Week 15: Blackmail, Body Issues, and Sound

Disclaimer: These essays presume you’ve seen the film in question. If you want to avoid spoilers, watch the movie first!

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If The Lodger (1927) created a sensation, Blackmail (1929) cemented Hitchcock’s reputation. Before 1929 it’s debatable as to whether he was Britain’s most famous film director, but no one would deny that he had the firmest grasp on technology and the best craft in the business. Blackmail was not only the first sound feature film in Britain, it was a bonafide sensation and it helped create the Hitchcock we know and love.

For film directors who started in the silent era, it’s hard to think of another filmmaker who so instantly and effortlessly made the transition to sound filmmaking. American studios panicked at the change and brought in dialogue directors who ground the livewire energy of silent films to a halt. Early efforts like The Jazz Singer, no matter how historic, amount to little more than filmed stage plays. Fritz Lang, an inspiration to Hitchcock, showed great genius in his first sound film, M (1931), using the whistling of the child murderer to strike terror into viewers.

Yet Lang had two whole years to think about this new technology (His 1929 Woman in the Moon utilized a synchronized soundtrack and some special effects, but no dialogue).  What Hitchcock achieved in his first sound film is almost unprecedented, and the details surrounding the production of Blackmail are as interesting as the film itself.

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John Longden, Anny Ondra, and Donald Calthrop

Briefly: Blackmail is a terrific film. Anny Ondra plays a young woman who’s tired of her police detective boyfriend (John Longden) and goes to meet a handsome artist (Cyril Ritchard), eventually ending up in his flat. He attempts to rape her but  she stabs and kills him, then wanders the streets of London in a daze. Meanwhile her boyfriend is investigating the murder and realizes his girlfriend is the murderer, but withholds the evidence just as a third man arrives who saw Anny leaving his flat. The blackmailer (played to slimy perfection by Donald Calthrop) attempts to blackmail both of them, before escaping and being chased through the British Museum in one of Hitchcock’s earliest, greatest setpieces.

I’ll talk more about the movie, but let’s spend some time on the production itself. Hitchcock started filming in 1929, as conversion to sound was imminent, although his studio bosses told him the film would still be silent. Hitch had an inkling that the studio would want to add sound before it was released, and rather than leaving himself open to extensive reshoots or dubbing that was out of his control, he went another way.

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On location for Blackmail (Hitch is to the right with his back to us)

Hitchcock is notorious for pre-planning his films, in later years down to storyboarding every single shot, so the film was pre-edited before he shot a frame of film. This practive would serve him well in battles with producers like David O. Selznick because it limited their options. Normally a filmmaker would shoot copious amounts of footage for every scene: a wide shot, medium shots, closeups, and extreme closeups of every actor in the scene. This process irritated Hitchcock, who already knew exactly how he wanted the scene to fit together. Hitch would shoot only what he needed, partially out of boredom with restaging scenes over and over, but more importantly as a way of protecting his vision. A producer might later demand that he insert a closeup of the female lead, but if Hitch hadn’t shot it, what could they do?

It’s important to take a step here and note that virtually no one makes films like this. It’s impossible. It’s too demanding and it requires too much of the director, because they have to be aware of how every single shot will affect the audience. Films with lots of special effects will storyboard scenes to help everyone involved understand the technical challenges, but pre-planning an entire film, hell, dozens of films and being right most of the time, is something only Alfred Hitchcock could do.

In Blackmail we see the beginnings of Hitchcock’s tremendous ingenuity as well as his relishing a technical challenge. First, Hitchcock devised a series of scenes that could have dialogue inserted later: Detectives talking with their backs to the camera, a scene in a crowded restroom where you can’t tell who’s talking, and in some cases shooting two versions of a scene and anticipating where he can punch in a separate shot of characters talking. That level of control & confidence is the definition of excellence in filmmaking. A good director will carry not just one shot or one scene, but the entire film in their head at all times. Hitchcock shot roughly half the picture this way, focusing on chase scenes and dialogue-free sequences until, sure enough, the studio decided to make this their first sound picture. And guess who was waiting for them with a fully-drawn out plan of execution?

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The not-at-all cumbersome setup for sound films in 1929

But wait; it gets better. Shooting with sound was a preposterous proposition in 1929. The freedom of shooting on location was suddenly gone; everything had to be in the studio. The camera was encased in a soundproof booth with a glass window that put an end to any elaborate camera movement. The sound recording was done in another soundproof booth; when the Duke & Duchess of York visited the set of Britain’s first “talkie,” Hitchcock accompanied the royals into these tiny booths to show them how everything worked. What’s more, all of the sound had to be recorded at the same time; there was no post-production. Want music  and sound effects in this scene? Then the string quartet has to be there, on the stage, along with the actors and any door slams or honking cars that you might hear. In essence you’re creating a bit of live radio theater for every scene.

And the piece de resistance: The lead actress Anny Ondra (a beautiful & gifted performer) is of Czech descent and speaks with a heavy accent completely inappropriate for the middle-class East End girl of the film. Hitchcock had already shot half the picture with her; what could be done? In a scene straight out of Singin’ in the Rain, Hitch hired a British actress (Joan Barry) to stand just off camera and speak Ondra’s lines into a microphone, in effect dubbing her live on set. Every night, after shooting had finished, Ondra, Barry, and Hitchcock would rehearse the timing of the lines for the next day’s shooting.

Can you imagine anything more difficult?! The entire crew watching you, uncertain of how this will turn out, and not used to all this new sound technology.  Actors trying to dub a performance live while it happens. A string quartet and army of sound technicians ready to provide everything from a door slamming to a bird chirping. A studio nervous about a new, untested technology.

And in the face of this maelstrom is Alfred Hitchcock, 28 years old, director of only nine feature films, and fucking unflappable. How far he’s come in just a few years, from the young man asking his if a shot was okay for The Pleasure Garden. Now he’s in total command of an incomprehensibly difficult situation and he loved it. Hitch relished a challenge and Blackmail provided him with more than he could count.

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And still he kept pushing, creating new opportunities to dazzle the audience with sound. The swirling fanfare of the opening credits fades into the spinning wheel of a police wagon. Later in the film as Anny contemplates her murder in self-defense, a neighbor prattles on about the case, talking about a knife, and how difficult it’d be to hide a KNIFE, and how a KNIFE like that would blah blah KNIFE as the word “knife” separates from the rest of the dialogue and repeats in Anny’s mind. It’s a beautiful effect that I’ve never seen duplicated, let alone in the infancy of sound film.

Search for a more impressive display of filmmaking confidence; you’ll be hard-pressed to find one. But Hitchcock was also pushing himself with special effects, as the film ends in a chase through the British Museum. Shooting in the actual museum itself was impractical, but Hitch didn’t want the studio to know that. Instead he shot nine low-exposure photo plates and used the complicated Schüfftan process to turn them into little matte paintings, inserting just his actor and a few feet of set into these mammoth scenes. The actors never set foot inside the museum.

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A live shot of the blackmailer escaping down a rope on a soundstage optically combined with a photo taken in the British Museum.

It’s also one of Hitchcock’s first spectacular chase scenes, and a blueprint for what would eventually become a trademark. In a surprise turn of events, the man who took credit for this idea (after Hitchcock was dead) is the filmmaker Michael Powell. I know five things about Michael Powell in this context:

  1. He had a lot of great contributions to the script for Blackmail and deserves credit for it.
  2. He would go on to direct some of Britain’s, if not cinema’s greatest films, including The Red Shoes, A Matter of Life and Death (my personal favorite), The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, and Peeping Tom.
  3. You would think Powell would be grateful to Hitchcock for plucking him from obscurity to help write this film.
  4. Instead he comes across like a pompous jerk who wants to take credit for inventing the Hitchcockian idea of climaxes staged in large public places.
  5. And he’s a shallow asshole who attributes Hitchcock’s propensity for telling dirty jokes to Hitch’s own shame over his “gross, clumsy body.”
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Hi I’m Michael Powell. I’m enormously talented and also take cheap shots at people who gave me my start in this business.

This is something that pops up again and again in otherwise serious Hitchcock critiques, these body-shaming fat jokes. Inevitably delivered by someone who considers themselves not “gross,” and not “clumsy.” It’s no secret that Hitchcock struggled with weight his whole life; in the 1940s and early 1950s he slimmed down quite a bit, but his weight would always fluctuate. He was insecure about it, and probably felt bad about it for most of his life, telling jokes to ease that pain. Yet he loved fine wines and foods and his weight never affected his career. Other than a joke about him being the model for a weight-loss ad in Lifeboat (his cameo for the film), there’s no occasion to ever bring his weight and physical appearance into a critique of his work.

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And yet it pops up everywhere. Look, I’m not trying to say that this is a problem that’s unique to men either; I get that women have been held to these unrealistic beauty standards for, well, centuries. Even this week, as Melissa McCarthy’s new movie The Boss opens at #1 at the box office, besting Batman V Superman, there are still jokes about her weight and critiques of her as somehow less than because she doesn’t weight a hundred pounds.

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Melissa McCarthy whose career is described as “wobbly” despite her not starring in a single box office failure in the past five years.

But I’ve felt that sting too. If you know me or have seen my picture, you know that I’m not a svelte man. I’m overweight, fat, whatever you want to call it. I’ve been this way basically as long as I can remember. Sure maybe I was “husky” as a kid but I’ve always had a few extra pounds on me, and it’s always been hard to lose it.

As I kid I was teased about this. A lot. Some of it’s other kids making fun of you at school, but a lot of it’s what you see on TV too. Watching Chunk in The Goonies and knowing he looked like me, yet he was an object of ridicule. As a teenager it was even worse.

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Not okay.

I remember it clear as day, the specific moment when I started really feeling shame over my appearance. It was in junior high school, 1988, and I was twelve years old. I was in the GATE program, “Gifted And Talented Education,” which meant that I was split into a different class for second through sixth grade. Now in seventh grade I was still in special classes for academics but in the same general physical education with everyone else.

I think the kids at the regular school resented us; lord knows I would. Some of my friends affected a sense of entitlement around these other kids, and while I tried not to, I’m sure it came across that way sometimes. I even had a high school teacher who told us, point blank, that we were better than “them” because we were smarter than they were. Great stuff for a high-schooler to hear.

Back to seventh grade: I was in the locker room for Phys Ed, changing into my gold tshirt and blue shirts to go run listlessly around a dirt patch. I took off my shirt. Immediately I was set upon. This kid had long hair and seemed older and tougher, though I’m sure he was my age and just as scared and freaked out as I was. He pointed at my chest and laughed. I was overweight and had what could charitably be called breasts. But of course that’s not that he called them. In a  voice loud enough for the whole room to hear, he shouted, “Hey! Look at those titties!”

I turned bright red and put my shirt on as fast as possible while everyone laughed. And to this day, twenty-seven years later, there’s not a day where I don’t feel bad about that part of my body. I know I’m fat and I don’t mind that much, but it’s the protruding chest, these goddamn boobs, that make me hate myself on a daily basis. I dread the summer because it’s too hot to wear anything but t-shirts that don’t hide my profile the walk bulky jackets or flannel shirts do.

And losing what weight I could didn’t help; at one point years ago when I weighed 40-50 pounds less, everything else shrunk except my chest. I surreptitiously contemplated plastic surgery (never did it), thought about taping them down (I never did that either), wore a tight t-shirt beneath my outer shirt to force them to lay flat (yes, I have done that).

On some level I’m sure my fear is juvenile and somewhat chauvinistic (I’m being associated with something feminine or “other”). Yet that feeling stayed with me, through countless jokes about men with boobs on television, through an endless versions of smooth flat-chested men that never looked like me.

For years this doubting my physical self held me back. I didn’t date in high school, I didn’t date in college. I was petrified of what women would think of me and my “gross, clumsy body.” Finally, I started to realize that my weight was a part of me, sure, but it wasn’t the only part. I found women who liked me for who I was. I dated. I got married. I got divorced. I dated again. I got better at accepting who I was, while also acknowledging that I wish I could lose some weight for health concerns.

That’s where I’m at now. I haven’t been able to totally embrace who I am, but I also know that I’m doing the best I can. Life is hard. And maybe it’s okay to be who I am. It doesn’t keep me from writing. It doesn’t keep me from walking every day with my dog, or putting on a dance party, or going for a hike with my girlfriend. I’m not perfect, and I know it, and it’s okay.

And to be clear, since that initial teasing in junior high, really ever since I got out of high school, no one’s made fun of my weight. I know I’m very fortunate as a straight white man, where standards of beauty are adjusted to make my life easier (see: DadBod). Still, it hurts my heart to read people taking shots at Hitchcock’s weight, years and even decades after the fact. Powell’s remark stings not just because of his cruelty, but because he’s poking at the man who helped give him a career, years after Hitchcock was dead and couldn’t fight back.

I don’t think it’s out of line to suggest that Hitchcock was insecure in his personal life; he made numerous remarks that hint at this and has shown it in his constant battle with weight loss.  But where it counted, in making his films, Hitchcock was spectacularly secure. Look at this twenty-eight year old upstart in 1929, grabbing the reins of sound filmmaking and making a picture more masterful than most of what Hollywood was putting out.

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Hitchcock and his wife Alma Reville sometime in the 1920s

And the innovation in Blackmail doesn’t stop with the sound. The accidental killing of the artist who tries to rape Anny is a gruesome scene flawlessly executed. As he takes Anny behind a curtain her arm pops out, flailing about with her screams. It’s a shocking, sickening effect, but then as her hand lands upon a knife the tables turn. We see a flurry of activity and Anny emerges in a daze. The following scenes of her staggering through the streets of London are amazing. You see why Hitchcock insisted on using the actress, despite her accent; she visually sells the character’s psychological anguish with no dialogue.

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The final chase through the British museum is no less spectacular, one of the first cases of Hitchcock using a famous setting and creating menace within it. More remarkable is the ending where Anny goes to the police to confess but is stopped when it’s revealed that the blackmailer is dead and the police consider him responsible. But despite neither Anny nor her detective boyfriend having to face charges, it’s clear from the looks on their faces that they’re both still haunted by the experience. For a “happy” ending, it’s startlingly grim.

For Hitchcock, Blackmail was a complete victory all around. And yes, he would continue to ender slanders from people like Powell about his body for the rest of his career. As an insecure kid who wasn’t happy with how he looked, I definitely identified with this aspect of Hitchcock. I always wanted to start a blog where I ranked the talent and ability of a filmmaker against their attractiveness, proving that the best directors were inevitably people that looked more like me: misfits. I never did it because the whole idea is inherently self-serving and wildly problematic (who decides who’s attractive and who isn’t, plus I didn’t want to rank women directors, etc etc), but look at Alfred Hitchcock & Martin Scorsese, and then look at pictures of Zack Snyder & Michael Bay, and you’ll get my drift.

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Just because it’s childish doesn’t mean I’m wrong.

What I do think is trues is that the best artists are inevitable outsiders, people who can look at the world through a different viewpoint. Feeling like an outsider or being made fun of, these are primal, shared experiences for almost every artist I know. On some level Hitchcock identified with these feelings, and I know that it informed his work and made him more perceptive, more critical, and more exceptional. I hope that’s true for me too.

Watch It: Blackmail is available to watch streaming for free on Youtube, and is also available on DVD.

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