On a recent movie night extravaganza, my mom (who I’m swiftly converting into a classic film fan!) surprised me by picking up a Hitchcock two-film DVD at the library for us to watch. The DVD includes 1928’s Easy Virtue and 1929’s Blackmail, along with an introduction by Tony Curtis and the original trailer for Rear Window.
Easy Virtue is one of Hitchcock’s silent films. Isabel Jeans stars as Larita Filton. Larita has become a tabloid fixture due to her very scandalous divorce case. Once the case is finished, she decides to head out of the country and establish a life in France, where she hopes no one will recognize her from the tabloids. In France, Larita meets and falls for John Whittaker (Robin Irvine). John and Larita marry eventually, and she joins his rich, somewhat stuffy family.
All is not cheery with the marriage, though. John’s family is very suspicious of Larita, certain that they recognize her from somewhere. Will Larita eventually be welcomed with open arms, or will the family discover her secret past?
This film is based on a play by Noel Coward, and the plot is quite a simple one and is a bit slow-moving. But Hitchcock does a fantastic job with it, giving the viewer an interesting look into one woman’s struggles with her checkered past and how it impacts her present. Some of his trademarks, such as those fun director cameos and first person point of view shots, are already present here.
In the beginning of the film, flashbacks mingle with courtroom scenes as the drama of Larita’s divorce plays out. This is, especially since the film is silent, a very effective way of showing the viewer Larita’s scandal. Rather than just using courtroom testimony on intertitles, the viewer gains a clearer understanding of Larita’s predicament through these flashbacks.
This also sets the film up for a lot of suspense and drama. Once the court case is finished, the flashbacks end, focusing only on the aftermath of the case. But those images of Larita’s scandal are fresh in the viewer’s mind, leaving us wondering how long it will take for her secret to be discovered and just how severely John’s family will react. There is an underlying anxiety throughout the remainder of the film caused by Larita’s secrecy.
The facial expressions and delivery of emotion are extravagant in this film, as is somewhat typical of silents. For viewers unfamiliar with silent films this may be laughable, but as a fan of the silent era I wasn’t distracted by the slightly over-the-top nature of the performances. In fact, in some instances I found this technique to favor this particular film very much, because the audience is wondering just how serious the problems between Larita and her husband’s family will become. This is especially true for the role of John’s very pushy mother, who seems most determined to find out what her son’s new wife is hiding.
Unfortunately, the existing print of this film is fairly low quality, so there are quite a few technical issues and harsh transitions throughout the film. It isn’t such low quality that it becomes hard to follow the plot or distinguish who’s who, luckily. Even with all of the grain and glitches it is still a beautiful piece of work, which I’m sure was even more visually stunning when it existed in a higher quality print. The contrast is particularly striking. The score: 3.8/5
Blackmail is a film I’ve seen before, but would like to share my thoughts on anyway, especially since I viewed it as a companion to a new-to-me Hitchcock film. This 1929 film is Hitchcock’s first talkie, and is also widely regarded as the first British talkie in general.
The film, based on a play by Charles Bennett (who later worked as a writer for Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew too Much and The 39 Steps, among others), follows Alice White (Anny Ondra), the daughter of a London shopkeeper and girlfriend of Scotland Yard detective Frank Webber (John Longden). Annoyed that Frank seems more interested in his work than in her, Alice arranges to meet another man – the artist (Cyril Ritchard). After agreeing to come to his studio, Alice is nearly raped by the artist and ends up killing him in self defense. Frank discovers Alice’s crime when the artist’s body is discovered and he is assigned to the case, and the situation becomes further complicated when they find that Frank isn’t the only person who knows Alice’s secret.
Blackmail was originally filmed as a silent, but many of the scenes were re-shot when sound technology became available. The result is an interesting mix of both silent techniques and brand new sound techniques. The beginning of the film appears completely in traditional silent film style, while later in the film Hitchcock uses advanced sound techniques, including using Joan Barry’s voice for Anny Ondra’s role (due to Ondra’s thick accent – an accent unfitting to her London-bred character).
Like Easy Virtue, the plot of Blackmail is quite simple, but absolutely full of suspense. The films are similar in structure, because in each the audience sees the travesty (divorce in Easy Virtue, murder in Blackmail) being committed and then spends the rest of the film anxiously waiting for the web of secrets to unravel. Also like Easy Virtue, the plot itself is a slow burner. It does take a while for the murder to occur, though of course the drama and intrigue pick up the pace at that point.
Future trademarks of Hitchcock are at work again here. There is a fantastic chase scene set at the British Museum – a precursor to all of the great dramatic scenes that Hitchcock later placed at landmarks, including Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest and the Golden Gate Bridge in Vertigo. The use of hallucinations after Alice kills the artist is also reminiscent of some of the psychological effects of trauma as seen in later Hitchcock films, giving the viewer a very good idea of where the character’s mind is at after encountering such a horrendous scenario.
Blackmail is a fantastic psychological thriller. Despite the technical glitches of the existing print (which are nowhere near as severe as those in Easy Virtue, but the print is far from perfect), the film is a treat for Hitchcock fans, and for classic film fans in general. It is capped off with a somewhat unsettling ending that doesn’t come close to answering all of the viewer’s speculations and questions, and features many elements that have come to be associated with Hitchcock’s genius. The score: 4.5/5