Sunday, October 13, 2013

Movie Review: Luxuriating in a Fresh New Print of Blackmail.

The novel of the film of the play. Ruth Alexander (pseudonym for Ruth Rogers) wrote the novelization, while Charles Bennett wrote the original play. Hitch himself wrote the adaptation, while Benn Levy wrote the dialogue. Michael Powell (director, The Red Shoes, Peeping Tom, etc.) was also an uncredited writer. [i] (Image credit: University of Exeter, where you can find more Blackmail ephemera.)

Alfred Hitchcock, good Catholic that he was, knew guilt in all its forms and manifestations like some people know Seinfeld. His most audacious study of this all-too-human condition is his 1929 masterpiece Blackmail. It turned out to be both his last silent film and his first talkie: he made two versions. Last night, at the Hitchcock 9 Festival, I got to see a fresh print of the meticulously restored silent version.

My head is still reeling.

The Portland Art Museum's Whitsell Theater (big plus: state-of-the-art projection; big minus: no snacks), was packed full for the event.

The original live music performed by Portland's own Three Leg Torso and special guest Mark Orton (holding the sheet music) was a huge treat. 

I’ve seen the silent Blackmail numerous times, on video and in public screenings. But the quality has left so much to be desired that the movie is almost a chore to watch, at least in certain scenes. No more. This fresh-scrubbed restoration is nearly as clean and crisp as the day it came out. (A few flaws were apparently unfixable, but they’re hardly worth mentioning.) That makes this a silent-movie experience unlike you might have ever had: lacking the distractions inflicted by a scratched-up, grainy print, you can simply sit back and enjoy the show and the Master's numerous bravura touches. In the hands of a pure film practitioner like Hitch, you might forget that you’re watching a silent movie altogether. In spots, it even felt like I was seeing the movie for the first time.

Details came out that I hadn’t noticed before. Here are just four:
1) In the loft apartment, Alice (Anny Ondra) and the Artist (Cyril Ritchard) each take turns drawing what turns out to be a nude woman. The usual way to build such a scene is to hire a professional artist to give you the rendering you want and then, via intercutting, make it look like it was made by the actors. But in this case we're privileged to see the pair actually draw the figure; in a moment of screen magic, see the picture materialize before our eyes. In this fresh print, however, we can see a faint but clearly visible pencil outline of the drawing right on the canvas: the actors simply traced it. 
 2) In the cigar shop, Alice and Frank stand in front of a poster advertising The Constant Nymph. This movie had come out one year earlier to great praise and financial success—and it was co-written by Alma Reville, Hitch’s wife. I’m sure she appreciated the plug. 
 3) Hitch hated eggs—especially the fried variety, and he occasionally drew attention to that fact in his movies. When the despicable blackmailer Tracy (Donald Calthrop) sits down for breakfast at the White home, he jabs into a fried egg and in this print you can see the yoke oozing all over the plate as he lifts a deliquescent, floppy morsel onto a piece of bread. 
4) Hitchcock’s cameo, which can be seen more clearly than ever, is his longest and funniest. He hogs the scene with his eyes and facial expression—nuances that are somewhat lost in other prints.[1]
These are the kinds of details that you can catch in these new prints. I hope to see you at the remaining eight!

[i] Powell’s most significant contribution to the film was its chase through the British Museum. Hitch went on to use grand and famous locations throughout his career: think of the Statue of Liberty scene in Saboteur and the chase across Mt. Rushmore in North by Northwest

[1] Watch for him aboard the train, where he’s a harassed by a misbehaving little boy. The little boy seems to win; however, in the very next scene, another young boy watches the door at a restaurant and refuses Alice and Frank entrance. Frank and Alice sneak past him anyway. To me it’s as if Hitch were getting in the last word from the previous scene aboard the train.

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Anonymous said...

Can you tell me the best available commercial DVD print of Blackmail currently available? I only have it on one of the cheapo compilation disc sets. THANKS!


Joel Gunz said...

Hmmmm.... I'd wait for the new restored print from BFI to come out. At least, that's what I'm doing.... Hope this helps!