Dedicated to the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and all the other people, both actors and technicians who helped them make those wonderful films.
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By Henry Coombs
Technical limitations do count for something
6th August 1999
Perhaps my knowledge of the production history poisoned my experience of "Blackmail". Perhaps not. If the film had been truly great it wouldn't have mattered anyway; but you might care to try the experiment of coming to the film cold and THEN researching - in which case you should read no further.
The difficulties Hitchcock faced in converting to sound could hardly have been greater. The studio decided to plump for sound after production had begun. Some scenes were shot as if for a silent film but made their way into the final cut anyway. His star, Anny Ondra, did not speak English - so she had to mime her lines syllable by syllable while another actress in the wings delivered them for her. (Hitchcock lacked the technology to even record the dialogue separately.) If you think that this would lead to an awkward and all but unwatchable performance, you would be right. It gets in the way of her performance to such an extent that in one scene, when she is looking around anxiously, all I could think of was Anny Ondra, wondering where her ghost voice had got to.
This is a deep problem, not a trivial one. Hitchcock is at his best when he is at his most assured, taking us through long tracking shots are passing us intimate close-ups like a master of ceremonies who is never at a loss for something to say. The glory of Hitchcock is in the fluid technicalities. When they are clumsy, as they are here, the result makes us wince. (At least, it makes me wince.) A story that MIGHT, under other circumstances, have grown into something intriguingly ambivalent, here just seems confused.
"Blackmail" is of historical interest, and all of that, but note that it was only really popular in the early days of sound when people would watch anything that talked. Let's be honest. Talkies have been around for over seventy years, and we're now in a position to know that the early experiments - this one included - simply weren't very good.
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