. I told her that it was mainly instinct, though there were artificial ways of teaching it. In the early days of films they would make a star look agonized by telling her bad news or releasing some rats at her feet.

‘How would you look,’ for example, ‘if I suddenly told you your mother was dead?’ To my surprise, Sara’s face suddenly went into tragic contortions, and she turned her head away. Then she explained. I had hit upon an unhappiest example I could possibly have chosen. Her mother had only just died.” –Alfred Hitchcock (My Screen Memories, Film Weekly, May 02-30, 1936)

Any issues regarding the film’s actors were somewhat easy to overcome in comparison to the technical challenges created by the addition of sound production. Patrick McGilligan paints a particularly grim picture of his circumstances during the shooting of Blackmail’s sound sequences in Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light:

Blackmail moved into B.I.P.’s new temporary soundstage: a padded house on the Elstree grounds. The walls were cushioned with blankets. Draped felt was sandwiched under the corrugated iron roof. The sound cameras had to be encased in telephone-booth-like kiosks on wheels. The cameras couldn’t track or dolly without wheeling the entire booth around the room. Camera movement—already a Hitchcock trademark—basically ground to a halt.

The standard carbon arc lamps produced an incessant hum and sputter, so the cameramen began experimenting with five and ten-kilowatt incandescents [sic]. This worked out well for illumination purposes, but created a near-suffocating heat inside the stage area—‘like being in a bake house,’ as Freddie Young recalled. ‘In between calls, the actors lay down on the floor and napped as best they could in the sweltering heat.’

The camera booth, a smaller confined space, was hellish—an even more punishing sweatbox. It was covered in front by a thick glass panel that had to be wiped clean constantly with alcohol. The crew even grabbed their tea breaks inside. ‘The operator was locked inside,’ recalled Young, who was assistant cameraman on another B.I.P. talkie… ‘And there he’d stay until the end of the take, when he’d stagger out sweating and gasping for air.’

…Hitchcock, most of the time, was stationed in a separate recording booth that was every bit as hot and suffocating, wearing outsized earphones to monitor the audio quality.” –Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

A comparison of the “murder sequence” as seen in both the silent and talkie versions of Blackmail speaks volumes. Consider an incredibly effective moment in the silent version where the camera moves with the artist as he makes his way closer and closer to Alice before he attacks her. There is no such moment in the “talkie” version, because moving the camera in this manner would have been impossible.

Blackmail - Silent Approach

This threatening moment from the silent version of Blackmail isn’t replicated in the sound version of the film.

Blackmail - Murder Mustache

The mustache shadow seen in this image was Hitchcock’s farewell to silent cinema.

One touch that did manage to make both versions of the film was often mentioned by the director in interviews:

“I did a funny thing in that scene, a sort of farewell to silent pictures. On the silent screen the villain was generally a man with a mustache. Well, my villain was clean-shaven, but an ironwork chandelier in his studio cast a shadow on his upper lip that suggested an absolutely fierce-looking mustache!” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock, 1966)

While one feels that this sequence was better served in the silent version, the celebrated “knife” scene is an incredible scene that uses sound as dramatically (and as subjectively) as Hitchcock uses the camera:

“After the girl has killed the painter, there is a scene showing a breakfast, with her family seated around the table. One of the neighbors is discussing the murder. She says, ‘What a terrible way to kill a man, with a knife in the back. If I had killed him, I might have struck him over the head with a brick, but I wouldn’t use a knife.’ And the talk goes on and on, becoming a confusion of vague noises to which the girl no longer listens—except for the one word, ‘knife, knife,’ which is said over and over again and becomes fainter and fainter. Then suddenly she hears her father’s normal, loud voice: ‘Alice, please pass me the bread knife.’ And Alice has to pick up a knife similar to the one she’s used for the killing, while the others go on chattering about the crime.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock, 1966)

As Hitchcock would later write in an article about screen direction, the sequence is a clear example of “how careful use of sound can help strengthen the intensity of a situation.” The remarkable thing about this particular scene is that it was made during a time when few were making any effort to use sound dramatically. For most filmmakers, sound was merely a functional gimmick that often got in the way of their visuals. Hitchcock understood that it could be used to enhance the drama.

Scholars have also given the film’s climactic chase sequence plenty of attention throughout the years, but this may be because there is so much documented information available about the shooting of this sequence. One of the earliest of these articles was published while Blackmail was still in production:

“The British Museum… is to play quite a big part in the first British ‘talkie,’ Mr. Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail. Mr. Hitchcock has permission to film as much of the exterior and photograph as much of the interior as he wants, and his minions were at work a few days ago, in a ‘Flying Squad’ van, filming a ‘wanted’ man (Mr. Donald Calthrop), who scudded along Great Russell street, and dashed to cover up the steps of the Museum. Mr. Hitchcock, who seems to be turning rather to the Russian theory of casting types rather than professional actors, made his cameraman film the ordinary passers-by against whom Mr. Calthrop brushed. Though a few became ‘camera conscious,’ the effect was realistic. For the interior scenes, which include a chase along the galleries and a crash through the dome of the reading room, the Museum authorities have naturally not allowed facilities on the spot.” –The Adelaide Chronicle (Filming the British Museum, July 11, 1929)

Hitchcock was able to realize the interiors shots that made up the greater part of the film’s museum chase by utilizing a technique that he had learned during his stay in Germany:

“It was all process. You see, there was never enough light in the British Museum, so we used what is known as the Schufftan process. You have a mirror at an angle of 45 degrees and in it you reflect a full picture of the British Museum. I had some pictures taken with half-hour exposures. I had nine photographs taken in various rooms in the museum and we made then into transparencies so that we could back-light them. That is more luminous than a flat photograph. It was like a big lantern slide, about 12 by 14. And then I scraped the silvering away in the mirror only in the portions where I wanted the man to be seen running, and those portions we built on the stage. For example, one room was the Egyptian room, there were glass cases in there. All we built were the door frames from one room to another. We even had a man looking into a case, and he wasn’t looking into anything on the stage. I did nine shots like this, but there was barely any set that could be seen on the stage.

The front office was worrying about when the picture was going to be finished. So I did it all secretly because the studio heads knew nothing about the Schufftan process. I had another camera set up on the side photographing an insert of a letter, and a look-out stationed at the door. When the big-shot from the front office would walk through, we would just be shooting the insert of the letter. They’d go on through and I’d say, ‘All right, bring back the Schufftan.’ I did the whole nine shots that way. The chase on the roof was a miniature. We just built a skeleton ramp for him to run on.” –Alfred Hitchcock (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

Of course, Hitchcock often insisted that this ending was a compromise.

“I never did it the way I really wanted to… In the first reel, I show the process of an arrest: the detectives go out in the morning; they pick up the man; he has a gun; they take it away and put the handcuffs on. He’s taken to the police station, booked, fingerprinted, and questioned. They take a mug shot and lock him up in a cell. And then we come back to the two detectives going to the men’s room and washing their hands, just as though they were two office workers. To them, it was just the end of a day’s work. The younger detective’s girl is waiting for him; they go to a restaurant, have a row and go their separate ways…

…The ending I originally wanted was different [than the ending used in the film]. After the chase and the death of the blackmailer, the girl would have been arrested and the young man would have had to do the same things to her that we saw at the beginning: handcuffs, booking at the police station, and so on. Then he would meet his older partner in the men’s room, and the other man, unaware of what had taken place, would say, ‘Are you going out with your girl tonight?’ And he would have answered, ‘No, I’m going straight home.’ And the picture would have ended in that way. But the producers claimed it was too depressing.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock, 1966)

Of course, the so-called “happily-ever-after” that the producers forced on Hitchcock was eventually subverted by the director into what is decidedly not a happy ending. The film’s ending has layers of foreboding as we understand that neither Alice nor Frank are free. They have merely locked themselves into another kind of prison—together, and in bondage. In other words:

“The producers unwittingly chose the more radical ending because it ‘looked’ more conventional, a romantic happy ending. The censors who gave Buñuel his marvelously subversive conclusion to Viridiana made the same happy error… In any case, the imposed ending stands as an integrated ironic whole.” –Maurice Yacowar (Hitchcock’s British Films, 2010)

If there was any hope as to the couple’s potential for future happiness, Hitchcock brilliantly destroys it during these final moments by bringing back the film’s most frequent motif:

“The most protean symbol is Crewe’s painting of the clown… The clown image itself assumes various expressions. Upon Alice’s arrival in the studio, it promises gaiety. It leers at her when the atmosphere turns erotic. When the same face accuses her after she kills Crewe, she slashes at its harsh laughter. The clown later catches the furtive Frank’s concealment of the glove and taunts him. At the end the painting is carried past Frank and Alice into the heart of the Yard, where it will point its accusing finger at the duped police force…” –Maurice Yacowar (Hitchcock’s British Films, 2010)

It isn’t mentioned, but the painting also seems to be accusing both Alice and Frank as it is carried past them. It knows that they can never be happy. It knows that their future is grim. It even admonishes the audience for our complicity in these crimes. Do we even deserve a happy ending?

This is a publicity photograph of Cyril Ritchard and Anny Ondra that was taken during the production of BLACKMAIL (1929).

RELEASE AND RECEPTION:

“The first showing in Berlin of the British International Pictures production, Blackmail, was used to test the feeling of the public here on the vocal film.

The whole work was passed twice across the screen, once with and once without the voices, and the audience, consisting mainly of people connected with the cinematograph industry who had come by invitation, was asked to state on voting cards which of the two versions was preferred. The result was 685 votes for the silent and 439 for the, vocal rendering.

This decision is the more important because the work on the whole was very well received. One of this evening’s papers, for instance, says: ‘It does not, like others, merely pretend to be a sound film, but actually is one.’

The same writer finds that certain scenes were very successful and clearly indicated the many and extraordinary possibilities of the sound film. He also speaks of the ‘wonderful atmospheric truth; and ‘The minute penetration in the observation and reproduction of detail shown by the very gifted young producer, Alfred Hitchcock.’” –Hull Daily Mail (Sound v. Silent Film Vote, September 11, 1929)

It is interesting to consider that the silent version was the preferred version of Blackmail during this preview screening, and the silent version was more widely distributed since there was a great number of theaters that were still not set up to exhibit “talkies.” However, most of the existing press from the era seems to largely ignore the silent Blackmail as British International Pictures understandably preferred to promote their first sound picture, and this more popular version of the film was (by most accounts) an overwhelming critical success. Most critics showered “Britain’s First All-Talking Picture” with hyperbolic praise. Of course, there were exceptions. For example, Hugh Castle wrote an incredibly condescending—if mostly positive—review for the film that oozes snobbish pretention:

“Alfred Hitchcock had finished the picture at the time the talkie wave broke. Frenzied conferences resulted in his re-shooting most of it and making it into a dialogue picture. It must be said at the outset that, considering that he was toying with a medium about which we knew nothing, considering he had a finished picture to doctor into a talkie, considering his star could not speak English and had to be ‘ghosted’ throughout, he has made a good job of it.

Blackmail is perhaps the most intelligent mixture of sound and silence we have yet seen. It is not a great picture, it is not a masterpiece, it not an artistic triumph, it is not a valuable addition to the gallery of the world’s great films, it is not even, I think, a great box-office picture. But it is a first effort of which the British industry has every reason to be proud. It is Hitchcock’s come-back. While seeing it you can hardly believe that it was made by the man who gave us Champagne or The Manxman. For perhaps the first time in the history of the commercial cinema we are faced with a good film based on a dreadful play. Usually, however low the stage, the screen can be depended upon to go one lower.

As is usual in the more serious Hitchcock pictures, all considerations are secondary to the Almighty German Technique. If you shoot up a stairway you must tilt your camera until the result looks like Gertrude Stein reduced to a cross-word puzzle. If you want to show a Flying Squad car in full blast you begin by showing a revolving wheel and draw away until you run parallel to the car. Very clever, of course. Yet Hitchcock has a way—at his best—of justifying his weaknesses.

The first reel is silent. The dialogue is in arithmetic progression with the speed of the picture. The story, which is too thin from the commercial angle, and too inane from the artistic, concerns a detective in the Flying Squad whose girl murders an artist who attempts to seduce her… An altogether inconsequential theme for a good picture. Yet. Hitchcock succeeds in wedding sound with silence.

He has one sequence which, despite the way it has been glorified in the English press, gives one a clear idea of the potentialities of the medium. The girl overhears a chatterbox discussing the murder, while the memory of the knife is still fresh in her penny-dreadful mind. The talk dies down and down until only the word ” ‘knife’ emerges, stabbing, hurting. Inasmuch as that particular sequence is about the only one we have on record in which sound has been definitely instrumental in the development of the drama, the picture is worthwhile…

… Within twenty-four hours of the show being over, the optimists were predicting an immediate revival in British production. Blackmail has put us on top of the world. Pudovkin is dead, Eisenstein has ceased to be. Even Carl Laemmle, a greater figure than either, is forgotten for the moment! We shall see.” –Hugh Castle (Elstree’s First ‘Talkie, Close Up, August 1929)

Of course, Ernest Betts, in a later article entitled, “All-Talking, All-Singing, All-Nothing” was less courteous (but even more pompous) in his mention of the film. It should come as no surprise to note that it too was an article for Close Up:

“I suppose it would not be denied that one of the essential gifts of the daily paper film critic of popular standing is to be able to write voluminously about nothing. However asinine the subject-matter, there is always plenty to be said about it. And we know in any case that the best journalists are very often those who can give an air of importance to things which really do not matter at all…

Blackmail is a good story, but it tells us nothing, except that if pretty girls will get involved with artists in Chelsea they may get seduced. But this is exactly the type of film of which I complain. What was the great focal point of all the critics over this particular film? It was admiration and analysis of its technique. Good heavens, to think of the stuff I have written, or attempted to write, about Hitchcock’s technique! I look at the stuff and I say: ‘This is awful! What on earth are you talking about? Where did you get hold of it all?’ And at once I am reminded of the dreary university lectures I used to attend on the textual sublimities of Chaucer, the alliterative fancies of Piers Ploughman, and so on. But the vital spark of Chaucer and Langland I never got. And nobody reads either of them now except as an academic exercise. For the truth is, these studies were concerned with the makings of literature, not with the thing made, which you can hold up to the light and judge as a living texture. It is as if you bought a clock for the works instead of the time…” –Ernest Betts (All-Talking, All-Singing, All-Nothing, Close Up, June 1930)

Mr. Betts really shouldn’t have been allowed to write about film in the first place. Philistines shouldn’t masquerade as scholars, and those who can’t fully appreciate the cinema do not deserve it. In any case, this sort of attitude seems to have been the exception to the rule. The Times, for example, had nothing but praise for the film. What’s more, they were able to impart their praise without lacing it with condescension:

“More than the average significance attached to the showing of Blackmail, as it was the first full-length talking subject to be made in a British film studio. Mr. Alfred Hitchcock, the director, should be well pleased with his work, which easily surpasses its forerunners in the peculiar gifts which the sound film is acquiring for itself. From the first Mr. Hitchcock has held firmly to the principles of movement which underlie his craft. Blackmail is a true motion picture, and frees us from the idea that the camera must be transfixed and the pictorial flow of the film arrested merely for the pleasure of recording a variety of strange noises.

Based on the play by Mr. Charles Bennett, the story retells, even to the carving-knife, the Tosca-like theme of seduction which has served film and opera so faithfully. Mr. Hitchcock, sweeping aside American traditions of speed and glamour, has given us a piece of uncompromising ‘cinema’ whose lentisaimo drama unfolds without any attempt to lash itself into fury. Yet it is full of doom, and rolls on with fatal deliberation to its end. While the young Chelsea artist is entertaining the tobacconist’s daughter at his studio, the rhythm is so slow, the scene so artless, we never suspect the horror lying in wait behind the curtains. Thereafter the blackmail of the girl by the loafer in possession of her glove is conducted with the same mesmeric coolness, and we witness the scenes at Scotland Yard, the thrilling chase on to the roof of the British Museum, as if personal to these encounters. This would be satisfying enough as a silent film. It gains by the director’s use of sound, which calls for no display of thunder or circus swagger. During the first 10 minutes of the film not a character breaks into speech, for the story is quite able to express itself pantomimically [sic]. When at length the casual talk of detectives is introduced, the ear is not offended as by battery and assault. The words bring relief after, silence and the long, mounting suspense. Indeed, the dialogue throughout is admirably written and enters with a frank and pleasing cadence into its graphic background. Considerable use is made of voices ‘off the set,’ and the realistic note is heightened by this device, as when detectives are heard speaking in an adjacent room and we understand, though we do not hear, the words.

Aside from these technical considerations, the scene, story, and characterization have much to recommend them. They have the freshness of truth, showing us intelligible people on lawful and dastardly occasions in such settings as the London suburbs, Chelsea, Westminster, Bloomsbury, Piccadilly, and ‘the Yard.’ Mr. Hitchcock’s fondness for symbolism does not diminish and he loves the perspective of a good staircase ; but his camera has an original eye, always set at a vivid angle, and he can make time deepen and ache for its crisis in a way that has no parallel in skill since Warning Shadows.

Credit must be given to the cast, who speak and move with so sensitive a response to the story’s needs. Miss Anny Ondra, whom we saw not long ago in The Manxman, has infinitely improved her performance, as somebody has clearly improved, if not stolen, her voice. As the artist, Mr. Cyril Ritchard gives a study free of all ‘arty’ conventions, and produces a graceful villain in whom we can well believe. Miss Sarah Allgood, as a film mother, caught the outlines of that over-photographed character perfectly, and spared us the sentimental deluge. But perhaps the most brilliant performance was that of Mr. Donald Calthrop, whose blackmailer leaves us amazed that he is not oftener seen in British films. The Elstree studios can take pride in a production which should appreciably raise the stock of our fluctuating British industry, while it is but just to add that under Mr. Hitchcock’s guidance the talking film has taken a very definite step forward.” –The Times (June 24, 1929)

A review published in the Yorkshire Evening Post was no less flattering:

“The first really big audible film, Blackmail… touches the top note in talkie production, and is actually better than the best American speaking picture that has yet raised its voice in this country. The players speak quietly, naturally and distinctly, while even whispers are rendered effectively. There is no suggestion of a gramophone in the recording (R.C.A. Photophone sound on film) or in the reproduction.

In this screen version of Charles Bennett’s drama, Alfred Hitchcock has not been content to offer something in the nature of a photographed stage play with ‘canned’ dialogue, but has used the elastic medium of the cinema camera to form a large and impressive background to the story. It is a murder melodrama in which the action is confined entirely to London. Scenes in Scotland Yard, the Corner House and the British Museum have never been reproduced so faithfully in any film play. From the opening scene, the only silent portion of the picture in which detectives of the ‘flying squad’ arrest a ‘wanted’ man in the slums, the tension is never relaxed to the last ‘shot’ of all.

The theme may not be particularly novel, but it is treated in an unusual way. Also, the acting all round reaches a higher standard of excellence than in any talkie yet. It is stated that Anny Ondra, the Continental star, who plays the leading feminine role, employed a ‘double’ for her voice, but if so, synchronization is so nearly perfect that eye and ear are deceived… If British producers can keep up to the high level of Blackmail, there should be a bright future before the home talkie industry.” –L.M. (Blackmail: A British Talking Film Touches Top, Yorkshire Evening Post, July 10, 1929)

Dundee Evening Telegraph went as far to imply that it was the Brit’s patriotic duty to see the film.

“There is really only one thing that is possible to say about Britain’s first all-talking picture, Blackmail, and that is—see it. Blackmail, made entirely at Elstree and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, has anything that America had done beaten to a frazzle. The single fact alone that we hear the Mother Tongue as it should be spoken is sufficient to recommend it to all patriotic Britons. But Blackmail has more than that. The story is strong and dramatic, the acting is blameless, and the glimpses one gets of the interior of Scotland Yard and many other well-known and familiar places, and of the methods of that thrilling organization, ‘The Flying Squad,’ are intensely fascinating and homely [sic]. It is strange how much better one likes to see places that one knows on the screen, than scenes one has never visited…

…We are indebted to the brilliant direction of Alfred Hitchcock. Many of his little details are touches of sheer genius, such as, for instance, the opening scenes of the film. Although Blackmail is a full-length ‘talkie,’ Hitchcock has given us the introduction to his film in a silence that is ten times more effective than any sound. He himself says there are moments in any film when silence speaks far more than words…

…Everything has been done to obtain realism, and the characters on the screen seem to be made of flesh and blood and not mere puppets, so deftly has the producer handled the material at his command.” –Dundee Evening Telegraph (First British Talkie a Triumphant Success, August 09, 1929)

It is clear that at least some of the critical enthusiasm for the film was born out of national pride and support for the British film industry (which was struggling to gain a foothold even within the confines of Britain). Blackmail seemed to offer hope that it could compete with American product, and this is why this review—and many of the others—make it a point to laud it favorably against American product.

It’s also interesting to note that many of these reviews make it a point to criticize Charles Bennett’s stage play even as it praises Hitchcock’s film. Both of these trends are on display in a review published by The Canberra Times:

Blackmail (says the London Daily Mail) is as far in advance of all other talking films which have hitherto been shown in London… It is—very nearly—a great film. The qualification is necessary, not in virtue of its merits in comparison with other talking films, but because of its own standards. In this film for the first time intelligent use is made of sound: the noise has not been thrown in as an overweight to the action. The director, Mr. Alfred Hitchcock, has been known always as a master of expressive technique. He has succeeded in translating into vocal terms the doctrines of expressionism which the great Germans like Pabst and Lubitsch have exploited in pictorial values. It is superb entertainment and it is the first credible picture of London and its characteristic life which has yet appeared on the screen. London is, indeed, its leading lady. The story is taken from the stage play of the same name (and in its taking contrary to established practice, Mr. Hitchcock has transmuted a play which was almost entirely tedious into an exciting entertainment)… Blackmail will come as a shock to the American film magnates, who cannot conceive goodness in a film not created after their own image.” –The Canberra Times (New English Talkie, October 11, 1929)

A review published in The Burnley Express is perhaps even more concerned with the British film industry than it is in the film:

“All who are interested in the welfare of the British film industry will be delighted with Blackmail… A good story has been most intelligently directed. A little is occasionally left to the imagination, and there are many subtle touches which we thought at one time could only be introduced by Continental directors… The acting throughout is of a standard seldom reached in ‘talkies.’ Anny Ondra, John Logden, and Donald Calthrop, who head the cast are all splendid. I hope the British films will continue to be successful enough to keep these fine players in their own country.” –Burnley Express (British Success at The Pentridge, January 08, 1930)

The same publication would publish another equally enthusiastic review only a few weeks later:

Blackmail… was practically the first British picture to challenge the supremacy of the American ‘talkies.’ Alfred Hitchcock, the director, proved himself a real master of his art by his masterly handling of this picture, which is sure to attract large audiences wherever it is shown… Although the director’ brilliant work would have of itself made the picture a success, the players have given him every possible assistance by gripping characterizations, and Blackmail will now remove any doubt anyone may have had regarding the future prospects of the British film industry.” –Burnley Express (Coliseum’s Excellent Fare, January 24, 1930)

In Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, Patrick McGilligan suggests that the film was denied distribution in America despite rave reviews in the trades, but this seems to be untrue—or at least misleading—as there is much period evidence to suggest that it played to enthusiastic audiences after premiering at the Selwyn in New York on October 04, 1929. In fact, periodicals of the era even suggest that the film was “held over” and that Blackmail had “broken the house record” at the Davis theater in San Francisco.

There’s also a good number of American reviews for the film, and reading them makes it easier to understand why the British press made so many snide remarks about America’s film output. The American press was fairly dismissive of British pictures and treated them as if they were inferior and unimportant, so it should come as no real shock to learn that many of these American reviews weren’t nearly as positive as most of those that came out of the director’s home country.

Freddie Schader’s review for Motion Picture News is a case in point:

“This was heralded as the best British made talking film to date. If this is a sample of the best that the English can turn out, we have only to say that it is of the quality that in this country is usually booked into Class B and C houses and never gets into deluxe first runs. To bring this picture to Broadway and offer it at $2 top is going a little too far. It is a murder mystery tale with Scotland Yard as its background. The only one who really committed the crime goes scott-free. There’s no moral in that, is there?

But the picture has a moral. It is simply this: Never permit your love for cheese to persuade you to place a chunk of it at the head of your bed, and above all never leave a knife with it. For if this artist chap, who is the heavy, hadn’t left a piece of cheese and a knife with it on the table where it was possible to reach it from the bed he never would have been murdered…

…The chap who played the blackmailer must have been the architect of the British Museum judging from his familiarity with the various stairways, halls, and doors in the building during a chase which seemingly ran more than a reel. There is no one in the cast who matters to this market.” -Freddie Schader (Opinions on Pictures: Blackmail, Motion Picture News, October-December 1929)

Variety was just as dismissive:

Blackmail is most draggy. It has no speed or pace and very little suspense. Everything’s open-face. It’s a story [from the play by Charles Bennett] that has been told in different disguises—the story of a girl who kills a man trying to assault her…

…In performance the standout is Donald Calthrop as the rat crook. He looks it. Ondra is excellent as the girl. Dialogue is ordinary but sufficient. Camera work [was] rather well done, especially on the British Museum [in the chase finale] and the eating house scenes. A bit of comedy here and there, but not enough to be called relief.” -Variety (December 31, 1928)

This particular review actually makes one wonder if Variety was allergic to complete sentences, but Mordaunt Hall’s review on the New York Times is nearly as clunky and just as disparaging:

Blackmail, Britain’s first talking picture, which was wildly acclaimed by London critics, is… a murder story based on a play by Charles Bennett and in spite of its many artificial situations and convenient ideas it possesses a dramatic value that holds the attention. It has the advantage of authentic backgrounds, even to an episode for which the British Museum serves as a setting. Its vocal delivery is nicely modulated. The diction of the players is very English but none the less pleasing and suitable to the chronicle. Its continuity is smooth, the narrative being told without any extravagant flourishes, and the performances of the players reveal that two or three of them could do even better work.

The characters impress one as always being far too obedient to the director’s iron will. They do the wrong thing to set the story right. An artist who is murdered is more natural in life than any of the other persons. The photography is seldom up to American standards, for the director, Alfred Hitchcock, frequently fails to see that his scenes are adequately lighted and more often than not the images do not stand out as distinctly as they might if more attention had been paid to the shading of the interior walls…

…The dialogue in this film is frequently so staccato that it reminds one of the speech of Dickens’s Alfred Jingle. Three words are uttered and then follows a curious and artificial silence. Then there may be either four or five words with another hushed period. This talking matches the action of the players, for Mr. Hitchcock, to heighten the dramatic effect, often calls upon his actors to move with exasperating slowness. Anny Ondra, a Czechoslovakian actress who does not speak with any noticeable foreign accent, officiates as Miss White. She has a well-defined personality and does creditable work. The failing in her acting in some scenes is due to the direction…” –Mordaunt Hall (Britain’s First Talking Film, New York Times, October 07, 1929)

Apparently, Hall was unaware of the fact that Ondra’s voice was in actuality Joan Barry’s voice. What’s more, if there is any “failing in her acting,” this is likely do to the fact that she was merely mouthing words as Barry spoke her dialogue. His statement that the film was inadequately lit makes one wonder what he would think of the film noir genre with its use of shadow. In any case, it seems unlikely that the film was given a fair chance by American critics.

However, a review in Billboard did have a few kind words for the film despite criticism about “a slow beginning” and “inconsistent” direction.

“Lacking all the fancy photography and distracting features that visually accompany a foreign-made production, Blackmail proves to be one of the best pictures that has yet been imported to America. Except for a few minutes of a slow beginning the picture holds its audience with a dramatic intensity that few American productions during the current season have equaled…

…The direction of Alfred Hitchcock is inconsistent in parts, with a letter left to the artist which the police read several times without letting the audience know its contents, but, as a whole, the job is very well done. The recording throughout is excellent and American producers could learn a lesson from this production, which will prove a howling success in any theater in which it is played.” –J.F.L. (New Films Caught in New York: ‘Blackmail, Billboard, October 12, 1929)

Luckily, time has allowed for a more objective analysis of the film. It may not stand with Alfred Hitchcock’s best British thrillers, but it absolutely stands above a vast majority of the early sound pictures being made at that time.

BLACKMAIL (SILENT) SS01

The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Kino Lorber houses the two discs in a standard Blu-ray case with a sleeve featuring artwork taken from one of the lobby cards that was used to promote Blackmail during its original theatrical engagement:

Lobby Card

Of course, the image has been adjusted to include a stylized title that was taken from various vintage advertisements for the film.

Blackmail Menu

The disc’s menu features this same image with accompaniment from the film’s score and is both attractive and easy to navigate.

BLACKMAIL (SILENT) SS02

Picture Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

While the “talkie version” of Blackmail has seen several illegitimate “public domain” releases featuring terrible transfers that nearly rendered the film unwatchable, the “silent version” has never been given a home video release in North America. Those who have only seen one of these horrendous transfers of the “talkie version” will be surprised to discover that they haven’t actually seen the film at all. Meanwhile, the “silent” version will be completely new to an even greater number of people.

The talkie version is available in two distinct versions:

Disc One features the film in the typical 1.33:1 aspect ratio (along with the Silent Version), and Disc Two supposedly presents the film in the original theatrical ratio of 1.20:1. European films of this era were often shot in this ratio because the soundtrack utilized part of the frame. If this was the original 1.20:1 image, the horizontally stretched 1.33:1 version of the film would seem superfluous. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be the case. In fact, the 1.20:1 version of the film seems vertically stretched so that it is actually a 1.12:1 image! This is a rather disappointing revelation. As for the 1.33:1 version, one assumes that it has been included here because some of the shots were originally captured silently in the Academy ratio, and this version will allow those shots to shine (even if they were not originally presented in this manner except in the “silent version”). However, this is simply conjecture.

Blackmail Transfer Comparison

The largest of these images is distortion free. The top side image is from the 1.33:1 transfer and is horizontally stretched. The bottom side image is of the 1.20:1 transfer and is vertically stretched.

To be clear, the 1.20:1 version is slightly less distorted than the 1.33:1 version. However, most of the aforementioned “public domain” discs presented a horizontally stretched transfer, and familiarity with this particular brand of distortion might make this the preferred transfer for some viewers. In any case, stretching is a curse that has followed this film for decades.

Both of these transfers display significantly more contrast than the “silent version” of the film, and there is some noticeable print damage on display. However, the damage isn’t at all distracting. In fact, this is the cleanest that the film has ever looked on home video. What’s more, it is much clearer than any of those dreadful “public domain” transfers. Seeing this new transfer will be a revelation! Detail is surprisingly evident throughout, although the “talky” transfer does suffer somewhat when compared to BFI’s Restoration transfer of the “silent” version of Blackmail. I’d say that a restoration of the sound version is also in order.

The silent version is a healthier looking transfer that exhibits stronger blacks and quite a bit more detail throughout the film. A comparison between these two versions is a fairly good demonstration as to why film restoration is so incredibly important. BFI did a terrific job here, and Kino Lorber’s transfer is an admirable reproduction of their good work. There have been criticisms about this transfer that suggest that the transfer could have benefited from a bit more contrast, but we wouldn’t want just anyone tinkering with the knobs.

BLACKMAIL (SILENT) SS03.jpg

Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

The “talkie” version of Blackmail is given a 2.0 DTS-HD transfer of the film’s original mono soundtrack that faithfully reproduces the film’s original sound without embellishment. Obviously, the primitive production techniques that were used limit the range despite being a clean representation of the original elements. Hiss is never an issue here, but it can occasionally be heard if one is listening for it. It is a vast improvement over all of the previous unofficial “public domain” releases! The fact is that this is an incredibly clean track. When one considers the film’s production history, it might even be considered a minor miracle.

The silent version’s 2.0 DTS-HD mix of the score is also an incredibly healthy transfer. The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra comes through cleanly and clearly.

BLACKMAIL (SILENT) SS04.jpg

Special Features:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

First of all, we are not counting the Silent Version of Blackmail as a supplemental feature here, because the film is equally as important to this release as its “Talkie” counterpart.

Feature Length Audio Commentary by Tim Lucas

Tim Lucas offers valuable comparison between the silent and sound versions of the film, mention’s Michael Powell’s collaboration, and points out errors in the continuity. It’s a better-than-average commentary track that engages the listener.

Anny Ondra’s Screen/Sound Test – (00:59)

Sound Test

What a treasure! Any Blu-ray release of Blackmail without this screen test would be incomplete.

As is mentioned in the above essay about the film, Anny Ondra was a Czech film actress with a rather thick accent that was decidedly inappropriate for the very British protagonist. Most sources agree that this sound test was done as a demonstration to Anny Ondra, and Hitchcock does mention that she had asked to hear her voice on film within the actual test itself. However, other details surrounding the test are somewhat vague. We know that Jack Cox was the cameraman with Hitchcock very much in control. Apparently, the director had a habit of trying to make his actors—both male and female—laugh with his “bawdy humor.” His exchange with Anny Ondra fell in line with this habit:

Alfred Hitchcock: Now, uh, Miss Ondra. You asked me to let you hear your voice on the talking picture.

Anny Ondra: [Giggles] But, Hitch, you mustn’t do that.

Alfred Hitchcock: Why not?

Anny Ondra: Well, because… I can’t speak well.

Alfred Hitchcock: Do you realize the squad van will be here any moment?

Anny Ondra: No, really? Oh, my god. I’m terribly frightened.

Alfred Hitchcock: Why? Have you been a bad woman or something?

Anny Ondra: Well, not just bad, but… uh.

Alfred Hitchcock: But you’ve slept with men.

Anny Ondra: Oh, no! [She turns away as she laughs.]

Alfred Hitchcock: You have not? Come here. Stand in your place, otherwise
it will not come out right, as the girl said to the soldier.

Anny Ondra laughs as she turns away from the camera.

Hitchcock: [turns to the camera] That’s enough.

Hitchcock/Truffaut: Icon Interviews Icon – (10:27)

It’s very pleasing to find that this audio excerpt from the legendary Hitchcock/Truffaut interviews was included on the disc. This particular portion of the interview finds Hitchcock discussing Blackmail and his memories and thoughts are played against a kind of slideshow featuring artwork and production stills.

Introduction by Noël Simsolo – (06:28)

It would probably be better to label this as an “interview” rather than an introduction. There are way too many spoilers here, and it provides more information than the typical introduction. Some of Simsolo’s information is laced with questionable commentary, but this is a slightly better interview than the one that he provided for Murder!

Theatrical Trailers and Blu-ray Advertisements:

Blackmail (Blu-ray Ad) – (01:15)

Murder! (Blu-ray Ad) – (01:12)

The Paradine Case Theatrical Trailers – (01:43)

Under Capricorn Theatrical Trailers – (02:04)

Lifeboat (Blu-ray Ad) – (01:28)

The theatrical trailers are welcome and worth having on the disc, but the Blu-ray advertisements seem like superfluous additions. One wishes that the original trailers for Blackmail could have been found and included. This would have been a significant addition to the disc.

BLACKMAIL (SILENT) SS05

Final Words:

Kino Lorber has finally given Alfred Hitchcock’s first sound film (and his final silent film) a solid release on the Blu-ray format. Which version of Blackmail is superior? You can finally decide for yourself.

Review by: Devon Powell

BLACKMAIL (SILENT) SS06

Source Material:

Staff Writer (Variety, December 31, 1928)

Staff Writer (The Film World, The Times, November 07, 1928)

Staff Writer (First English Talkers Start in Production, Amarillo Sunday News Globe, May 05, 1929)

Staff Writer (Filming the British Museum, Nottingham Evening Post, May 23, 1929)

Staff Writer (Blackmail, The Times, June 24, 1929)

Staff Writer (The Talkie King Talks, Evening News, June 25, 1929)

L.M. (Blackmail: A British Talking Film Touches Top, Yorkshire Evening Post, July 10, 1929)

Staff Writer (Filming the British Museum, The Adelaide Chronicle, July 11, 1929)

Hugh Castle (Elstree’s First ‘Talkie, Close Up, August 1929)

Staff Writer (The First Two British All-Dialogue Pictures, Yorkshire Post, August 29, 1929)

Staff Writer (Hull Daily Mail, Sound v. Silent Film Vote, September 11, 1929)

Staff Writer (Pictures Presentations: ‘Blackmail’ October 4, Billboard, October 05, 1929)

Mordaunt Hall (Britain’s First Talking Film, New York Times, October 07, 1929)

Staff Writer (New English Talkie, The Canberra Times, October 11, 1929)

J.F.L. (New Films Caught in New York: ‘Blackmail, Billboard, October 12, 1929)

Staff Writer (Pictures Presentations: ‘Blackmail’ Held Over, Billboard, October 19, 1929)

Staff Writer (Blackmail, Hull Daily Mail, November 19, 1929)

Staff Writer (British Success at The Pentridge, Burnley Express, January 08, 1930)

Staff Writer (Stageland, The World’s News, January 15, 1930)

Staff Writer (Coliseum’s Excellent Fare, Burnley Express, January 24, 1930)

Robert Herring (Twenty-Three Talkies, Close Up, February 1930)

Ernest Betts (All-Talking, All-Singing, All-Nothing, Close Up, June 1930)

Oswell Blakeston (Advance Monologue, Close Up, August 1930)

Charles Bennett (Blackmail, 1934)

Alfred Hitchcock and John K. Newnham (My Screen Memories, Film Weekly, May 02-30, 1936)

Alfred Hitchcock (Life Among the Stars, News Chronicle, March 1-5, 1937)

Alfred Hitchcock (Direction, Sight and Sound, Summer 1937)

Alfred Hitchcock (Some Aspects of Direction, National Board of Review, October 1938)

Peter Bogdanovich (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

François Truffaut (Hitchcock, 1966)

John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

Tom Ryall (Blackmail: BFI Film Classics, December 27, 1993)

Sidney Gottlieb (Hitchcock on Hitchcock: Selected Writings and Interviews, 1995)

Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Sidney Gottlieb (Alfred Hitchcock Interviews, 2003)

Maurice Yacowar (Hitchcock’s British Films, 2010)

Barton Palmer and David Boyd (Hitchcock at the Source, 2011)

Charles Barr (Blackmail: Charles Bennett and the Decisive Turn, Hitchcock at the Source, 2011)

Charles Bennett (Hitchcock’s Partner in Suspense, 2014)

John Charles Bennett (The Avenger, Hitchcock’s Partner in Suspense, 2014)

Sidney Gottlieb (Hitchcock on Hitchcock: Volume 2, 2015)

Blu-ray Review: The 39 Steps – The Criterion Collection

Spine # 56

Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Criterion Collection (USA)

Release Date: June 26, 2012

Region: Region A

Length: 01:26:45

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: English LPCM Mono (48 kHz, 1152 kbps)

Subtitles: English

Ratio: 1.34:1

Bitrate: 34.98 Mbps

Notes: Criterion also released a DVD edition of this title. There are probably a few public domain discs that are available, but these should be avoided (the quality is terrible).

Title

“What I liked about Thirty-Nine Steps were the sudden switches and the jumping from one situation to another with such rapidity… If I did The Thirty-Nine Steps again, I would stick to that formula, but it really takes a lot of work. You have to use one idea after another, and with such rapidity.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Interview with Peter Bogdanovich, 1963)

The film moves so rapidly that it is actually rather difficult to discuss The 39 Steps in the same manner that one might discuss other Hitchcock films. The film seems void of any real substance after a mere casual viewing. However, the film has more going on than many critics believe. Even Hitchcock’s MacGuffin isn’t as empty as people often claim. Mark Glancy discusses this in “The 39 Steps: A British Film Guide” while providing a context for both the film, and its MacGuffin.

“One key of updating the story was to change the object of the spies’ pursuit. In the novel, The Black Stone seeks the plans for the disposition of the British fleet in the event of war, which was a matter of great strategic importance in 1914. In the interwar years, however, the significance of naval power steadily waned, particularly in the minds of the general public. The next war, it was predicted, would be fought in the air, and the country with the greatest air force would be capable of a quick and decisive victory. It was assumed that the war would begin with a surprise attack from the air, and that this would result in the mass slaughter of civilians. Thus, in the film the spies seek the plans for a silent airplane engine rather than naval plans. This was not only timely and topical in 1935, but also a pointed reference to Germany. When the screenplay was written in the autumn of 1934, Hitler had been Chancellor of Germany for nearly two years, and the Nazis already had achieved a significant degree of infamy… Winston Churchill warned from the backbenches that Germany was developing its own air force at a faster rate. At a time when radar did not yet exist, this seemed a catastrophic scenario. Indeed, the concept of the silent airplane engine lends further credence to an already often heard yet very disturbing phrase of the times, ‘the bomber will always get through.” –Mark Glancy (The 39 Steps: A British Film Guide)

The pending war was an unspoken character of the film, and this plays into one of the underlying themes. Hitchcock has always challenged people’s tendency towards complacency, and in The 39 Steps, this actually takes on a political meaning that is an extension of the subject matter introduced by the film’s MacGuffin.

“…At nearly every stop on Hannay’s cross-country journey we find complacency and venality. It is a vision of a country without confidence, unity or purpose.” –Mark Glancy (The 39 Steps: A British Film Guide)

While Hitchcock is never politically explicit, there does seem to be a lot going on under the surface of what is otherwise an extremely enjoyable chase film. Hitchcock was working for Gaumont-British Studios, which was the most prestigious studio in Britain at the time. Michael Balcon had brought Alfred Hitchcock to the studio at a low point in his career, but he gave the director freedom to choose and develop his projects in any manner that he saw fit. This freedom paid off for both the studio and Alfred Hitchcock.

The Man Who Knew Too Much was a modest hit, but the studio squandered most of its potential by putting it on the second half of a double bill. The film’s B-movie status was the result of C.M. Woolf, the film’s distributor (but this is another story). Fortunately, the production breathed life into Hitchcock’s creative mojo.

“…When The Man Who Knew Too Much was completed in October, 1934, they thought of adapting Buchan’s ‘Greenmantle’ (the second of the Richard Hannay Stories) next. ‘Greenmantle’ involved adventures that were spread across all of Europe and into the Middle East, though, and so it was probably considered too expensive to mount. Hitchcock later said that The Thirty-Nine Steps was chosen instead because it was a ‘smaller subject.’ It certainly proved to be a subject that could be quickly made. Work on the script began in November 1934, filming began two months later and the film was released in June 1935.” –Mark Glancy (The 39 Steps: A British Film Guide)

Hitchcock often claimed Buchan had “a strong influence” on his work, but this didn’t mean that he had any undue reverence for the source material.

“I had been wanting to turn John Buchan’s novel into a film for over fifteen years. I first read the book round about 1919 or 1920, a long time before I started my directing career. I said that if I ever became a director I would make a picture of it. It was, therefore, on my suggestion that Gaumont-British decided to make the film so many years later. I hadn’t read the book in the meantime. When I did so, with an eye to turning it into a film, I received a shock. I had learned a lot about filmmaking in the fifteen odd years that had elapsed. Though I could still see the reason for my first enthusiasm—the book was full of action—I found that the story as it stood was not in the least suitable for screening.

So many of the scenes, which were convincing enough in print, would have looked unbelievable on the screen—as, for instance, when Hannay saw a motor car approaching; realized that he would be captured if it reached him and he were spotted; saw some stone-breakers, and in a minute or two had disguised himself as one of these workmen. Dressed up in Buchan’s powerful art of description you could believe that in the book; but you wouldn’t if you saw it in a picture. The novel had Hannay running away from spies. For screen purposes I deemed it better to have him escaping from the police and searching for the spies so that he could clear his own name.” –Alfred Hitchcock (My Screen Memories, Film Weekly, May 02-30, 1936)

Alfred Hitchcock’s chief collaborator on the film was Charles Bennett (if one ignores Alma, which is usually the case), and he shared Hitchcock’s opinion of Buchan’s original novel.

“…So at Hitch’s request, I joined GB in 1933 and began dramatizing John Buchan’s book, “The Thirty-Nine Steps.” No easy task, as it wasn’t really a filmable story. The story contained just one good basic plot point—the double chase—an innocent man accused of murder, on the run with both the police and the ‘heavies’ out to get him. But the book lacked incident, it hadn’t a woman in it—neither the Madeline Carroll character nor Peggy Ashcroft’s character as the crofter’s wife. And practically every twist of events was based on an unlikely coincidence. By the end of my work on it, the entire construction was mine, with a lot of wonderful dialogue written by Ian Hay, a British playwright who later became the director of public relations at the British War Office.” – Charles Bennett (Hitchcock’s Partner in Suspense, 2014)

Hitchcock’s tendency to gloss over the input of his writers pales in comparison with Bennett’s attempts at hogging credit.

“…In those early days the allocation of credits was up to the producer, and things got awfully messed up when a ‘name’ writer who had done practically nothing got the main credit—whereas the guy who really had done the job but was less well known got practically nothing. Along this line, Alma Hitchcock received credits she did not deserve.” – Charles Bennett (Hitchcock’s Partner in Suspense, 2014)

This is complete nonsense. The script was a collaborative effort, both Alfred and Alma Hitchcock deserve an equal amount of credit. We admit that the contributions of Charles Bennett have been overlooked, but to claim that Alma’s credit was undeserved is ridiculous. The truth is that she deserved more credit than she received. Ivor Montagu’s recollections were probably more accurate.

“The story conferences were a feast of fancy and dialectic, a mixture of composing crosswords and solving them, both laced with humour. We would sit around his flat. Sometimes Alma would be there, sometimes the scenario editor Angus MacPhail… The unfolding was elaborated with suggestions from all of us; everything was welcomed if not always agreed. In the end the scripts were by consensus; the only special privilege their credited authors had was to write them down. The scenes were of course finalized by Hitchcock and his verbal texts then duplicated from the writers’ notes. [Michael Balcon] never interfered. He simply created the conditions and confidence for us to work.” –Ivor Montagu (Sight and Sound, Working With Hitchcock, 1980)

During his infamous interview with François Truffaut, Hitchcock elaborated on the process while giving an especially amusing account as to the origins of the Crofter sequence.

“…The method I used in those days was to make a treatment complete in every detail, except for the dialogue. I saw it as a film of episodes, and this time I was on my toes. As soon as we were through one episode, I remember saying, ‘Here we need another short story.’ I made sure the content of every scene was very solid, so that each one would be a little film in itself.

Anyway, despite my admiration for John Buchan, there are several things in the picture that are not in the book. For instance, the scene in the film in which Robert Donat spends the night with the farmer and his wife was inspired by an old story about a South African Boer, a black-bearded ma, very austere, with a very young, sex-starved wife. On his birthday she kills a chicken and bakes a chicken pie. It’s a very stormy night and she hopes that her husband will be pleased with her surprise. All she gets for her pains is an angry husband, who berates her for killing the chicken without his permission. Hence, a grim birthday celebration. Suddenly there’s a knock at the door, and there stands a handsome stranger who has lost his way and requests a night’s hospitality. The woman invites him to sit down and offers him some food, but the farmer, feeling he’s eating too much, stops him and says, ‘Hold on, there. This has got to last us the rest of the week.’

The woman is hungrily eyeing the stranger, wondering how she can get to bed with him. The husband suggests that they put him out in the barn, but the woman objects. Finally, the three of them go to sleep in the great big bed, with the farmer in the middle. The woman is trying to find some way to get rid of her husband, and finally, hearing a noise, she wakes him, saying, ‘I think the chickens are out of the coop.” The husband goes out to the yard, and the woman shakes the stranger awake, saying, ‘Come on. Now’s your chance.’ So the stranger gets out of bed and quickly gulps down the rest of the chicken pie.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

Interestingly, the writing team borrowed inspiration from real life as well. One example was a throwback to the days when Hitchcock would attend London’s music halls:

“There was also another interesting character in the film, Mr. Memory. He’s based on a true-life music-hall personality called Datas. The audience would ask him questions about major events, like: ‘when did the Titanic sink?’ and he would give the correct answer…

…The whole idea is that the man is doomed by his sense of duty. Mr. Memory knows what the thirty-nine steps are, and when he is asked the question, he is compelled to give the answer. The schoolteacher in The Birds dies for the same reason.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

Michael Balcon was impressed with the resulting script, and gave the film priority status at Gaumont-British. This would be evidenced by the film’s casting. Originally, the part of Pamela was given to Jane Baxter. She was offered £500 to perform in the film, but this never came to pass. Instead, it was decided that they should cast a much more popular actress in the role. Madeline Carroll suited the film’s needs perfectly, and her £5,000 salary was well worth the bite that it took out of the film’s final £58,449 budget.

It is strange how very well Madeleine fitted into the part. I had heard a lot about her as a tall, cold, blonde beauty, dignified and all that. Not exactly… The real type for a boisterous role or where intense activity would give little chance for draping herself round the furniture and what not. You see, I had seldom seen her on the screen, because I very rarely take a busman’s holiday. I knew only her photographs. Calm and serene barely describes them! They were certainly beautiful, but so very cold. My word, they would almost chill a refrigerator! …

…Why is it that actors and actresses are almost invariably cast exactly to type? In her case her obvious good looks had nearly been her downfall. It is very hard with merely the material of good looks to create a character, especially when they are completely devitalized by absence of action…

…After meeting her, I made up my mind to present her to the public as her natural self. You see what I mean? In The 39 Steps the public is seeing a Madeleine Carroll who has no time to be calm and serene. She is far too busy racing over moors, rushing up and down embankments, and scrambling over rocks.”–Alfred Hitchcock (Interview with Norah Baring, Film Pictorial, November 23, 1935)

Madeline Carroll

Madeline Carroll is considered by many to be the prototypical “Hitchcock Blonde.” Others give this honor to Anny Ondra.

Carroll’s appearance along with Robert Donat made the international success of the film possible. These two stars gave the film an A-picture respectability that Hitchcock had never enjoyed on an international level prior to this production.

“I could not have wished for a better Hannay than Robert Donat. One of the chief reasons for his success—in addition, of course, to his natural looks, charm, and personality—is the good theatrical training he has behind him. He is blazingly ambitious but difficult to satisfy. He is a queer combination of determination and uncertainty. He is determined to do only pictures that satisfy him. He will be enthusiastic about an idea, then suddenly discard it completely. These are qualities of temperament that only a great actor like Donat can enjoy.” –Alfred Hitchcock (My Screen Memories, Film Weekly, May 02-30, 1936)

Certain members of the film’s supporting cast are also noteworthy. This is especially true of Peggy Ashcroft’s portrayal of the crofter’s wife. Ashcroft’s name would have carried a certain amount of weight in England at the time (especially to anyone that attended the theatre). Hitchcock often made it a point to mention her in his articles and interviews with the press while promoting the film.

“I should like to mention Peggy Ashcroft’s appearance as the crofter’s wife in The 39 Steps. It was brief but significant, especially when you consider that this was only her second film role. I am convinced that this delightful Juliet of John Gielgud’s Romeo and Juliet has a brilliant career in front of her. The greatest thing about her is her extreme simplicity.” –Alfred Hitchcock (My Screen Memories, Film Weekly, May 02-30, 1936)

Alfred Hitchcock’s status as a practical joker has long been a favorite subject of anyone interested in his films, and his reported antics during the production of The 39 Steps are certainly noteworthy. Robert Donat recalled an infamous incident that has long been discussed and written about.

“On our first morning at the studio, immediately after being introduced, we were shackled in a pair of handcuffs, each have one hand imprisoned, and commenced to act a scene. Such a start was not exactly helpful in establishing relations, we thought, and these feelings were not lessened when, at the conclusion of the scene, ‘Hitch’ lost the key of the handcuffs! For nearly an hour Madeleine and I shared this enforced companionship, while the hunt for the key was sustained. There was nothing else to do, so we talked of our mutual friends, of our ambitions, and of film matters generally. Gradually our reserve thawed as we exchange experiences. When ‘Hitch’ saw that we were getting along famously, he extract the ‘missing’ key from his waistcoat pocket, released us, and said, with a satisfied grin, ‘Now that you two know each other we can go ahead.’ Had it not been for Hitchcock’s little ruse, Madeleine and I would probably have taken quite a time to ‘get together’ — to the detriment of our work in the interim.-Robert Donat (The Courier Mail, June 23, 1938)

There was method in this madness. Hitchcock’s behavior was his sly way of getting a particular kind of performance from his actors. Of course, this is less interesting than blaming a penchant for sadistic behavior 9or some sort of malicious chauvinism), but it makes much more sense. This is especially true when one considers that Donat was probably subjected to more pranks than Carol.

“It was in that picture, too, that I pulled [another] gag on Donat. He complained that the waterfall scene had ruined his clothes. The ruining of actors’ clothes and the demand that the company should replace them is a long standing bone which actors and directors pick amiably enough during production.

When Robert demanded a new suit, I gave him one out of my own pocket. I sent round for a 14s. Child’s suit from a neighborhood cheap store…” –Alfred Hitchcock (Life Among the Stars, News Chronicle, March 01-05, 1937)

Of course, this particular prank seems to be an attempt at humbling what Hitchcock must have considered an overly haughty temperament. Whatever the case, these things are purposely often blown out of proportion for publicity purposes. It is a fact that Gaumont-British used exaggerated versions of these in their publicity materials for the film. It is difficult to know just which version of these stories to believe (if any).

Actually, it seems that the publicity machine worked overtime during the release of The 39 Steps.

“Gaumont-British was confident that The 39 Steps would be a great box-office success in Britain. Michael Balcon, eager to raise the profile of Gaumont-British as a production company, urged that the company’s name should be featured prominently in the advertising, on the grounds that ‘it may be a long time before we have another chance like this.’ In the week of the film’s release, four consecutive pages of advertisements were taken out in the British trade paper Kinematograph Weekly. One page was usual for a new film, two indicated an important release, but a four page spread signaled a cinematic event. Perhaps most telling, The 39 Steps was booked to run at the New Gallery Theatre for a full five weeks. The New Gallery had 1,400 seats, and films tended to spend no more than two or three weeks in such a large venue, but even the five-week engagement proved to be an underestimation of the film’s popularity. Fueled by enthusiastic reviews, The 39 Steps was still going strong at the end of its fifth week. The New Gallery had another booking and so The 39 Steps moved to the similarly capacious Marble Arch Pavillion, where it lasted no fewer than eight weeks… It had spent sixteen weeks in some of the West End’s largest venues, a record surpassed that year only by the Hollywood epic, Lives of a Bengal Lancer.

At the time, it was usual for important releases to be shown first in London’s West End, and have an exclusive run at advanced admission prices, before being released anywhere else. Hence, The 39 Steps didn’t play anywhere apart from the West End until the autumn of 1935 when it began to make its way around Britain. It then followed the standard release pattern of playing first in major cities and in regional capitols such as Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Cardiff, and then moving on to smaller cities, provincial towns and local theatres.” –Mark Glancy (The 39 Steps: A British Film Guide)

The film was a sensation. It received the same enthusiasm everywhere that it was shown in Britain (and it was shown nearly everywhere). It was also a sensation in Canada, and brought respectable business in the United States and other territories. As a matter of fact, the film is responsible for building Hitchcock’s positive reputation in Hollywood.

Of course, the film’s critical reception was overwhelmingly positive. C. A. Lejeune’s review in The Observer is a prime example. She was especially enthusiastic about Robert Donat’s star potential.

“Mr. Donat, who has never been very well served in the cinema until now, suddenly blossoms out into a romantic comedian of no mean order … He strikes … an easy confident humour that has always been regarded as the perquisite of the American male star. For the first time on our screen we have the British equivalent of a Clark Gable or a Ronald Colman, playing in a purely national idiom. Mr. Donat, himself, I fancy, is hardly conscious of it, which is all to the good. Mr. Hitchcock is certainly conscious of it, and exploits his new star material with all the easy confidence of a local Van Dyke or Capra.” – C. A. Lejeune (The Observer as reprinted in The 39 Steps: A British Film Guide)

Sydney Carroll’s review in the Sunday Times preferred to focus his praise on Alfred Hitchcock.

“Every film of real quality bears the unforgettable stamp of its creator. Individuality is a rare and precious thing. In moving pictures it is exceptionally hard to discover. When it is there, however, it usually assumes a force and distinction unmistakably attributable to its director, and to its director alone. In The 39 Steps, the identity and mind of Alfred Hitchcock are continuously discernible, in fact supreme. Hitchcock is a genius.” –Sydney Carroll (Sunday Times as reprinted in The 39 Steps: A British Film Guide)

Variety published another positive review that spoke generally about the film.

“Gaumont has a zippy, punchy, romantic melodrama in The 39 Steps. Story is by John Buchan. It’s melodrama and at times far-fetched and improbable, but the story twists and spins artfully from one high-powered sequence to another while the entertainment holds like steel cable from start to finish…

…It’s a creamy role for Donat and his performance, ranging from humor to horror, reveals acting ability behind that good-looking facade. Teamed with Madeleine Carroll, who enters the footage importantly only toward the latter quarter section of the film, the romance is given a light touch which nicely colors an international spy chase.” -Variety (December 31, 1934)

The review published in The Times was written with the same pretentious pomposity that one might expect from the publication, but it remains overwhelmingly positive.

“Readers may not find it easy to relate the Richard Hannay they knew in the novel to the humorous happy-go-lucky adventurer who goes by the same name in this film, but they are bound to condone the freedom of an adaptation which has produced such excellent results.

Mr. Alfred Hitchcock’s treatment of the story gives us a first rate film of adventure edged with comedy; what in the theatre would be called a ‘comedy thriller.’ Its climax verges upon ingenuity of the kind that we resent, but by the time that it has been reached we have been much too, well entertained to think of resenting it. For the greater part of the film the ingenuity never fails to justify itself pictorially, and Mr. Robert Donat, who plays the amateur hunter of spies, and Miss Madeleine Carroll, as his unwilling companion in misfortune, know how to get the last ounce of excitement from an adventure approached humorously.

The sequence, in which Hannay shelters the woman spy in his London flat and falls under suspicion of having murdered her, is perhaps a little chilly in its conventionality, but once the double chase has begun, once the police get on Hannay’s track, and he gets on the track of the master spy, Mr. Hitchcock takes and keeps a firm and highly individual grip of the story. The camera makes extraordinarily effective play with the police search of the Scotch express and with Hannay’s escape among the girders of the Forth Bridge. In the Highlands it turns to account not only the rocks and waterfalls but the stillness of the hill recesses, and the episode of the avaricious crofter and his romantic wife, skilfully presented by Mr. John Laurie and Miss Peggy Ashcroft, is a genuine point of rest which enhances the excitement of the chase. Mr. Godfrey Tearle gives us the politeness and the ruthlessness of the chief spy; Mr. Frank Cellier the self-satisfaction of the sheriff who is too clever to perceive the truth when it is told to him; and Mr. Wylie Watson the comically mechanical make-up of the music hall memorizer through whom the Air Ministry’s secrets are passed to the head of the Thirty-Nine Steps.” -The Times (June 06, 1935)

This incredibly positive review published in Harrison’s Reports gave Hitchcock a compliment that he rarely received when it used the word “logically.”

“Very good entertainment. It is a combination murder mystery-spy melodrama, with fast melodramatic action, comedy and romance throughout; it holds the attention well, keeping the spectator in suspense. The plot is worked out logically with a particularly ingenious ending in which the villain is trapped. The thrills are engendered by the many attempts the hero makes to escape from the police, who were trying to arrest him for a murder he had not committed. Besides being exciting these situations provoke comedy because of the means the hero uses to gain his freedom. Equally exciting and amusing are the situations in which the heroine is handcuffed to the hero and is forced to do his bidding. The production and acting are goo…

…Because of the murder it is unsuitable for children or adolescents. It is very good adult entertainment.” -Harrison’s Reports (June 29, 1935)

Andre Sennwald’s review for the New York Times is a virtual love letter to Alfred Hitchcock.

“Alfred Hitchcock, the gifted English screen director, has made one of the fascinating pictures of the year in The Thirty-nine Steps, his new film at the Roxy Theatre. If the work has any single rival as the most original, literate and entertaining melodrama of 1935, then it must be The Man Who Knew Too Much, which is also out of Hitchcock’s workshop. A master of shock and suspense, of cold horror and slyly incongruous wit, he uses his camera the way a painter uses his brush, stylizing history and giving it values which the scenarists could hardly have suspected. By comparison with the sinister delicacy and urbane understatement of The Thirty-nine Steps, the best of our melodramas seem crude and brawling.

If you can imagine Anatole France writing a detective story you will have some notion of the artistry that Hitchcock brings to this screen version of John Buchan’s novel. Like The Man Who Knew Too Much, the photoplay immerses a quite normal human being in an incredible dilemma where his life is suddenly at stake and his enemies are mysterious, cruel and disparate… Hitchcock describes the remarkable chain of events in Hannay’s flight across England and Scotland with a blend of unexpected comedy and breathless terror that is strikingly effective.

Perhaps the identifying hallmark of his method is apparent absence of accent in the climaxes, which are upon the spectator like a slap in the face before he has set himself for the blow. In such episodes as the murder of the woman in Hannay’s apartment, the icy ferocity of the man with the missing finger when he casually shoots Hannay, or the brilliantly managed sequences on the train, the action progresses through seeming indifference to whip-like revelations. There is a subtle feeling of menace on the screen all the time in Hitchcock’s low-slung, angled use of the camera. But the participants, both Hannay and his pursuers, move with a repressed excitement that adds significance to every detail of their behavior.

Robert Donat as the suavely desperate hero of the adventure is excellent both in the comic and the tragic phases of his plight. The lovely Madeleine Carroll, who begins by betraying him and believes his story when it is almost too late, is charming and skillful. All the players preserve that sureness of mood and that understanding of the director’s intention which distinguished The Man Who Knew Too Much. There are especially fine performances by John Laurie as the treacherous Scot who harbors the fugitive, Peggy Ashcroft as his sympathetic wife, Godfrey Tearle as the man with the missing finger, and Wylie Watson as the memory expert of the music halls, who proves to be the hub of the mystery.” -Andre Sennwald (New York Times, September 14, 1935)

Time magazine’s review added its voice to the chorus of praise as well.

The Thirty-Nine Steps (Gaumont-British) neatly converts its essential implausibility into an asset by stressing the difficulties which confront its hero when he tries to tell outsiders about the predicament he is in. A young Canadian named Richard Hannay (Robert Donat), he finds himself one evening, as the result of nothing more daring than a visit to a London music hall, entertaining in his flat a girl who tells him that she is a counter-espionage agent protecting England from an international ring which is selling the secrets of the Air Ministry and that she has just committed a murder. Hannay considers this nonsense until the next morning, when he finds his guest dying with a knife in her back. Thus assured of her veracity, he constitutes himself heir to her quest and with the meagre information she has given him sets out to solve the riddle of the Thirty-Nine Steps.

Harried by the police, who suspect him of murdering the counterspy, by the members of the ring, who soon find out that he is on their trail, and by a charming young lady (Madeleine Carroll) whom he picks up in the course of a wild night on the Scottish moors, Hannay plunges through a series of hairbreadth escapes and escapades, some of them horrifying, some of them extraordinarily funny. The funniest, possibly, is the one in which, mistaken at a political meeting for the speaker of the evening, he makes himself the hero of the occasion by an address composed of foolish generalities. The most exciting is that which brings the story back to its starting point in the music hall, where a final pistol shot punctures the mystery permanently.

In the last two years, by making a specialty of melodrama, the English cinema industry sometimes appears to have taken its motto from the words of a song popular in the U.S. a year ago. ‘Here Come the British with a Bang, Bang.’ The Thirty-Nine Steps is the most effective demonstration to date of Director Alfred Hitchcock’s method of artful understatement and its success, which has already been sensational abroad, should be a lesson to his Hollywood imitators. The film is an adaptation of a novel written 20 years ago by John Buchan, now Lord Tweedsmuir, who next month will go to Canada as that Dominion’s Governor-General (TIME, Aug. 19). This high-placed connection made it possible for the British film industry to improve notably upon Hollywood methods of ballyhoo. The premiere of The Thirty-Nine Steps in London was preceded, not by a mere broadcast, but by a Gaumont-British banquet at which the guests of honour were Lord Tweedsmuir, Home Secretary Sir John Simon, Minister for Air Sir Philip Cunliffe-Lister and their ladies.” –Time (Sept. 23, 1935)

It is easy for contemporary audiences to forget that The 39 Steps was the benchmark from which future Hitchcock films were judged for many years. (This lasted well into the director’s American career.) Today, it is too often ignored in favor of the director’s American work. This is unfortunate, because it is impossible to accurately examine Hitchcock’s creative evolution without examining his British thrillers.

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The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

The Blu-ray disc is housed in the clear case that has become the standard for The Criterion Collection. The film related artwork isn’t among Criterion’s best designs, but it is reasonably attractive.

Fans of the film will be especially pleased to find an illustrated booklet featuring an essay entitled “Thirty-Nine Steps to Happiness” by David Cairns and information about the film’s transfer.

The disc’s menus utilize the iconic image of Hannay silencing Pamela under a bridge, and the film’s score accompanies the image.

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It is an elegant menu that is quite easy to navigate.

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Picture Quality:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Criterion’s booklet details their high definition transfer in more depth than any review might hope to discuss it:

“This high-definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit Datacine from a 35m fine-grain master positive. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter, and flicker were manually removed using MTI’s DRS and Pixel Farm’s PFClean, while Image Systems’ DVNR was used for small dirt, grain and noise reduction.”

The result is an image that is less than perfect, but superior to other transfers of the film by quite some margin (at least to those available in North America). Criterion’s decision to place the film on a dual-layer disc has resulted into a film with less compression than one might expect with most Blu-ray releases. There is a nice layer of film grain lending an organic quality to the image that one expects from films made during this era. Detail is reasonably impressive and contrast is beautifully rendered as well. This may not be Criterion’s best image transfer, but it is much better than the film has received elsewhere.

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Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Criterion discusses their sound transfer in detail as well:

“The original monaural soundtrack was re-mastered at 24-bit from a 35mm optical track print. Clicks, thumps, hiss, and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube’s integrated workstation.”

The result is a relatively clean sound transfer that features clear dialogue that isn’t buried beneath layers of noise and hiss. It is a rare moment when extremely light hiss makes itself heard, and these moments never become distracting. The dynamic range is rather limited, but this is to be expected with films of this era. There aren’t many (if any) distortions at the high end, nor are there any annoying dropouts to distract from one’s enjoyment of the film.

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Special Features:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Audio Commentary by Marian Keane

This scholarly commentary by Marian Keane was featured on Criterion’s 1998 Criterion DVD of the film, so those who owned this edition of the film will know what to expect. Some of her theoretical insights sometimes seem a bit overreaching, and her delivery is certainly on the dry side. One wonder’s if her insights might have been more digestible in the video essay format. However, the track is quite informative and Keane’s discussion is rather articulate. Hitchcock fans should find the track well worth their time.

Hitchcock: The Early Years – (1080I) – (24:07)

This slightly dry British documentary covers Alfred Hitchcock’s pre-war career (or what is more often referred to as his British period). It features interviews with John Kennedy Melling (crime historian), Charles Barr (film historian/scholar), Hugh Stewart (film editor, The Man Who Knew Too Much), Teddy Joseph (third assistant director, Sabotage), Roy Ward Baker (second assistant director, The Lady Vanishes), and is narrated by David Bond. The bulk of this short retrospective is made up of clips from the director’s British filmography.

Those who have not yet discovered Alfred Hitchcock’s early British work should find this particular piece fascinating and informative, but those who have already familiarized themselves with these films might hope for something a bit more comprehensive.

Cinema: Alfred Hitchcock – (1080I) – (40:14)

Mike Scott’s excellent interview was produced in 1966 for British television. The original edited program has been lost, but the raw footage has been compiled and presented here. Many will consider this to be the highlight of the disc’s supplemental offerings. Any interview with Hitchcock is an amusing and educational experience, and this particular interview is no exception. The director discusses various areas of his career, but it is especially interesting to hear him talk about his early days in the British film industry.

The Borders of the Possible – (1080I) – (23:59)

Leonard Leff’s visual essay is an illustrated look at this adaptation of John Buchan’s famous novel and the development of Alfred Hitchcock’s style. The program is enhanced by extracts from the director’s interview with François Truffaut, film stills, artwork, and footage from The 39 Steps.

Excerpt from Truffaut/Hitchcock Interviews – (1080P) – (22:16)

Those who have read Truffaut’s book length interview will find this audio interview familiar. Helen G. Scott’s interpretation of both the questions and the answers might become tiresome for certain listeners, but the conversation itself is extremely interesting. This is a historical conversation between two cinematic giants, and most cinemaphiles will find it fascinating. A photo of the two great filmmakers (taken at the time of the interview) fills the screen throughout the length of this audio feature.

Original Production Design Drawings – (1080P)

Oscar Friedrich Werndorff’s production sketches for the film are presented here along with production photographs in slide show form. One can compare the original drawings with the finished sets.

Lux Radio Theatre Presents “The 39 Steps” – (59:52)

Lux Radio Theatre’s 1937 audio production of The 39 Steps starred Robert Montgomery and Ida Lupino in the leading roles. This adaptation borrowed ore heavily from the film than from Buchan’s original novel. It is interesting to hear other actors in the roles made famous by Robert Donat and Madeline Carroll.

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Final Words:

Those who have read “The Catcher in the Rye” will remember that this film was Phoebe Caulfield’s favorite film:

“Her favorite is The 39 Steps, though, with Robert Donat. She knows the whole goddam movie by heart, because I’ve taken her to see it about ten times. When old Donat comes up to this Scotch farmhouse, for instance, when he’s running away from the cops and all, Phoebe’ll say right out loud in the movie–right when the Scotch guy in the picture says it–“Can you eat the herring?” She knows all the talk by heart. And when this professor in the picture, that’s really a German spy, sticks up his little finger with part of the middle joint missing, to show Robert Donat, old Phoebe beats him to it–she holds up her little finger at me in the dark, right in front of my face.” J.D Salinger (The Catcher in the Rye, 1951)

It must be said that this ten year old has fabulous taste. There is so much to love here, and if J.D Salinger recommends the film, why shouldn’t we? It is such a fun ride, and Criterion’s Blu-ray release gives us plenty of supplemental material to enhance our experience.

Review by: Devon Powell

The Criterion Collection’s The 39 Steps page:

https://www.criterion.com/films/234-the-39-steps

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Source Material:

John Buchan (The Thirty-Nine Steps, 1915)

Staff Writer (Variety, December 31, 1934)

Staff Writer (The Times, June 06, 1935)

Staff Writer (Harrison’s Reports, June 29, 1935)

Andre Sennwald (New York Times, September 14, 1935)

Staff Writer (Time, Sept. 23, 1935)

Norah Baring (Interview with Alfred Hitchcock, Film Pictorial, November 23, 1935)

Alfred Hitchcock (My Screen Memories, Film Weekly, May 02-30, 1936)

Alfred Hitchcock (Life Among the Stars, News Chronicle, March 01-05, 1937)

Robert Donat (The Courier Mail, June 23, 1938)

J.D Salinger (The Catcher in the Rye, 1951)

Peter Bogdanovich (Interview with Hitchcock, 1963)

François Truffaut (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

Ivor Montagu (Working With Hitchcock, Sight and Sound, 1980)

Mark Glancy (The 39 Steps: A British Film Guide, January 01, 2002)

Charles Bennett (Hitchcock’s Partner in Suspense: The Life of Screenwriter Charles Bennett, May 02, 2014)

Book Review: Hitchcock’s Partner in Suspense: The Life of Screenwriter Charles Bennett

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Publisher: The University Press of Kentucky
Release Date: Mar 24, 2014

It would be rather short sighted to assume that Alfred Hitchcock’s creative evolution wasn’t altered by the various individuals that collaborated with him. Out of all the screenwriters that Hitchcock worked with, Charles Bennett likely had the most impact upon the director’s cinematic approach to suspense. When one looks at the director’s filmography, it becomes immediately clear that the director’s talents matured during his association with Bennett. After adapting Bennett’s play, Blackmail (1929) into Britain’s first feature length ‘talkie’ (an incredible artistic and commercial success), he went on to make a string of mostly forgettable films. The quality of his films improved exponentially once he teamed up with Bennett to create the screenplay for The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934). Hitchcock certainly realized this since he continued to work with Bennett on The 39 Steps (1935), Secret Agent (1936), Sabotage (1936), and Young and Innocent (1937). The fact that Hitchcock continued to make masterful film’s after his association with Bennett simply suggests that the writer’s skill had rubbed off on the director. (However, it is also important to note that much of Bennett’s best work was done with Alfred Hitchcock. Obviously, both had much to contribute.) One imagines that the pair would have continued their collaboration had Bennett not moved to Hollywood in 1937. [They would collaborate again on Foreign Correspondent (1940).]

This autobiography by Charles Bennett (with occasional commentary by his son, John Charles Bennett) offers readers the rare opportunity to read what the screenwriting process was like while working with Alfred Hitchcock from a writer’s perspective. The astute reader will recognize immediately that the text is colored by a desire to illustrate (and sometimes over-emphasize) Bennett’s own importance. This is one of those human qualities that everyone seems to possess. Some of the stories told in the book differ greatly from accounts of the same events by other parties. The truth is that nothing in an autobiography is ever an objective account of events. This is what makes them so interesting. The fact that Bennett worked with Alfred Hitchcock during his British period adds an incredible amount of value to the book. This is a period of the director’s career that is rarely explored.

That said; this isn’t a book about Alfred Hitchcock. As John Charles Bennett relates in his preface to his father’s text, Bennett’s title for this memoir was “Life Is a Four-Letter Word.” Obviously, a title mentioning Hitchcock is bound to grab more attention. However, one wonders if it does not do Bennett a discredit. After all, his work with Hitchcock is only one of many topics covered here. The book is an enjoyable account of an extraordinary life, and much of this life had little to do with Alfred Hitchcock.

Lovers of film history would be wise to add this title to their summer reading lists.

Review by: Devon Powell

Blu-ray Review: Foreign Correspondent – The Criterion Collection

Spine # 969

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Distributor: Criterion Collection (USA)

Release Date: February 18, 2014

Region: Region A

Length: 120 min

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio:

English Mono LPCM Audio (48 kHz, 1152 Kbps, 24-bit)

Subtitles:  English

Ratio: 1.37:1

Bitrate: 23.98 Mbps

Notes: This release also includes 2 disc DVD set. Warner Brothers has also given the film a DVD release. However, this Criterion edition is the only version available on Blu-ray.

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“I had offered Gary Cooper the Joel McCrea part in Foreign Correspondent. I had a terrible job casting the thriller-suspense films in America, because over here this kind of story was looked on as second-rate. In England, they’re part of the literature, and I had no trouble casting Donat or anybody else there. Here I ran into it all the time until Cary, who’s really English. Afterward, Cooper said, ‘Well, I should have done that, shouldn’t I?’ Of course I don’t think it was Cooper himself. I think the people around him advised him against it.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

It isn’t surprising that Alfred Hitchcock decided to make a film that contained anti-neutrality sentiment. Shortly after his voyage to America; London was bombed and Hitchcock worried about the safety his family. He even tried to convince his Mother to join him in America.

David O. Selznick was famous for loaning out his contracted talent for a hefty profit and decided to do so when Walter Wanger requested the services of his star director. Wanger had bought the rights to Vincent Sheean’s memoir Personal History and he wanted Hitchcock to bring the book to the screen. Hitchcock used only the basic idea of the book and constructed an original screenplay (with Alma Reville, Joan Harrison, and Charles Bennett) that can really only claim to be inspired by Sheean’s memoir.

The resulting production can only be described as “extravagant.”

“With Foreign Correspondent, Hitchcock hoped to advance his American career. When Selznick loaned him to Walter Wanger in late November 1939, both producers apparently contemplated a twelve week schedule. Hitchcock consistently exaggerated his speed and may well have promised to develop the script in only three or four weeks [and] shoot it in eight or nine. A lax supervisor, Wanger gave the reins to Hitchcock and let the production take its course. Three months later, the screenplay remained unfinished and pre-production expenses had begun to soar. According to press releases, nearly six hundred craftsmen and technicians worked on Foreign Correspondent, many of them building the enormous sets. Hitchcock supervised construction of a three-story windmill, an Amsterdam city square, an airplane interior, and a mock-up of London’s Waterloo Station. A replica of the Clipper ran $47,000, and the director’s subtle lighting effects required a special relay system from the cameraman to the gaffer. By June 1940, costs approached a reported 1.5 million and would finally tower over those of Rebecca.

‘As soon as I was working for someone I wasn’t under contract to,’ Hitchcock later said, ‘the supervision was lessened.’ Selznick understood the consequences. Although Hitchcock’s assignment to Wanger ultimately lasted thirty weeks and brought his employer a $54,000 gross profit, Selznick grew concerned about the picture’s long schedule. United Artists had accused Wanger of inadequately controlling his operation and broken with him; through ‘improper supervision,’ Dan O’Shea told Selznick, Wanger had now made Hitchcock appear ‘an exceedingly slow director.’ Production manager Ray Klune confirmed the point: Hollywood had begun to gossip that the quality of Foreign Correspondent only barely justified its cost. As Selznick realized, unchecked extravagance would make Hitchcock difficult to handle and even more difficult to lend.

Hitchcock returned from Wanger with a fresh taste of independence…”

– Leonard J. Leff (Hitchcock and Selznick: The Rich and Strange Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick in Hollywood)

Hitchcock’s extravagance paid off for Wanger, even if it was a thorn in Selznick’s side. Audiences and critics both raved about the film. Bosley Crowther’s review encapsulates the film’s critical reception:

“They say that the current heroes of Americans, young and old, are the foreign correspondents, those dashing chaps who presumably hop all over Europe, Asia, Africa and points between, hobnobbing with influential persons, catching wars on the wing and rushing madly every few minutes to cable home the latest hot news. If such is the case, then Walter Wanger’s own special Foreign Correspondent, which arrived at the Rivoli last night, should be the particular favorite of a great many wonder-eyed folk. For into it Director Alfred Hitchcock, whose unmistakable stamp the picture bears, has packed about as much romantic action, melodramatic hullabaloo, comical diversion and illusion of momentous consequence as the liveliest imagination could conceive.

Never, we venture to suspect, has there been an American news scout abroad who got himself so fantastically involved in international monkey-shines as does Mr. Hitchcock’s bewitched and bewildered Joel McCrea. And never, we know for a fact, has Mr. Hitchcock let his flip fancy roam with such wild and reckless abandon as he does in the present case. Instead of a young reporter covering Europe methodically for his sheet, Mr. Hitchcock is giving us a picture of Europe—or, at least, a small but extremely sinister sub-sector of same—doing its most devious best to cover and destroy Mr. McCrea. And although this does not abuse the romantic conception of a correspondent’s career it does make for some oddly exciting and highly improbable shenanigans.

Improbable? Well, after all, no one expects probability in a Hitchcock picture. The secret of the fellow’s success is his command of the least expected [and] his use of the explosive surprise which often verges upon the absurd. Usually he manages to keep things moving with such fascinating rapidity that he never goes over the edge, but this time he comes perilously close. With the news-hawk hopelessly entangled in a monstrous spy plot, beyond his control or even his comprehension; with Mr. Hitchcock trotting out some rather obvious old tricks of suspense and diabolically piling on the trouble, the patron is likely to suspect that his leg is being deliberately pulled. Even Mr. McCrea, in a desperate moment, yelps helplessly, ‘The one thing everybody forgets is that I’m a reporter!’

Obviously, it is unfair to reveal the plot of a Hitchcock picture. So the most we can tell you about this one is that it casts a young police reporter, sent to Europe in August, 1939, because his publisher believes ‘a crime is hatching over there,’ right bang in the middle of a big ‘fifth column’ plot in London; sets him legging after a kidnapped Dutch statesman and in turn brings the Nazi agents down on him. There is much flesh-creepy business, much genuinely comical by-play and a generous interlarding of romance. And it reaches a fantastic climax on the wing of a shell-wrecked transatlantic plane in mid-ocean. Some story!

No one but Hitchcock would dare to whip up a picture like this and for those who can take their sensationalism without batting a skeptical eye it should be high-geared entertainment. The cast is uniformly good, especially in the minor roles, and some of the photographic sequences are excellent—especially one in an old Dutch windmill. Only Robert Benchley, who plays a broken-down bowler-and-cane type of London correspondent, tends too heavily toward travesty—just a shade too heavily. And that is the lone inclination which Foreign Correspondent could most becomingly do without.” –Bosley Crowther (The New York Times, August 28, 1940)

His derogatory commentary about Robert Benchley’s performance seems unfair and does not extend to most of the other reviews written on the film.

One wonders what Selznick thought when he heard about the film’s various Academy Award nominations (Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Original Screenplay, B&W Cinematography, B&W Art Direction, and Special Effects). The film would be in direct competition with Rebecca (which was produced by Selznick)! Whatever his reaction may have been, it was soon remedied when Rebecca took home the golden statue.

While many of the propaganda films from this era have aged awkwardly, Hitchcock’s thriller still manages to engage modern audiences. Donald Spoto shares this opinion and elaborates:

“…Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent has best withstood the years, and even after just one viewing, the picture clearly reveals concerns beyond its concluding propaganda statement (tacked on by producer Walter Wanger). Charles Bennett’s and Joan Harrison’s screenplay is adventurous and entertaining, and the brilliant production design by William Cameron Menzies made for a film of astonishing visual complexity. In its meticulous structure, its disarming humor and its multi-leveled humanity, Foreign Correspondent remains without a doubt a Hitchcock Masterwork.” –Donald Spoto (The Art of Alfred Hitchcock)

Foreign Correspondent is not as well known as other Hitchcock films, but this should not be interpreted as a sign of inferiority. The film is thoroughly enjoyable and contains some amazing sequences that stand amongst director’s most iconic set pieces.

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The Presentation:

5 of 5 MacGuffins

Criterion has always packaged their discs in an attractive manner, but this release is one of their most beautiful presentations to date. The box features a spectacular cover illustration designed by Patrick Leger (and designed by F. Ron Miller). A booklet is also included and features an essay by James Naremore that is entitled “The Windmills of War.”

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The menus are attractive and are in the same style as other Criterion titles and features music and ambiance from the film.

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Everything about this release is presented with an elegance that is sure to delight cinemaphiles. This is by far the best presentation that any Hitchcock film has ever received on Blu-ray (so far).

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Picture Quality:

5 of 5 MacGuffins

Foreign Correspondent is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1:37.1. On widescreen televisions black bars will appear on the left and right hand sides of the image to maintain the proper screen format. This new digital transfer was created in 2K resolution on a Lasergraphics scanner from the 35mm original camera negative. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices warps, and jitter were manually removed using MTI’s DRS and Pixel Farm’s PFClean, while Digital Vision’s Phoenix was used for small dirt, grain, noise management, and flicker.” –The Criterion Collection

Criterion’s meticulous work on this transfer has paid off. To say that this 1080P transfer is a step above the previous Warner Brothers release (available on DVD) is a bit of an understatement. Much of the damage evident in the older release has miraculously disappeared and there is more information on all four sides of the frame due to the accurate 1:37.1 aspect ratio. The picture clarity is superb and contrast is beautifully rendered. One notices details and textures that haven’t been evident on any previous home video format.

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Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

“The original monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from a 35mm optical soundtrack. Clicks, thumps, hiss, and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube’s integrated workstation.” –The Criterion Collection

The sound quality has also been notably improved over the previous Warner Brothers release of the film. The disc’s uncompressed Mono mix sounds extremely clean and one must strain to hear a slight amount of hiss, which is really the only freckle on the face of this track.

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Special Features:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The Dick Cavett Show – (1:02:06)

Dick Cavett Show Logo

In 1972, Alfred Hitchcock was a guest on The Dick Cavett Show and the resulting interview is one of the most entertaining and informative television interviews with the director that this reviewer has ever seen. It is nice to finally see it featured on home video.

Dick Cavett Show Screenshot

Visual Effects in Foreign Correspondent – (18:57)

Special effects expert, Craig Barron provides an extremely in-depth analysis of the special features included in the film. Viewers are not only told but are also shown how the various effects were achieved.

Hollywood Propaganda and World War II – (25:19)

Mark Harris discusses the background of propaganda films and elaborates on the political atmosphere that surrounded their creation. He also gives a rather detailed account of the origins and production of Foreign Correspondent. It is a very compelling addition to the disc and should delight fans of the film.

Theatrical Trailer – (2:23)

This trailer for Foreign Correspondent is one of the more interesting trailers from the era.

Have You Heard? The Story of Wartime Rumors

One of the more interesting and unusual items on this disc is this1942 Life magazine “photo-drama” by Alfred Hitchcock. Life explained the essay in a short letter to their readers:

LIFE ESSAY - BTS

“From Stephen Early, [White House press] secretary to President Roosevelt, recently came the suggestions that LIFE tell a picture story of wartime rumors and the damage they are liable to do. In accordance with this request, the editors asked Alfred Hitchcock, famed Hollywood movie director, to produce such a story, with LIFE photographer Eliot Elisofon as his cameraman. When Mr. Hitchcock graciously agreed, a script was prepared, the director picked his characters from the ranks of movie professionals and LIFE’s Los Angeles staff, and shooting commenced in Hollywood.

Have You Heard? is the result of their cooperation in photo-dramatization. A simply sexless story, it shows how patriotic but talkative Americans pass along information, true or false, until finally deadly damage is done to their country’s war effort. One false rumor is silenced by a man who later is unwittingly responsible for starting a true rumor which ends in a great catastrophe. Moral: Keep your mouth shut.” –Life Magazine

The director even makes one of his cameo appearances!

 LIFE ESSAY - Hitchcock CAMEO

This is an extremely interesting addition to the disc that adds an incredible amount of value.

1946 Radio Adaptation of Foreign Correspondent – (25:07)

Joseph Cotton stars in this interesting radio adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock’s second American film. The story has been gutted like a fish and restructured to accommodate the much shorter length of the radio program, but this is an interesting companion piece to the film.

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Final Words:

Criterion deserves to be thanked and congratulated for their wonderful efforts. This release goes beyond offering a great transfer of a great film. It also contains one of the most impressive supplemental packages available on any Hitchcock related Blu-ray release. The included 2-disc DVD set is also a very welcome addition to this package.

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The Criterion Collection’s Foreign Correspondent page:

http://www.criterion.com/films/27692-foreign-correspondent

Review by: Devon Powell