We’re at Day 12 of the Milwaukee Film Festival and only a few days of the festival remain. That doesn’t mean that the festival is running out of steam as Milwaukee Film rolled out the newest restoration of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1929 silent film Blackmail complete with live accompaniment by Alloy Orchestra. This was one of the crown jewel events of the festival and it was the first one I committed to.
Blackmail is a revelation in how it foreshadowed much of Hitchcock’s later work. Alice White (Anny Ondra) skips out on her policeman boyfriend Frank Webber (John Logden) with another man, an artist (Cyril Richard). However, when the artist tries to rape Alice, she kills him with a bread knife and then flees in a panic. Frank is assigned to investigate the case and soon determines that Alice was there. However, he’s not the only one who knows of Alice’s involvement, as the lowlife Tracy (Donald Calthrop) shows up to blackmail them both. It’s a fairly simple tale.
The story is a little different that much of what would come later from Hitchcock, Alice isn’t quite innocent and one of the main characters being a policeman instead of just an ordinary citizen is different, but the movie is unmistakably a Hitchcock movie. Alice is a blonde. The attack on Alice and her defense is a bit reminiscent of Dial M for Murder. The serious thriller aspects are balanced by a mordant sense of humor. It’s sexy and suggestive at times. The suspense sequences are handled masterfully. Donald Calthrop looks ahead to Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train with the glee he gets from being in the catbird’s seat. The police aren’t treated as great dispensers of justice but as flawed people. And there’s a wonderful final setpiece through the British Museum which includes large statuary looking on with indifference at the plight of little people and a great fall from a national landmark capping it off. The Lodger might be Hitchcock’s first thriller, but Blackmail is much closer to being the Hitchcock we all know.
Blackmail was Hitchcock’s last silent film and rejiggered into a sound version shortly after its release. The silent version has a good reputation, but the silent version has been absent from the conversation until this year when the British Film Institute completed a restoration of the silent version. Blackmail might not stand with the giants of silent film, but it’s evident that Hitchcock is in complete mastery of his silent craft. The film has momentum and style and Hitchcock knows exactly when an inter-title card is necessary and when it’s not. As evidence of Hitchcock’s visual storytelling, it’s hard to beat.
Milwaukee Film pulled out all stops for this screening and although there was a minor glitch, the start of the film was delayed while they dealt with some difficult to turn off house lights, ultimately it was a wonderful experience. The main room at the Oriental theater was packed, and there are few better places than one of the few remaining movie palaces from the silent era to watch a silent film. Alloy Orchestra was in fine form and the audience was into the film.