Hitchcock Double Vision: Blackmail and North by Northwest

Alfred Hitchcock Blackmail
Det. Frank Webber (John Longren), Alice White (Anny Ondra), and Mr. White (Charles Paton)

On Tuesday, June 18, I got to see the silent and sound versions of Hitchcock’s “Blackmail” (1929) back to back at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences theater on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles.

The silent version, screened digitally, has been restored by the BFI in association with StudioCanal. The sound version was a 35mm print. Esteemed early film historian Kevin Brownlow wrote the program notes, preferring the silent version: “[W]hen I finally saw it, I thouBlackmail 1929ght it better directed and more convincing than the sound version.” And I have to agree. The sound version is fascinating and obviously innovative, but the silent is more compelling.

Because Anny Ondra, the actress who played heroine-murderess Alice White, had a heavy Czech accent, all her lines were dubbed. Brownlow describes the voice Joan Barry used for the character of Alice as having a “fraitfully refained Mayfair accent.” (It’s unlikely most Americans would have noticed the disjunction between the accent and its context–Alice is a tobacconist’s daughter.) In any case, Brownlow says the sound version was “rejected in America because audiences had difficulty with the English accents.”

blackmail and north by northwestStaging in “Blackmail”

There are a lot of truly fantastic compositions in “Blackmail.” The obsessive shots of hands from beginning to end, the shadows, the framing…to say nothing of that über-weird jester painting—eesh. But one thing that struck me the second time around was the arrangement of actors during the blackmail-over-breakfast scene, when Tracy attempts to squeeze Alice. It wasn’t just that it looked familiar, but that the dynamic among the characters was familiar, too. It’s an arrangement that’s repeated in a few times in “Blackmail” (see the still and lobby card above).

          Blackmail triangleNorth by Northwest triangle

(L): In 1929: Frank, Alice, and Tracy (Donald Calthrop) 

(R): In 1959: Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant), Eve Kendall (Eve Marie Saint), and Phillip Vandamm (James Mason)

“Blackmail” and “North by Northwest”

It’s that odd auction-room stand-off between Roger Thornhill and Phillip Vandamm in Hitchcock’s 1959 “North by Northwest.” Two men stand over a woman and negotiate her future. By 1959, Hitch had figured out how to make that scene even creepier than it is in “Blackmail.” Trailing Eve Kendall to an auction house, Thornhill finds her, Vandamm, and the deliciously malevolent Leonard (Martin Landau) in the crowd. As the camera tracks back we see, from behind, the standing Vandamm stroking the back of Eve’s head and neck, like Blofeld with his evil fluffy white cat.

Thornhill approaches the trio—”The three of you together; now that’s a picture only Charles Addams could draw”—and a moment after he starts talking, the camera cuts to a quick shot of Eve, so we see her reaction to Thornhill’s presence. Thornhill and Vandamm go on sparing with each other, but, though Eve doesn’t speak again, the camera cuts back to her throughout the encounter, so that we are made uncomfortably aware of how Thornhill’s “peevish lover” act, as Vandamm so eloquently puts it, is cutting her to the quick. Of course, the other thing that happens during this chat is that Vandamm begins to suspect Eve of some emotional (and sexual) treachery. Unbeknownst to him, Thornhill is signing her death warrant. It is no accident Vandamm is acquiring the MacGuffin (a pre-Colombian statue equipped with top-secret microfilm) at an auction. Eve might as well be the lovely settee or that magnificent pair of Louis XVI chairs at the front of the room.

Fair warning and last call. Sold out to ….

Alfred Hitchcock MacGuffin

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