Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Jester Painting in Hitchcock's "Blackmail" (1929)

I'm very happy to say that I have finally returned to Hitchcock again, after waiting almost two months to post about a Hitch masterpiece after my "Master of Images" month of Hitchcock. It wasn't easy, and I have to admit that I did slip into a few innocent re-watchings, but I feel I can now guilelessly have another Hitchcock post. So, here we go.
When I was looking back on the past Hitchcock films that I've written about, I noticed that I had a dearth in posts about Hitchcock's early British career. I'm ashamed to admit it's only been in the last couple months, when I started really getting seriously "academic about Hitchcock- reading the Truffaut interviews and other opinions and such- that I began making an effort to watch his early silent and talking pictures. And, of course, I was not disappointed. How could you be? Even in his early films, even in silent films like The Lodger, those classic Hitchcock touches are there (but more on that in the next post). Unfortunately, until recently, I wasn't able to find a subject in one of these early Hitch films to post about. Until now.
That's because I watched Hitchcock's (and Britain's) first successful talkie, Blackmail (1929). When I researched the production history, I discovered that the film's production has (wonderfully) a ring of Singin in the Rain to it. Hitch originally planned on shooting the film silently and cast the Czech actress Anny Ondra as his leading lady. Beautiful and sophisticated, the cool blonde Ondra seems like a perfect silent leading lady for Hitch. But her thick Slavic accent made her position as the talking star a little less desirable. When Hitch decided to shoot the film with sound, he needed a replacement for Anny's voice. Without dubbing technology, the problem was resolved by having another actress, Joan Barry, speak the words off camera while Anny mouthed the words on screen. It's really quite ingenious, if not a little crude. But back to the film.
Hitch and Ondra on the set for Blackmail (1929)
When you watch Blackmail, you realize that Hitchcock's career had matured noticeably, so that even by '29 many classic Hitchcock elements are apparent. I'm going to concentrate on that aspect in the next post, but just to mention a few: Blackmail features a cool blonde with a dark secret, sexual drama, a wronged man, and several dramatic shots that Hitch would become famous for. Another aspect that I wanted to note was Hitch's inclusion of a painting as an important plot device. While less famous than other Hitchcock paintings, say Vertigo or Rebecca, the painting in Blackmail features much more screen time, and much more importance.
Crewe lets the naive Alice into his studio
Blackmail tells the story of a lovely blonde, Alice (Ondra), who unwittingly leads on a bed-minded artist, Crewe (Cyril Ritchard). Crewe leads the naive Alice to his studio, amuses her for a while, and then, when the pretty dumb Alice realizes whats going on and what Crewe wants, she tries to leave. However, Crewe had already made his plans and tries to rape her. In self-defense, she murders him and then the film deals with how her and her police-boyfriend Frank (John Longden) deal with the aftermath. It's extremely well done and contains several memorable images and moments that I'll leave you to watch for yourself.
Hitch's cameo appears early on in the film as a passenger on the train

Crewe, as I stated, is an artist (that low-down, immoral group!) and consequently and very unsurprisingly, his "studio" contains some art. For one, there is a blank canvas which Alice paints a smiley face on, which Crewe (abandoning all efforts of subtlety) paints a naked woman's body on. But more importantly, there is this painting of a jester laughing which Alice notices initially as she nervously enters the studio. This is where you, the reader, should get all excited because this means analysis is coming.
Alice initially laughs at the painting that will become an important
thematic element and motif throughout the film. 

Throughout the film, this one painting appears and reappear throughout with differing meanings. As far as film history paintings go, this is probably the most important early example I've come across so far. What I'm going to do is to analyze scene by scene what the meaning of this painting is.

1. Alice initially views the Painting: The Naive vs. the Cosmopolitan
The Blackmail jester painting (detail)
As I said, Alice initially sees the painting and laughs at the humorous picture of a funny little man laughing and pointing. Even in this early moment, Hitchcock puts the viewer in the place of the painting. Throughout the film, the audience is omniscient, and the way the painting is used and reused, it is suggested that the painting also knows whats going on.
Crewe's actions, song, and painting all lead viewers to realize her true,
less than honorable intentions. 
In this case, we (the painting and the viewer) know what Crewe's intentions are. Alice is blithely unaware that by entering the man's room late at night she is expected by Crewe to... return the hospitality, if you will. She is the innocent virgin, while we, the audience, with greater knowledge of worldly matters, can foresee what is to come. We are put in the Jester's place. We're laughing at Alice because she's so unaware. She thinks this is all an exciting adventure and game... but the joke's on her. Or so we think. Through the painting, Hitch makes fun of his leading lady's ignorance and lets the audience understand that a pretty serious "joke" is about to be played on Alice.

2. Alice after the murder: The Personification of Guilt
The famous, post-murder scene
Alice (Ondra) holding the knife, emerges from the bed

Eventually, after an unwanted passionate kiss, Alice finally realizes whats going on and decides to leave. Crewe has other plans however. He throws her dress and when she tries to retrieve it and leave, he forces her into his bed. As an aside, a modern moral of Blackmail is that date-rape is never a good idea. Because, Crewe, instead of having a willing lover, gets knifed by the poor, virginal Alice.
Alice's dress initially obscures the painting
She emerges from the bed and stares, obviously shocked at the camera. I'm sorry, but the main thing that strikes me through Blackmail is that Alice has to be the biggest idiot ever: forget the Hitchcock blonde, Alice fulfills another blonde stereotype. The magnitude of her actions doesn't really strike her right away, but when it does, she realizes (by viewing the cop outside) that she has to go. So, she begins gathering her things. She goes to her dress, which coincidentally is hanging over the jester painting.
In anger at herself, at the painting's silent, mocking accusation,
Alice lashes out at it. 
First, to show that she's angry, she punches the canvas- real mature Alice. But the next scene is this simply perfect Hitchcock moment. She lifts her dress off the obscured painting, and with the same effect of a curtain opening, the painting once again is clear to the viewer. And what is the result? Obviously, the jester is still laughing and pointing at Alice. But this time, the jester's role is different. He points to her, laughing at her crime, laughing at her future fate when her crime is discovered. Most importantly, he's laughing because he knew this was going to happen all along.
In one of the best shots of the film, Alice stares at the camera,
as the jester laughs on. 

3. Frank: The unwitting accomplice

Frank studies the painting, just as Alice did, when he
first enters the studio. 
Let's fast-forward the film to the part where the police finally find out about Crewe's murder and search his studio for clues. Frank, Alice's on/off boyfriend is (of course) put on the case. He also notices and examine's the (now-damaged) painting of the jester. This time, the omniscient jester is laughing at Frank because he/we know that the culprit of this crime is none other than the object of Frank's love. "If only you knew," laughs the joker, "you poor idiot, getting mixed up with a stupid, idiot girl." Of course, the dialogue is all implied but trust me, if you've seen the movie, you'll know what I'm talking about.
Frank realizes the truth about Alice's involvement with the murder,
as subtly, the jester laughs in the background. 

4. The Inspector: the stereotypical thick-headed detective

The painting is brought into the inspector's office
Fast-forward again. Now, Frank and Alice are in it together and they're being blackmailed. Meanwhile, back in Scotland Yard, the police have received a tip of a possible culprit. The cogs of the investigative machine begin moving, and finally the chief-inspector decides that they have their man. As he starts the manhunt, the painting of the jester, which was brought in earlier, sits behind him, pointing and laughing at the irony of the whole situation. Not only does the police force have it wrong, the very man on the case is implicated it in.
In almost an identical shot to Alice's post-murder scene,
the smug inspector is secretly laughed at by the omniscient painting
Throughout all these situations, Hitchcock is using the jester to tell the audience how, if they were in a particularity cynical mood, they should be reacting to the events transpiring. Without the murder, its a simple comedy of errors, with all the characters ignorant about the truth of the matter, leaving only the audience (and the jester) to shake our heads at the incompetence.

5. Guilt, re-visited, for Good

The film concludes with Alice's failed attempt to turn herself in. As she and Frank decide that they will just live with the guilt themselves, what comes by but a police officer carrying the painting. Alice shirks back, reminded of the night of the murder, reminded of her actions, and reminded that she alone is the true culprit, now responsible for two deaths, not just one. The jester still laughs and accuses, as if to say, "You think you got away with it, but I know!" And of course, it's implied that the weak character of Alice, which has already been established, probably not be able to live with the guilt of her actions. Legally, she isn't punished, but all signs (and paintings) point to the fact that she will be crushed under the pressure of her guilt.
Alice tries to live with her crime. 
It's a deeply unsatisfying ending, an innocent man is framed and a murderer escapes all under our very noses, but the ending is so satisfying. The repeated motif of guilt, ignorance and the painting is just such a perfect Hitchcock ending, its hard to dislike.
A final shot of the painting, it's brought away, reminding the audience
and Alice of the truth. 
The next question is obviously where is this painting now? The response is: I simply don't know. I searched the web and some film journals for it, but I just could not find out who painted the jester, what happened to it and who has it now. It reminds me a little (but not much) of William Merritt Chase's famous painting Keying Up- The Court Jester from that late 19th century because of pretty basic content, but I am sure that Chase didn't paint the Blackmail painting. I would hope that it would not have been destroyed or lost as it is an essential prop of an essential early Hitchcock, but that would be assuming that Hollywood made sense, which would be a demonstration of naivete as great as Alice's.
Keying Up- the Court Jester
William Merritt Chase

More on Blackmail in my next post. 


  1. Hey Dan! I just wanted to post this morning to thank you again for your wonderful blog. I especially loved this blog entry (although I love all your blog entries!) as so many of the old films are practically forgotten, and you did a great job of reminding us about, and analyzing, this sweet chestnut. The jester really threw down the sinister tone to "Blackmail". I think of course clowns as a whole as so very creepy, but that jester was downright malignant!
    As you have been more than kind to me in the past with your patient responses towards my humble suggestions (the terrific posts you did on both the opening credits of "Shadow of the Vampire" and the muy interesante blogpost on the art in "Pillow Talk", as well as reflecting positively on my thought about "Meet Joe Black" and your generous response to my fangirling on your "The Letter" post) I'd like to timidly draw your attention to a relatively recent (2013) film starring a truly fantastic actor, the magnificent Geoffrey Rush, entitled "The Best Offer". Have you seen it? I think you'd like it... since on multiple levels, Art with a capital "A" both serves and drives this intriguing and thought provoking film. It might possibly fuel more than one blogpost as it is literally chock-a-block with art, from magnificent collections of statuary, walls full of trompe l'oeil, paintings (omg the paintings!), right down to the architecture of the villa itself. It's a crazy, gorgeous film, and even if you don't ultimately want to blog about it, I hope you'll watch it, just fer scuz.
    BTW, is there perhaps an email address you might could share with your trusty fans so we could send you bits of this and that which might not exactly go with your posts per se? Such as this meandering little missive?
    All righty then.
    Thanks so much dear Dan for all this hard work for all our benefit, and I hope you're having a not-too-hard day at school
    and looking forward to Halloween!!

    1. Never heard of the "Best Offer" but it looks amazing- I just watched the trailer. I appreciate, as always, your commentary and I will definitely try to both see the film and blog about it. As you may or may not have noticed, I have been rather lax about posting. I am rather busy at school, but I will definitely be working for a one post a month type deal. I can't give up on this blog especially since I know there are people like you who appreciate it. My email is available in the about section of the page if you ever want to get in contact with me.

  2. First Talk of Hitchcock:


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