Hitchcock 9 Silent Film Festival Diary – Day One: “Blackmail”

BlackmailWeb_720x500Ah, yes. To enter the Castro Theatre on a night of silent film seems to be a step three quarters of a century back to when cinema was young and exciting and a train rushing at the screen could cause panic. But then, in retrospect, that is not necessarily as true as we’d like to think, as the dawn of widespread appreciation of cinema as an art began perhaps another quarter later.

At any rate, here in the Castro on this night of film, the atmosphere is electric. People slowly settle into their places, the musicians dabble with tuning and coordination against the pre-recorded Vertigo score aptly chosen for the occasion. Lovers of silent film frolic and talk, happy to see a friendly face perhaps only known from such events. People are directed and pointed towards potential remaining seats by volunteers, as the seating reaches its brink on both higher and lower levels. Periodic laughs ring out, some naturally from unknown conversation about unknown topics, some from the genuinely humorous Hitchcock quotes projected from above.

And it is in this manner that the atmosphere sets in, here in the Castro Theatre, the First Congregated Church of Cinema of San Francisco, as people prepare to view a work by one of the most influential innovators of cinema in the earliest of his films.

Blackmail

Blackmail141008_450x381

Accompanied by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra

Hitchcock’s last silent film (released as a talkie as well in some theatres) is already an expression of a fully mature Hitchcock long before his prime.

The film is, overall, a dark, psychological film about a woman who, defending herself against a rape, kills a man. Her boyfriend works for Scotland Yard, and is assigned to the case, but a petty criminal sees it happen and attempts to blackmail them both.

It is brimming with fully developed style, of which the influence from his German counterparts Murnau and Lang is clear. For example, one of the inspectors makes a call to the Hall of Records about the blackmailer’s criminal record, and we are sucked into the telephone receiver and immediately thrown into a turning book of faces with wanted posters appearing over it. Another example is the justification of the fact of it being a silent film by showing the boyfriend talking to Scotland Yard intently, but as seen by the POV of the girl’s father, and so the lack of inter-titles indicates that we cannot hear him or know what he’s saying because the father can’t – a highly advanced level of self-reference.

Guilt steadily builds through the film, as the girl is tortured by her own actions, and the film’s style lends itself to this – especially in the scene where the blackmailer is being chased through the British museum, juxtaposed against the girl staring off into the screen in a way that would make Lev Kuleshov proud. But what is most remarkable is the constant ironic humor played over the film, contrasting greatly against the film’s overall themes. It was a fantastic film, and to see it accompanied by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra was a treat.

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Categories: Features, Festivals, Silent Film Festival

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  1. Orphans of the Storm (1921) | timneath - June 19, 2013

    […] Hitchcock 9 Silent Film Festival Diary – Day One: “Blackmail” (filmbalaya.com) […]

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