Blackmail (1929)

The opening movement of Blackmail is a condensed silent police procedural. As the dramatic music rises and falls, the audience watches the gears of justice wind its way through the case of one man. Before the audience gets a grasp of what has just happened, the film pulls a shocker. As two detectives walk down the hall, the sounds of voices break forth. Blackmail is a sound feature!

As the little intro is whisked away, the film settles into a rocky romance between Alice White (Anny Ondra) and Detective Frank Webber (John Longden). Alice doesn’t like waiting. She’s secretly lined up another date with an Artist (Cyril Ritchard), a date she plans to take as soon as she can blow off Frank. But what looks to be a playful game of romantic deception takes a sinister turn into the realm of murder.

Sadly, only the murder results in a satisfying turn in events. While the late ‘20s and early ‘30s resulted in a number of films backtracking, Blackmail reminds the audience of how gripping and mysterious the silent realm can be and then proceeds to lull them with a droll number of conversations in what begins to shape up to be an entirely different kind of film. Of course, the murder shakes things up and bolsters the film into a gripping tale of suspense.

The strength of Blackmail is in its visual cues and how early they are set up in the film. A man’s arm and a black glove become two recurring images, two images that allow the film to convey in a single shot something far more powerful than the string of words that might follow them. However, things do get complicated enough to where the latter segment of the film benefits from synchronized sound, the conversations and quick turning of the tables allowing for a natural flow into the final act.

Blackmail’s greatest strength is in what is left unsaid. Once spoken, the film becomes quite a deal less interesting. The film tries to sputter on in spite of spilling the cookies and can only wrap things up by leaving the characters at the mercy of fate. The characters’ salvation is the villain’s misstep and the convenient interruption moments before it all falls to pieces.

The film explores interesting ideas of how people view justice depending on what side of justice they fall. Instead of letting the ideas mature in the realm of social justice, cosmic justice has the final word. While it makes for a more upbeat conclusion, it feels like the story has cheated, that victory has come at too cheap a cost.

In spite of its constant backpedaling, Blackmail works. It lulls the audience into complacency and shakes them out of it. The conclusion comes too easily, but the gripping visual cues and the suspenseful buildup are enough to make Blackmail a notable bridge between the silent and sound era.

© 2012 James Blake Ewing

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