One has got to live, y’know. — the blackmailer, explaining himself in Blackmail
From a play by Charles Bennett, Blackmail is Alfred Hitchcock’s first great work—a startlingly brilliant (if unrefined) film from start to finish despite Hitchcock’s own nonsense about the different ending he had wanted that the studio rejected on commercial grounds. As Rohmer and Chabrol make clear, the film’s departure from the play on this score gives the work an ideal Hitchcockian narrative form; any other ending is unthinkable and, in any case, when Hitchcock spoke about the ending he preferred it sounds in part as though he were confusing Blackmail with G. W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1928).
The film was intended as a silent but was converted into sound by strategic additions, including spoken dialogue, the murder victim’s piano-playing, and the protagonist’s accusatively chirping bird the morning after the murder. Some of the mouth-moving for dialogue is left silent, and whole passages, especially two police chases, are kept silent except for background music. Wonderful Anny Ondra, who plays the lead role, London shopkeeper’s daughter Alice White, had to be dubbed by someone else, English actress Joan Barry, because of her Czech accent. Like so many films of this transitional period, Blackmail is a hybrid of silent and sound film. (A completely silent version, a half-hour longer than the version we are used to, also exists though is hard to come by.)
Alice is an adorable creature, but also a petulant one who feels that her life is insufficiently exciting and that her fiancé, Scotland Yard detective Frank Webber, is insufficiently attentive because of his job. By the end of the film, in a gloomy way Webber’s job and his interest in Alice have crossed lines, imprisoning each to the other in secret guilt and remorse, and their symbolical wedding march down a Scotland Yard corridor, shot from the rear, foretells a miserable marriage. It is possible that Hitchcock was putting a negative spin on the marital complicity with which Victor Sjöström ends his phenomenal The Wind (1927). As happens with other Hitchcock heroes and heroines, such as Young Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt (1943) who bemoans her family’s being in a rut, Alice gets her wish for more excitement and attention, but in an unpleasant, punishing way. Events conspire to make her upcoming marriage something inescapable rather than a choice.
However, the film opens with police action—a mobile unit that receives the message from headquarters to bring in a particular criminal suspect. The opening shot is a closeup of one of the mobile unit’s wheels. That is all we see: a single, isolated wheel, which fills up the entirety of the screen. Something is not right with what we see. Indeed, a few things seem off. Initially, the tight closeup prevents us from seeing what the wheel belongs to—if, that is, we can even identify the object as a wheel. (It looks as much like a gigantic button and may even suggest a rewinding reel of film.) A subsequent long-shot shows the police wagon in motion as it advances; but the shot of the wheel preceding it, because of the tightness of the closeup, shows what appears to be something that is not advancing but, instead, spinning in place. Something else is odd: the wheel is turning counterclockwise. (Mirror-imaging reappears in the film; it is by mirror reflection, for example, that the suspect first knows that the police have invaded the space of his room.) When the long-shot appears, the wheels are, of course, moving clockwise. What is all this? The opening shot, for me, calls into question everything that follows it.
The police, including Frank, invade a tenement courtyard where wash is strung up to dry and children play. It is a scene of poverty, and a woman, perhaps someone somehow connected to the suspect about to be arrested, offers futile resistance to the officers. The whole image reeks of “doesn’t stand a chance”—at the moment, or in life. What follows is an extraordinary passage—except for music, keep in mind, in complete silence—showing the arrest of the suspect, his interrogation at headquarters (the nervousness of his hands may strike us as either loathsome or heartrending), his identification in a police line-up (the witness, a woman, touches his breast, perhaps his heart), his booking, fingerprinting and lock-up. The wheel of justice has crushed a criminal! But is he the right man? From our vantage, we recall a similar bravura passage, ending in a booked suspect’s arraignment in court, in a later Hitchcock film. That suspect is Manny Balestrero, played by Henry Fonda no less—The Wrong Man (1956)! Indeed, Blackmail will end with a questionable working-out of justice. Once we have seen the entire film, we flash back to the opening and ask, “Did they get the right man?”
But by that point the wheel seemingly spinning in place has become a metaphor for something else: Alice and Frank’s relationship, which is going nowhere except, in lockstep, to the altar. One reviewer on the Internet goes so far as to describe Alice as having been “blackmailed into marriage,” since Alice confesses to Frank that she is the killer.
I am not certain that Alice is correct in this, however. There is no doubt, though, that she believes this to be the case, and Frank may lack the imagination necessary to question the accuracy of her confession. (On the other hand, he may know that she is incorrect on this score and is remaining mum in order to manipulate her into their marriage bed.) The truth is, we never discover just who killed the artist whom Alice believes she killed in self-defense, and Hitchcock, as we shall see, raises specific doubt that Alice is the killer that she believes herself to be.
Our introduction to Alice, almost immediately after the film has passed from silence into sound, comes at the end of Frank’s long workday, which involves the tenement arrest. “I have been waiting for you for a half-hour,” she tells Frank at Scotland Yard. Frank’s faith in the considerable importance of his work is predicated on the notion that he participates in the realization of justice—a premise that the film disputes. Alice’s complaints are not without basis; Frank is so wrapped up in himself, in his own importance, that he plans tonight on taking Alice to the movies to see a Scotland Yard mystery so that he can point out to Alice all the points of police procedure that the filmmakers got wrong! Thus his time with Alice will simply extend his work day. I, for one, am happy for Alice that she begs out of this ridiculous date.
Some are quick to point out that Alice scarcely draws our sympathy either. Before the show, the couple go to a restaurant where, in fact, Alice has arranged to meet another man, Crewe. This is the artist. Alice aborts her date with Frank and, after Frank has angrily exited the restaurant, goes off with Crewe. We see Frank, outdoors, playing detective by observing Alice with this other man and registering, at last, something other than his usual complacency. Well, of course! Alice knows her Frank and knows he will do this. Alice isn’t interested in Crewe; she is interested in making her own man jealous. It was never her intention to go to Crewe’s studio apartment; but he presses her, and she more or less agrees so as not to expose how she has manipulated him. She is also curious as to how far she will go to court this man’s attention. It’s a game, then, for her own excitement and amusement. But why is Crewe so eager to be manipulated by her? It is nearly inconceivable that he pursues his “date” with Alice even after spotting her with another man at the restaurant. But motives are being hidden all around, and Hitchcock will suggest that Crewe isn’t what he appears to be any more than Alice is what she appears to be.
Before Crewe has turned on the light, the first thing we see in his apartment is a mask on a wall. The mask is humorous insofar as it pertains to Alice’s masquerade. But the apartment belongs to Crewe, so we need also to be asking ourselves what his masquerade is all about. To be sure, much in his apartment, including the one painting of his that we see (of a jester/clown, perhaps from some production of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci), attests to his theatrical interest. A tutu, draped over a screen, presumably is a costume worn by women who model for his artwork and may now be a provocative come-on for Alice to get out of her clothes. There is also a piano in the room, at which, while drinking to work up his courage before pouncing on Alice, Crewe plays and sings “Miss Up-to-Date.” Other commentators note that the tune in this instance references Alice; but might it not also refer to the man at the piano? Doesn’t Crewe strike us as being homosexual—and all the more so because Hitchcock underlines stereotypical attributes lest we miss the point? From our vantage we can scarcely think otherwise, since Crewe is played by a young, Noel Cowardish Cyril Ritchard, Mary Martin/Peter Pan’s future Captain Hook! In this light, the clumsy pressure that Crewe exerts in order to steal a kiss from Alice and possibly try to rape her—the latter action, or whatever approximation, occurs theatrically behind a window curtain—reeks of someone who is unpracticed with women who may be trying to overcome and deny his contrary sexual orientation. It becomes a question, then, of whose masquerade/deception will trump whose.
While Crewe is mauling her behind the drapes, Alice reaches out and grabs a phallic knife that accompanies a block of cheese on a table. (It is impossible at this point not to be reminded of Hitchcock’s later Dial M for Murder, 1954, with its substitution of scissors for knife.) She stabs her assailant, whose possibly dead hand, palm turned upward, becomes visible when the outstretched arm to which it is attached penetrates the curtain. Hastily Alice removes all indication of her visit—however, she drops a glove—and flees, presuming she has killed Crewe. It is very possible that she has done just that.
Perhaps Blackmail’s finest passage now follows. It finds Alice, seemingly in a trance, traumatized by all that has happened, making her way through London streets at night. Others walk in either direction on either side of her, some of them diaphanous phantoms—a projection of how unreal everything now seem to Alice. She bucks the foot traffic of those heading to see a play,* “a new comedy”—a moment summing up two overwhelming feelings of hers: her being all alone; her sense of the insurmountable forces now arrayed against her. The streets everywhere taunt her with evidence of her crime; for instance, a shaking neon mixed-drink canister strikes her eye as a neon knife stabbing down again and again. An upturned palm on an outstretched arm also repeatedly shows itself, in one instance, in the case of a bobby directing traffic. An extreme overhead long-shot of London at dawn signals an objective break to the sustained subjectivity of Alice’s long, long night.
Buried in this extraordinary passage is a hint that Alice may not have killed Crewe. Each hand of a dead man that Alice sees in her trance-like state in fact belongs to a living man. Each one looks just as dead as Crewe’s hand did. Might that not mean, for us at least, that Alice’s attack with a knife on Crewe did not leave him dead? This is a film in which the narrative is more shadow than substance, suggestion rather than certainty. A crucial act is forever hidden from us behind a curtain, but one kind of curtain or another keeps almost everything from clear, certain and unambiguous view.
But what other suspect is there? Who else but Alice might have murdered Crewe?—and why? The police come to suspect the man who attempted to blackmail Alice for the crime. We see him to begin with as a shadow descending on the apartment building in which Crewe lives (or lived), right after a stunned Alice has exited the building. Is this the man who the landlady told Crewe had visited him on several occasions, who also had sent (or left) him a note? What does he want from Crewe? This explanation for his blackmailing Alice sums up his place in the world: “One has got to live, y’know.” Then might not he have also been blackmailing Crewe? But for what? For Crewe’s (at the time, illegal) homosexual activity? Might not the title of the film refer as much to his attempt to blackmail Crewe as to his attempt to blackmail Alice? Might not this man have confronted Crewe, still alive, who, already upset by Alice’s assault, would not tolerate his attempt to squeeze money out of him? Might not Crewe in this agitated state of mind assaulted the man, perhaps armed with the same knife that Alice had used against him? Might not Crewe, already weakened by Alice’s assault, prove easily overtaken? In their struggle, might not the blackmailer have killed Crewe with Crewe’s own knife?
Ah, but this would have left the blackmailer without what he explicitly came for: money. Thus he turns to the guilt-ridden Alice, whose boyfriend, the blackmailer has yet no way of knowing, is a Scotland Yard detective who is suppressing all evidence that might implicate Alice in the murder. From the top of the British Museum, to where the police have chased him after he escapes, the blackmailer crashes to his horrible death. In a way this frees him; no longer “has [he] got to live.” But Alice and Frank do.
I pose so many questions here because the film, including its narrative, has been so constructed as to remain forever elusive. No matter who did or did not murder Crewe, however, one thing is plain: Scotland Yard has botched things up. (There is Frenzy, 1972, up ahead!) Either way, they have closed the case wrongly. Either they killed the right man wrongly, without considering the totality of relevant details, or they got the wrong person entirely.
Leave it to U.S. cops, who are just as stupid, to go after Abe Lincoln, Wyatt Earp and Mister Roberts.**
* Henri-Georges Clouzot drew upon this scene in his Quai des Orfèvres (1947), which in fact draws extensively, thematically and for atmosphere, from Hitchcock’s film. One might also add that the first scene of Frank and Alice outdoors in the city streets draws upon F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927).
** Blackmail may contain, incidentally, Alfred Hitchcock’s best and funniest cameo appearance.
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