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Barbican Film: Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Blackmail’

When considering the many great works of Alfred Hitchcock, the title Blackmail (1929) is, for many, not one that would immediately spring to mind. Far more likely would be those famous household titles, such as Rebecca (1940), Psycho (1960), or The Birds (1963), each having embedded themselves firmly into the fabric of cinematic and popular culture to such an extent that even those who may not have seen these films are well aware of their influence on cinema to this day.

Whether this be through the impact of Hitchcock on the world of horror or through countless parodies of his most iconic scenes over the years, people of all ages will be aware of Hitchcock’s most celebrated moments. However, Blackmail, a somewhat forgotten gem from Hitchcock’s formative years, seems to have eluded the same degree of fame and commercial attention as those above mentioned movies. A movie which, in my opinion is worthy of equal celebration.

Blackmail, Hitchcock’s dark and twisted tale of moral ambiguity follows Alice White (Anny Ondra), a woman who murders a rapist in self defence. Her boyfriend, Detective Frank Webber (John Longden) finds what he believes to be the only piece of evidence linking her to the crime.

Unfortunately for them, a wanted criminal known as Tracy (Donald Calthrop) is also able to place Alice at the scene of the murder. What ensues is a story of blackmail and ethical complexity culminating in a finale that I will not spoil now for anyone wishing to see the film.

This Halloween I had the great privilege of attending a screening of Blackmail at the Barbican Centre. Accompanied by an original score by Neil Brand, performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Timothy Brock, the results, I am glad to say were absolutely stunning. Brand’s score somehow manages to provide additional tones, textures and layers to the piece, enhancing each of the elements that made Blackmail such a success in the first place. Its moments of impending danger and mystery are rendered all the more chilling by the orchestration of Timothy Brock, with moments of subtle, understated tension offset majestically by moments of sharp, power and intensity reminiscent of Psycho’s iconic ‘shower scene’.

Such moments are typified in the scene of Alice’s rape, with the orchestra raising the overwhelming atmosphere of dread and foreboding. An already disturbing and unsettling scene, the score also brings with it an added depth of sinister tension, as even though the rape takes place behind a curtain and out of the audience’s sight, the sound somehow adds an extra dimension to the piece, causing the minimal on-screen action to feel far more graphic than it actually is. Equally effective is the violent nature of the orchestration framing the following scene in which Alice kills her attacker with a knife. Once again, through the power of the score, the audience is left with a sense of having witnessed more than they really have; such is the visceral nature of the sound in the scene.

The score also creates the effect of dictating the pace of the film, rather than the film dictating the score, a quality particularly evident in the chase sequences between Tracy and the police. As the orchestration builds in tempo, it also maintains that same, constant tone of potential threat around the corner, raising both pace and suspense in equal measure.

Despite Blackmail’s central themes of threat and exploitation, there are also notable moments of humour and romance, both equally underlined by the score’s seamless ability to shift its tone with deft precision. The early scenes of Alice and Frank having drinks together are beautifully accompanied by a light playfulness in the orchestration, therefore bringing a greater sense of danger and tonal contrast to the sequences of rape and murder which are soon to follow.

Above all else, Brand’s score has breathed new life into an already outstanding piece of work. He, along with the combined efforts of Brock and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, has taken each of the film’s signature themes and developed them to an unprecedented degree. At times humourous and sweet, at others threatening and frightening, Blackmail, with this score, is surely as powerful and effective as any of Hitchcock’s most acclaimed achievements. A forgotten masterpiece, Blackmail is as vital a part of the Hitchcock back-catalogue as any other, and if you are presented with the opportunity to experience it with this score, I strongly urge you to do so. 

Daniel Gumble