Sunday, 20 October 2019

FILM REVIEW: Blackmail (1929) - with live organ accompaniment: The RNCM, Manchester.


Sitting in a busy but not crowded Lower Hall 1 of the RNCM, we did not have to wait too long before we were introduced to our organist, Darius Battiwalla, who gave us a brief but informative introduction to the film; and reassured us that the organ was rather quite “substantial” hiding behind the black and gold art-deco inspired screen surround.

Coincidentally, the last silent film I went to see at a cinema screening was Hitchcock’s previous film, The Lodger: A Story Of The London Fog (1927), at The Cornerhouse (those were the days), which was live streaming the live accompaniment up from London. All I can say is, this was better!

As much as I enjoy silent films, I have always found it somewhat difficult to settle into them with a pre-recorded soundtrack. I totally understand why it is done but I always feel it doesn’t make the film wholly silent. However Battiwalla’s improvised organ accompaniment added a whole new level to viewing silent films. To feel the resonance of the organ through the floor and chairs, and to hear it actually in the same room as you was something else. It was the closest one could come to going to a cinema in the late 1920s. It was a true silent film screening.

This screening was not only a celebration of Alfred Hitchcock’s last silent/ first talkie film, but it also humbly showcased and celebrated a dying(?)/ certainly rare skill and feature that disappeared with the advent of synchronised sound.

Blackmail tells the story of Alice White (Anny Ondra) who kills a man in self-defence and is blackmailed for it. Meanwhile at New Scotland Yard, Alice’s boyfriend, Frank (John Longden) and the other detectives try and figure out who committed the murder. All against the backdrop of 1920’s London.

The film itself is certainly a step up from The Lodger in terms of scale and pace. Many tropes which would become the norm in his later films start out in Blackmail, the alluring leading blonde, the landmark, the unheard conversation and so on. Darius Battiwalla said in his introduction that the film was “...a London film.” and he was right. Amongst the climatic finale in the British Museum, we also see Trafalgar Square from Whitehall, and the flashing lights of Piccadilly Circus as well as many other places all shot beautifully and seen in a way that we are not familiar with anymore. The BFI restoration certainly enhanced these shots and the overall picture was sublime.

You can break Hitchcock up into many periods and for me, his silent period shares the podium with his films from the late 1950s. I still maintain the opinion that he couldn’t end a film, the ending of Blackmail is no different from Rope or even Psycho; abrupt, somewhat forced, and almost like the typewriter ran out of ink when the screenplay was being written and that was it. This screening brought back a thought which I had originally when I saw The Lodger and had forgotten about, and it was how strange, almost alien, to see a Hitchcock film in London (or even England). I feel we are that familiar with his films being in an American setting that we almost forget his origins; of his later, critically successful films, his 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much came close to capturing that with the latter half of the film. However, I digress.

Darius Battiwalla’s skills as an organist were unquestionable. He really brought the film alive, and captured the tone and pace perfectly. I could have quite happily sat behind the screen and watched him play. The Royal Northern College of Music put these screenings on annually or so, with Battiwalla stating that while they have used piano accompaniment in previous years, this year was a return to the organ, and what a good choice that was.

Another positive note which must be mentioned was the audience, there was a good age range in attendance from teens to the elderly, certainly an improvement from when I was the only person under 20 at the screening of The Lodger. Whether they were there for their love of Hitchcock or silent cinema, or even both, it makes me confidant that these films will be loved by the populous for decades to come! I would wholeheartedly recommend to anyone who is into silent films, or certain directors of the period to try and make it to a screening like this one. I would also recommend Blackmail to everyone, a thoroughly enjoyable film with all the suspense, drama and action of your typical Hitchcock production.

Reviewer - Daryl Griffin
on - 17/10/19

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