Friday, September 20, 2013

Blackmail pt 2: Allusions to the Future

In my last post, I noted the large role that the murdered artist's painting of a jester played in Hitchcock's Blackmail (1929). The jester served as an omniscient role, accusing the respective characters and mocking the ignorance of others. If you missed the post-I'll include a link here.
Blackmail was not only exceptional because of the role this painting had. Rather, I found Blackmail more exceptional because it included elements that would appear famously in later, more well-known Hitchcock films. I've decided to include a few instances of that here.
It is, of course, no surprise that Hitchcock would use the same motifs and elements in films over and over again. In fact, it is very well known that certain basic themes run through many Hitchcock films: the cool blonde, the mother, the wronged man... you know what I'm talking about. I'll admit, I'm not very well versed in my early Hitch and it's possible that the elements I'm going to include below were present in earlier films and later in other later films. I'm offering a sampling of repeating elements that I've recognized.

1. The Cool and Dangerous Blonde: Alice and Marnie
The Hitchcock blonde is perhaps one of the most famous repeating elements of Hitchcock's films, or classic cinema in general. Their names are now world-renowned, usually because of Hitch's superb direction: first Madeline Carroll, then later Grace Kelly, Kim Novak, Doris Day, and Tippi Hendren. In Blackmail, the leading lady, Anny Ondra, is not merely an woman desired, she is a woman with a dark, murderous secret. More then twenty years later, Hitch would play with that same theme in Marnie (1964).
Marnie (Tippi Hendren) also committed an unintentional murder against a sexually aggressive man, not unlike Crewe in Blackmail. Marnie also becomes obsessed by all red-objects, which send her into an reverted, agressive state. In a lesser manner, the painting of the jester has the same effect of Alice. When she sees it again towards the end of the film, she is filled with anxiety and guilt. Granted, in Blackmail the degree of crime and anxiety is much lesser, but it's clearly there. In Blackmail and later in Marnie, Hitch suggested that more than simply passion existed below his cool, beautiful blonde's exteriors.

2. The Bird's Eye Stairs
Blackmail (1929)
In Blackmail I noticed a technical shot that would be repeated with varying nuances throughout Hitch's career. Hitch, as you probably know, originated many film techniques through his career and I believe this bird's eye shot was one of them. I think Hitch loved the flat look of people climbing or descending stairs, as it appeared from above. It's interesting to see how and where's its appeared over the years and with what effect.
Vertigo (1958)

Famously, Hitch would add a major nuance to this style shot in Vertigo (1958). The original angle can be traced to Hitch's early films like Blackmail while the dolly effect that became so famous in Vertigo was unique to that film.
Psycho (1960)
Later still, Hitch would use a similar angle in Psycho (1960) when Martin Balsam's character is killed. Remember: he's climbing up the steps, and all of a sudden you see the stairs from what appears to be the ceiling and... whoops- he's dead!
North by Northwest (1959)
The angle, minus the stairs is also used in North by Northwest 1959) when Hitch uses a similar bird's eye view to show the cars leaving the United Nations. Or rather, that wondrous matte of the UN.

3. The Monument Chase: Pharaohs vs. Presidents 
Blackmail (1929)
Despite my love of the "painting shots" in Blackmail, historically, the most famous shots are a chase scene that occur near the end of the film. Tracy, the blackmailer of Alice has become the chief suspect of Scotland Yard and is on the run. He rushes through the British Museum, sprinting past the unsympathetic eyes of the pharaohs and scaling a rope in front of a gigantic Egyptian head. Finally, just as he is about to tell the truth about his innocence, he crashes through the glass dome of the British Museum's reading room. It's a series of absolutely magnificent and dramatically stirring shots played in front of recognizable historical icons.
North by Northwest (1959)
Years later in Hollywood, Hitch Americanized this theme in North by Northwest when the chase scene at the end of that film has the heroes and villains scaling Mount Rushmore, an iconic American monument in the style of the mammoth Egyptian sculpture pictured in the British Museum. Once again, the heroes struggle in front of the unsympathetic eyes of historical and literal giants.

4. The Devilishly Shadowy Gentleman: A study in visual juxtaposition 
Blackmail (1929)
This one is a stretch, but I noticed this very striking scene in Hitchcock and then realized that it may have been a forerunner to a much more famous scene. While Crewe is "entertaining" Alice in his studio, there's a moment when shadows appear on his face. It gives him this rather devilish appearance for a brief moment before he returns to his usual "charming" self.
Psycho (1960)
When I started thinking of it, I was reminded of the closing scene of Psycho (1960), when the image of "Mother" is juxtaposed on Norman's face. I'm sure you're familiar with that absolutely terrifying shot. This comparison is slim to say the least, but it's worth noting.
Barney Oldfield's Race for Life (1913)
A Max Sennett comedy
While I was struck by Crewe's brief, almost demonic look, Hitch later would say he attempted to make the shadows look like a curled mustache that was a hallmark of the silent movie villain. He called it his farewell to the silent movie era by paying homage, even in his first talkie, to this common silent element.

5. The "Ghost" Painting
Blackmail (1929)
The Jester: The presence of Crewe 
If we return to the beginning of my "Art in Film" theory, you'll recall that many portraits and paintings that appear in films signify a ghostly presence of a deceased character. I'm concluding my musings on Blackmail with where I started: the jester painting. I noted how the audience is given the role of the accusatory jester. But, when I started examining the film again I realized how complicated the role of the jester painting is. To Alice, the painting not only personifies the guilt she feels after the murder and her own conscience's response to such actions, it also represents the presence of Crewe, the artist who created the work of art and who was murdered by his unwilling "lover" (deservedly, I may add).
Rebecca (1940)
The Presence of the dead Rebecca
Right now, I can't think of another instance where the painting represents the deceased creator but the use of the "ghost painting" signifying the dead is certainly not unique to Hitchcock. It's an element repeated again and again throughout film history, as you've seen in this blog. Of note, I'll mention the Rebecca portrait which serves as a reminder of Rebecca to the second Mrs. de Winter, even though the painting itself does not portray Rebecca. Like I said, this is not a Hitchcockian innovation. But it is worth remembering that Hitch did innovate countless techniques and styles in film, including some I've mentioned here.

If you feel I missed anything- comment and let me know!


  1. I really enjoyed this post since I'm a big lover of Hitchcock too. I also have a cinema blog and I've done some analysis myself. It's in Spanish for now but I'm planning on translating it into English soon. Nevertheless, I encourage you to check it out, I hope you like it too:

    I love finding movie connections and digging a little deeper into those masters of movies. Congratulations on your blog!

    1. I looked over some of your stuff (Google Chrome roughly translates the pages for me) and I have to say that it is great!! I really enjoyed your commentary on the architecture of Hitchcock and your discussion about Dial M. I also love all the other films you mentioned! I will certainly be following your work!

    2. Thank you! I will be following yours too!


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