Film: Blackmail, The 39 Steps
Format: DVD from Rasmussen College Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.
All directors start somewhere. If we as the movie viewing public get lucky, the director matures and develops as his or her career progresses. Early works become more fully developed and realized as the director as the director gains maturity. Sometimes this doesn’t pan out while at other times, the director ends up living up to or exceeding such early promise.
Blackmail is Alfred Hitchcock’s first every talkie film, and in fact the first talkie produced in the U.K. It’s evident that this film started as a silent one, since the first 15 minutes or so take place exactly as a silent movie. In those minutes, Hitchcock establishes Detective Frank Webber (John Longden) as a no-nonsense member of Scotland Yard, and does this without using a single title card. Pretty impressive, really.
The story really doesn’t get cracking until we are introduced to Alice White (Anny Ondra), a young girl who lives with her parents and works at their shop. She goes on a date with our cop friend, Frank, but Alice is fickle. She’s got plans with another man at the same tea room where she is with Frank. She acts capriciously, and eventually Frank gets fed up, allowing her to wander off with the other man (Cyril Ritchard).
This other man is an artist, and in one of the oldest lines ever used, he takes her up to his studio to show her his etchings. Well, paintings, really. The pair flirt a bit, and she paints a quick little picture, which he finishes. She signs it, and then notices one of the outfits he has for his models to wear. On his insistence, she tries it on, and he tries to get too friendly. She decides to go, and while changing out of the costume, he takes her street clothes and plays keep away with them. One thing leads to another as he is overcome with lust, and to defend herself, she stabs him with a palette knife, killing him.
In her daze, she remembers to cross out her signature on the painting, but forgets her gloves. She wanders the streets of London until the morning, and goes home, constantly haunted by what has just happened. A neon sign depicting a cocktail shaker turns into a hand holding a knife, stabbing endlessly, for instance.
Frank is assigned the case, and he discovers one of Alice’s gloves at the scene, and realizes that the dead man is the one he saw Alice leave the tea room with. He acts to protect her, but just as he assures her that he will help, a man named Tracy enters Alice’s parents’ shop with the other glove. He knows at least part of the story, and he’s going to cash in. Alice and Frank will have to pay to keep him silent, and thus we have a film called Blackmail.
If you are used to the typical convoluted and complicated Hitchcock plot, you may well be disappointed with Blackmail because the story is incredibly simple and straightforward. There’s one major problem, one major foil, and everything gets resolved. Hitchcock was still learning at this point, and hadn’t really developed the skills that would lead him through his later, much greater films. In our current world of films that contain plots within plots within plots, Blackmail comes across as a sort of children’s book, albeit a children’s book with attempted rape, murder, and extortion.
What’s important here is that in his first movie with sound, Hitchcock is doing more than simply using sound for dialogue. At breakfast, the morning after the murder, poor Alice is distraught over the events of the evening, naturally. As she sits at breakfast, a customer talks to her parents about the murder, which is big news in the neighborhood. Subtly, the sound of the woman’s babbling starts to fade into an unintelligible murmur. Except for the word “knife,” which rings out clearly every time she says it. It’s a great trick, giving the audience a clear view into the inner workings of Alice’s mind at that moment.
Blackmail isn’t important because of the story. It’s important because it shows Hitchcock in his formative years, when he’s starting to figure out exactly what would turn him into the Alfred Hitchcock of legend. The fact that the story is simplistic isn’t important. The fact that it shows the beginnings of the straight line that would lead to Rear Window, Vertigo, and North by Northwest is.
Hitchcock showed signs of this maturity with The 39 Steps a few years later. Here, the plot is much more complex, although still simpler than many of his later plots. I’m a lot more attuned to this film than Blackmail because this is like the beginner version of North by Northwest, which happens to be my favorite movie, Hitchcock or otherwise.
The 39 Steps covers territory that Hitchcock came to love—the story of a man wrongly accused of a crime he didn’t commit. A Canadian citizen named Henney (Robert Donat, whose name is a mere vowel away from being Robert Donut) is in London on business. He goes to a Vaudeville-style show where he encounters Mr. Memory (Wylie Watson), a man who every day “learns 50 new facts, and remembers them.” Essentially, he takes questions from the audience and answers them, a fairly lame act on its face. Suddenly, a shot rings out, and the place erupts in pandemonium. A woman named Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim) latches onto Henney and asks him to take her to his room.
Once there, she claims that she caused the disturbance because there were men at the show trying to kill her. These men are agents of an enemy power planning on taking vital secrets of a new aircraft engine out of the country and giving them to this unnamed power—most likely Germany or the Soviet Union, given the time of the film. Henney scoffs, but he stops scoffing a few hours later when the woman wanders back into his room with a knife sticking out of her back and a map of Scotland with an important location circled clutched in her dead fist.
Now, with all of the evidence against him, Henney flees the scene and takes a train to Scotland in an effort to find out who is behind her murder and to clear his own name. Pursued on the train, he slips into a car and kisses the woman (Madeleine Carroll) there passionately, and she immediately turns him in. He makes a break for it, and leaves the train, traveling across the moor and eventually finding the man behind the plot (Godfrey Tearle).
More chases ensue, and in another case of mistaken identity, Henney is forced to give a rousing speech at a political gathering. He’s captured again after being identified by Pamela, the woman from the train. The two are led away—him for questioning and her for identification purposes, but when the car is stopped by a herd of sheep and the pair are cuffed together for safe keeping, Henney escapes, dragging the unwilling Pamela with him. Cuffed together, the two make the best of it until she discovers that the police who took them into custody really are enemy agents and that Henney has been telling the truth the whole time.
While much more involved than Blackmail, The 39 Steps is still very simple in terms of a Hitchcock film. Rather than constantly rising action, there is a main plot and a series of obstacles put in the way of the plot that are overcome each in turn. Rarely, if ever, are there three threads of the story at any time. In looking to clear his name, Henney simply overcomes the hurdles placed in his way. Still, the story is more involved here, and it’s a fun one. Henney is completely likeable as a character, and while the film is short, a sort of chemistry develops between him and Pamela.
The Hollywood ending would have the unlikely pair falling deeply in love by the end of the film. There’s no indication of that here, although the two are certainly fond of each other by the end, indicated by a shot of them grasping each other’s hands in the conclusion, but there’s no heated embrace or promise of marriage.
There’s also evidence of Hitchcock’s enormous wit in this film. Running from the police, Henney finds a place to hide in the house of a Scots farmer, who immediately believes that he is trying to make time with his wife. The wife (Peggy Ashcroft) helps him escape despite her suspicious and prying husband. There’s a real wistfulness evident when Henney kisses her in thanks. It’s a cute scene that turns into a poignant one at its conclusion.
From here, Hitchcock got better with this basic story, but he started strong.
Why to watch Blackmail: The early stages of Hitchcock before he became legend.
Why not to watch: A plot far more simple than you may be used to.
Why to watch The 39 Steps: A great early example of Hitchcock’s favorite plot.
Why not to watch: Hitchcock did it more involved and better later in his career.