Alice White (Anny Ondra) is at a restaurant when she flirts with an artist (Cyril Richard). She winds up back at his place where he asks her to pose naked for him. When she disagrees is sexually assaulted and in fending off her attacker, she winds up killing him with a knife in self-defense. Thankfully for Alice, her boyfriend happens to be Detective Frank Webber (John Longden), and he's savvy enough in these things that he's able to cover up the killing in the hope that it will keep Alice out of trouble. What neither of them realize, at first, is that Alice was spotted by Tracy (Donald Calthrop), a snake of a man who uses his knowledge of the events to blackmail Alice.
Alfred Hitchcock's first ‘talkie' is an innovative and interesting picture. Released in 1929, the film was originally intended to be released as silent picture but as sound technology was made available during the production, Hitchcock opted to use live sound for certain parts of the film. Leading lady Anny Ondra had a thick European accent, however, so to compensate for this Joan Barry stood off camera and read Ondra's lines into a microphone while Ondra mouthed the words (dubbing technology had not yet really been invented, so this was an interesting way for Hitchcock to overcome this issue).
Visually, the film is a bit limited due to the mobility of the camera being used but by compensating for that with mirrors and even miniatures at times, Hitchcock and his crew are able to create a pretty interesting and well-executed chase scene that caps off the picture in grand style. There's a lot of innovation on display in this film and it provides a fascinating glimpse of a master filmmaker experimenting with technology that was in its infancy but which would soon revolutionize the film industry. The film is paced well, and quite efficient in its story telling, giving us the right mix of interesting character development and forward momentum.
As to the story itself? Based on a play by Charles Bennett, it is a tale well told. Hitchcock had only made one suspense film before this one, but even here, early in his evolution in the genre, he shows a genuine knack for building tension and keeping the audience invested in the story. The performances are generally pretty decent too, even if Ondra's ‘dubbing' is very noticeable in spots.
Kino actually includes three versions of the film. The eighty-five-minute ‘talkie' version described above is presented in two aspect ratios: 1.20.1 and 1.33.1. More on that below. Additionally, we also get the seventy-five-minute long silent version of the film included here, complete with a score from the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.
The 1.33.1 ‘talkie' and the silent versions of Blackmail are included on one 50GB disc. The 1.33.1 ‘talkie' version is noticeably stretched horizontally and is a bit distorted looking for that reason. It's curious why it's included here but in terms of its presentation it looks decent enough. The 1.20 version of the ‘talkie' is presented on a 25GB disc by itself and the aspect ratio looks much better but it might be a tiny bit stretched vertically? It's hard to say without another version to compare it to. Regardless, there's some print damage noticeable on both of the ‘talkie' versions but nothing that should pull you out of the picture at all. Contrast looks decent and there's pretty solid detail evident throughout. As to the silent version, it looks noticeably better than the ‘talkie' versions. Black levels are stronger and there's less damage, more detail. All three presentations are in AVC encoded 1080p high definition.
Both ‘talkie' versions of the film get English language DTS-HD 2.0 Mono tracks, which come with optional English subtitles, and they sound fine. While this is limited in range by the age of the elements, dialogue stays clean and the sound effects used in the film are punch enough without sounding too loud in the mix. The score has pretty good range and while a bit of minor hiss can be heard in a few spots, otherwise, no issues. The silent version has a DTS-HD 2.0 track that reproduces the score from the score by The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra quite nicely.
Provided over the ‘talkie' versions of the movie is an audio commentary by Film Historian Tim Lucas. As is typical of Lucas' audio commentaries, it's meticulously researched. He discusses the film's origins, how it was first made by Hitchcock as a silent picture and then a ‘talkie,' the differences between the two versions, the director's innovative style and use of sound, the performances and plenty more.
A ten-minute audio recording entitled Hitchcock/Truffaut: Icon Interviews Icon is also includes on the disc wherein the two filmmakers talk shop for a few minutes. Like the other selections of these sessions that have made the rounds, it's interesting stuff. Rounding out the extras on the disc are a six-minute introduction by Noël Simsolo, a minute's worth of footage showing off Anny Ondra's screen test, a minute-long trailer, menus and chapter selection.
Blackmail holds up quite well, one of Hitchcock's best films from this period and a historically significant one at that. There are some quirks with the presentation of the talkie version but it's still the best available release of the film, while the silent version looks great. Lucas' commentary and the other extras add value as well. Recommended.