Saturday 14 July 2012
Last weekend I was lucky enough to attend a one-off screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1929 silent film Blackmail in the grand setting of the grounds of the British Museum, where part of the story is set. The film is one of the “Hitchcock 9″ – nine surviving silent films made by Hitchcock that have deteriorated over time. The BFI has undertaken a massive project to restore the films to their original glory and show them this year as part of the Cultural Olympiad.
The screening was accompanied by a live new score by composer Neil Brand and performed by the Thames Sinfonia. If you think old black-and-white films are boring this is the one that will prove you wrong. It feels fresh. The themes of power, class and deceit are all equally pertinent today as when the film was first made and each scene was amazingly tight. No action was redundant, every gesture moves the plot on and it was really fast-paced. The story follows a young woman who gives her steady boyfriend the slip to spend the evening with an enigmatic artist, who coaxes her into his flat where he tries to rape her. From behind the bedcurtain we see her hand reach out for a knife and in typical Hitchcockian style she stabs him, out of our view, behind the curtain. The theme of blackmail then ensues.
Perhaps the most striking element of the film was the acting itself, which – because of the lack of sound – was focused on physical expression, particularly minute facial twitches, sometimes unpleasant to observe.
We were told that the lead actress, Anny Ondra was Czech, and Hitchcock had imagined her character with a cockney accent, so in the “talkie” version of Blackmail (yes, Hitchcock filmed it twice) another actress, Joan Barry spoke her lines, while Ondra had to lip-synch, creating a less spontaneous performance than in the silent version. But in this version her execution is flawless, her expressiveness mesmerising. After the murder, her focus turns inward as she enters what Hitchcock called a fugue state. Almost catatonic, her character wanders around London all night, until dawn, unfocused and lost, any sudden movement causes her to relive the murder in her mind.
It would be interesting to see who would be cast in Ondra’s place now if the film were re-made. I cannot imagine a young Hollywood starlet who could recreate her expressive range of emotions. With the contemporary focus in Hollywood on beauty and vocal expression, it seems that actual acting – movement, gesture, facial expressions (don’t get me started on actors who use Botox…) has become secondary.
How often have you watched a film where the lead female actor pouts, or cries, but mostly her face remains impassive? Despite its 80-odd years of age, modern filmmakers still look back at Hitchcock’s ouvre as a lesson in how to make a great film. Now that his silent works are being restored, maybe actors will look back at them, too, and think about where modern films are losing the plot.