Friday, October 12, 2007

Filling in the Blanks: Blackmail

I've mentioned in earlier posts my lack of conventional film education. There are plenty of films out there, many in the 'film aficionado canon' that I have never seen. I don't really feel bad about this, it's impossible to see every film out there, even the great ones. If I were to try and watch all the 'classics' I would never again be able to watch a new movie in the theatre. But these are still(mostly) important films, and I do feel as if my background is a bit lacking for not having seen them before(Casablanca is the largest omission I can think of right now). So I've decided to try and round out my movie viewing a little bit, to try and fill in those gaps in my knowledge(hence the title of this post). These won't all be on the AFI top 100 list, and maybe some of them wont be very well known, but these will be films that I think I should see to get a better grasp on the medium, or even just the artist responsible.

Hitchcock is one of those directors I've always wanted to watch more of. I'm not ignorant of his works, and have seen a fair amount of them, but they tend to be the bigger name films(Psycho, Vertigo, Rear Window), meaning that his earlier British films are almost completely unknown to me. Awhile back I was given one of those 9-disc movie sets that consist of public domain movies with questionable prints, and consisting entirely of Hitchcock films. I should have watched these earlier, but for some reason I felt bad watching such poor quality versions of films from a director who's entire filmography deserves the Criterion treatment. The other night I decided to move past my hangups and just sit down to watch them. Not all at once, of course, but I've decided to make this a regular thing, where at least once a week I sit down to a movie from one of those 'classic' lists, or from a filmmaker who I've remained woefully ignorant of(coming up; Robert Altman!).

Blackmail, released in 1929, isn't the earliest Hitchcock film in this set, but it is the first movie on the first disc. Also it's Hitch's first 'talkie', so that definitely makes it an important film, right? I can't say that I was worried about the quality of this film, because Hitchcock has never disappointed me yet, but I was still unsure about how entertained I would be, and wondered how well his later-period style would compare to this earlier attempt. It turns out that early Hitchcock is very similar to the Hitchcock more familiar to casual moviegoers. Most of what you'd expect from a Hitchcock film are in here; the drastic reversal of expectations, the suspense centered around the person who committed a crime rather than the victim, and a climactic chase through a national landmark. Perhaps this all doesn't work, and it isn't as polished as it would become, but I think I enjoyed it more because of that. I liked seeing an artist already confident in his abilities, testing out new technologies and style. I also really enjoyed the silent film touches that permeate this film.

The film opens with an 8 minute scene where Scotland Yard chases down, catches, and locks up a criminal. This scene is also completely silent, save for some music and sound effects. It turns out this was because Hitch had already filmed most of the movie by the time the decision was made to use sound, so some scenes were reshot and others just had dubbing put on top of them. But it also seems like it could be an example of Hitch's sense of humor(imagine the first part of Psycho as a very elaborate joke pulled on the audience). Here we have the first British talkie, which it was widely advertised as, and the film opens with 8 minutes of no talking(although we see people moving their mouths).

The rest of the movie has the feel of a silent film, despite having dialogue. Many scenes play out with little being said, but instead with meaningful looks between characters and some fairly easy to follow action. Hitchcock is of course an impressive visual director, with many scenes in here foreshadowing events or visuals in later movies. I really enjoyed some of the visual trickery. The standouts would be a scene in the beginning where two characters climb a long staircase while the camera floats upwards beside them, and a nifty use of shadow where the killer decides to turn themselves into the police. As they stand up, a shadow is cast across their face, making the unmistakable impression of a hangman's noose around their head. This may not be the most subtle of tricks, but I've always enjoyed Hitchcock's overtly theatrical tricks, like the scene in Vertigo where James Stewart first sees Kim Novak, and the lights dim as she passes by.

The film is a bit darker than I expected it to be, but this may be due to the fact that the DVD case describes this film in unbelievably innocuous terms, with the coda 'Suitable for children!' I'm not exactly a prude, but I probably wouldn't show this to my daughter for a few years. This isn't to say the film is bleak, or without humor, in the end it's quite entertaining. But it seems to me that Hitchcock has always had a distinctly pessimistic, misanthropic tone to his work. In Hitchcock's world, even the victims are flawed and slightly unlikable. Marion Crane in Psycho had just embezzled a large sum of money, L.B. Jefferies in Rear Window is, in the end, a voyeur, and John Ferguson in Vertigo had some pretty disturbing sexual issues playing themselves out. Nobody is innocent in a Hitchcock film, and we're usually rooting for the villain instead of the 'good guys'.

I may be making too much of this film, or grading it more highly than I would if I'd seen more Hitchcock films. Perhaps this movie isn't that great, comparatively, but I certainly enjoyed it.

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