Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!
Review — Blackmail (1929)
Alfred Hitchcock is my all-time favorite director. Whenever I need some inspiration, all I have to do is re-visit some of his classics, and my imagination and excitement for storytelling gets brimming. My favorites for the master aren’t unusual by any means–I love Psycho, Rear Window, The Birds, Strangers on a Train, North by Northwest. I also have strong affection for his gothic melodramatic Rebecca, and an absolute gem of his, The Lady Vanishes.
Hitchcock’s first film was The Pleasure Garden, considered a strong debut on most parts, but it’s unavailable on DVD. His second film, The Mountain Eagle, is the only Hitchcock feature to be 100% lost, without a single copy anywhere to be found (Hitchcock later told Francois Truffaut that he was happy about the film’s disappearance). I took a look at Hitchcock’s third feature, The Lodger, often considered his first Hitchcockian movie, but it didn’t leave me with much to get excited about. I found it rather slow and hard to watch, especially considering the crappy DVD transfer I watched of it.
In the next three years , Hitchcock would make seven, count them, seven features, the remaining of his silent films. Many of these are unavailable, but Easy Virtue I took a look at, and The Ring I enjoyed a lot. In 1929, Hitchcock would set out to make another silent, but, well into production, the producers decided that this new feature would be one of Britain’s first talkies, and Hitchcock had to rethink the production of the film. 1929 was essentially the awkward transition year from silent to sound films, and this would be Hitchcock’s first chance to tell a story through dialogue.
After looking at some of Hitchcock’s films of the 1920s, I have to say that Blackmail is the first of his films that I truly enjoyed, and the first one that shows off some notable Hitchcock flair. The best part of the movie is the first third, in which a woman named Alice ditches her detective husband to spend time with an interesting artist, who in return brings her back to his flat. They enjoy a lot of small talk back and forth, he plays the piano for her, and then he takes her to a back room… to have his way with her. She ends up killing him to defend herself, and later, her detective husband is assigned to the case to the solve the murder.
After the murder, the movie plays out like a fairly conventional thriller that could’ve been made by many other directors of the time. It’s the first thirty minutes that stand out the most and show Hitchcock at his very best. The pacing and structure leading up the murder is super effective and still works nearly ninety years later as a suspenseful scene. If somebody was flipping through the channels and came to this part of the film, he or she might think this could be a happy-go-lucky classic Warner Bros musical; the scene may be the first example of Hitchcock really playing the audience like a piano, making them think everything is fine with these two characters, and then leading them into some truly menacing horror.
And brilliantly, the attempted rape is done off-screen behind some curtains. The end of the scene is so twisted because Alice, who up until now has been a cute and perky and seemingly innocent, walks out from behind a curtain, knife in hand, with a look of absolute madness on her face. Fantastic!
I enjoy many more of the early Hitchcock movies, but Blackmail is certainly one of the best. As someone who looks up to this man in every way, I’m pleased to see how soon Hitchcock was able to find his voice in cinema and then spend decade after decade perfecting it. Although it’s not on the same level of the films he made in America, Blackmail is certainly worth checking out for Hitchcock buffs.
Watching Like a Writer
I’ve learned so much from Alfred Hitchcock over the years, both in the short films I’ve directed and in the fiction I’ve written. My first and foremost takeaway from Blackmail and most of the films he made is that the terror of a scene is not in the gunshot itself but in the anticipation of it, not the explosion that kills a group of characters but in the dread of having to wait for that explosion to go off. I’ve learned from Hitchcock that suspense is in the waiting.
Write a scene of suspense that leads up to a shocking moment, one in which the reader knows what’s to come but the main character or characters don’t.