What's wrong, Alice?

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

One of the purposes of a film's musical score is to assist the performers in eliciting different emotional responses from the audience such as fear, sadness, joy, pain, and many others. But what happens when a director makes the artistic choice for various scenes in a film to lack a score? In the case of Alfred Hitchcock's Blackmail (1929), such a choice leaves us unsettled and allows us to tap into the emotions of the main character without the comfort of music directing us how to feel. Blackmail features one of my personal favorite sequences in early cinematic history. I felt compelled to simply put my thoughts to words in a little writing exercise by taking a look at some of the techniques Hitchcock used, as well as Anny Ondra's captivating performance, both of which I admire.

As the silent film era was coming to an end in the late 1920s with the rise of talkies, much of the new sound process had yet to be explored. In Blackmail, Hitchcock demonstrates an impressive early understanding and execution of sound on film before it was even attempted by some of his contemporaries. This was Hitchcock's first film using sound, and it was the first talkie filmed in England. "I was asked to prepare the last reel in sound, because in those days when talk first came in, they used to advertise it as part-sound. And they made a novelty of the sound starting in the middle of the picture. When I knew that they were going to make the thing in sound, I was shooting in silence. I prepared in my own mind to make the whole film sound. If you looked at the film today, it's still a silent film, and practically with the people speaking titles."  (Alfred Hitchcock, 1962). Czech actress Anny Ondra's heavy accent was evident, so for the sound version, she was instead voiced by British actress Joan Barry. Hitchcock would utilize Barry's talents a few years later by starring her in Rich and Strange (1931).
Alfred Hitchcock and Anny Ondra on the set of Blackmail

While the majority of this thriller contains a score by Jimmy Campbell and Reginald and Connelly, the most impressive sequence of this production actually has minimal dialogue and a few moments of no music or speaking parts at all. Hitchcock's most famous work using this strategy is certainly The Birds (1963) which has no score at all, but with Blackmail we are able to witness a much earlier approach. The sequence I am referring to occurs a little over half an hour into the film. Alice White (Ondra) is being attacked by a man behind a curtain in his apartment. This event contains no background music. There is no intense, heart stopping score, much like there would be in 1960's Psycho (Hitchcock seemed to have a thing for curtains, didn't he?) Instead, the only noises to be heard are Alice's desperate screams as she fights for her life, as well as the clanging of the bread knife by the bedside table as she reaches for it.

From there, the entire mood of the film shifts. Alice slowly emerges from behind the curtain, her eyes wide with terror and her moves robotic and stiff as she places the murder weapon back onto the table. A soft musical score is placed here as Alice hurriedly changes back into her dress and flees the scene. The dizzying view from the set of stairs she descends parallels the one from Vertigo (1958). She walks as if she may step on a land mine at any moment. On the walk back to her home, she is confronted by traumatizing flashbacks that taunt her as she is reminded of what she has done by various elements of her surroundings. Clock tower bells and taxi horns are amplified, drowning out the background score. Hitchcock cleverly uses the city lights to express what is going on in Alice's head. The motioning sign of a cocktail shaker becomes a hand holding a knife, violently stabbing its victim.

Anny Ondra in Blackmail

We revert back to no music when Alice sneaks back into the familiar sheets of her own bed. She is soon awoken by Mrs. White, who is completely unsuspecting of her whereabouts the previous night. The shrill sounds coming from the morning birds can be heard outside the window as Alice, at war with the demons inside her own head, makes her way to her vanity in a hypnotic state. It is as if every inanimate object in the room is aware of the crime she has committed, even the mirror as she avoids making eye contact with her reflection. We do not need eerie music here to know that Alice is in a trance. We, as the audience, seem to be in it with her by this point.

"Very often, one is interested in seeing music provided for certain parts of a film, so that it becomes more dramatic when the music is suddenly cut off. That the audience have been lulled into it, and suddenly there's a silence. That's just as effective as though you had used all the brass and all the instruments in the orchestra."  -Alfred Hitchcock, 1972

The audience is continuously pulled into Alice's nightmarish daze as she makes her way downstairs to the family's business. She is now surrounded by people, yet she is entirely alone. By choosing to not use music, the audience has to rely on visuals and the performance of the actors in the scene, and Ondra delivers. One can only imagine as an actor it must be incredibly difficult to convey such intense emotions with the absence of dialogue. She delivers profound distress using only her eyes, and it is chilling to watch. A neighbor begins discussing the murder as the family sits down to breakfast. The woman's repetitive use of the word "knife" is a technique that I've always found intriguing. Her voice slowly becomes more muffled. You cannot make out any of the other words she is using except for the word "knife." By this point, and at least personally speaking, I was so deep into Alice's trance that I actually jumped slightly when the final "knife" is yelled at a higher volume than before, just as Alice did. This startles her enough to fling the bread knife off of the table.

Anny Ondra during the knife scene

I will end here so as not to spoil the remainder of the film. There is so much to love about this entire production that it is difficult to condense into one post. From the complicated staging of the scenes, to the well thought out camera movements, to the experiments with sound, Blackmail certainly deserves its spot in the Hitchcock hall of fame. It plays host to the birth of so many unique characteristics that the Master of Suspense would repeat many times over throughout his filmography. Blackmail serves as just one of the many complex pictures of Hitchcock's, whose techniques are timeless and can be analyzed and appreciated for decades to come.

© Saga of Ginger and sagaofginger.com 2019 Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site's author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Saga of Ginger and sagaofginger.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

Creative Commons License

Post a Comment

Saga of Ginger © . Design by Berenica Designs.