Based on Charles Bennet’s 1928 play, Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail stands out as a particularly innovative film in his rich catalogue. Displaying many of the stylistic hallmarks with which the English director and producer would later become associated, it’s a great pick by the RNCM, who will screen the film alongside a live improvised organ score by Darius Battiwalla.
Hitchcock initially conceived Blackmail as a silent film, before asking permission from studio head John Maxwell to shoot it in sound. Legend has it that Maxwell gave the nod to just a proportion of the film being a ‘talkie’, but in fact Hitchcock surreptitiously captured sound across almost the entire film, back to back with a silent version for cinemas not appropriately equipped. Thus, Britain’s first talking picture was created.
That’s not where Blackmail’s innovation ends, though. The film’s story, too, would have been very shocking to its first audiences. It follows Alice White, a young woman whose boyfriend is a Scotland Yard detective. After secretly meeting another man and returning to his flat one night, Alice narrowly avoids becoming the victim of a sexual assault – by killing him in self-defence. These scenes are deeply unnerving, even by today’s standards.
Making the film all the more striking is Hitchcock’s radical visual language, which he wields with tremendous power. Of particular note is the use of the Schufftan process – an early special effects technique which uses mirrors to insert actors into a scene. One of the most effective uses of this technique comes in the climactic scene, which is shot at the British Museum – a fittingly ambitious set piece to close this daring picture.
Heightening Hitchcock’s drama will be Darius Battiwalla’s improvised organ score, which he will perform live. Learning the piano by ear at an early age, Battiwalla studied Organ and Piano Accompaniment at the RNCM, where he now regularly contributes to celluloid adventures such as this. With plenty of experience in setting the perfect mood for the picture, we look forward to hearing how he enlivens Hitchcock’s landmark film.
Innovative in more ways than one, don’t miss this exciting screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail at the RNCM.