As the BFI's The Genius of Hitchcock season gets underway, Ivan Radford looks at the role of sound in the British director's early silent films.
The BFI’s The Genius of Hitchcock season is now underway, showcasing the British filmmaker's entire catalogue of work. It starts with the restoration of The Hitchcock Nine, his silent films from the 1920s, each presented with a newly commissioned soundtrack.
First up is the 1929 crime thriller (what else?) Blackmail, one of Hitch's best. Famed for its chase over the dome of the British Museum, the BFI screened the film at the museum last week with live orchestral accompaniment from Neil Brand’s score – a resounding success.
But of course, that’s just one version of this landmark production. The Master knew the tricks of the silent trade well by this point – Blackmail was his tenth film – but it is perhaps most notable for marking his first foray into the world of sound. Indeed, it’s regarded as Britain’s first talkie feature, a title that the studio (British International Pictures) planned to earn by shooting the final reel in sound. But cheeky young Alf had other ideas, re-shooting several key scenes to create a complete 90-minute sound print.
Lots of attention has been given to Blackmail – and with good reason – so it’s great to see such a sumptuous restoration of the silent print by the BFI. While there are clear differences between each cut, it’s surprising just how similar they are. Together, the two Blackmails show that Hitchcock not only understood the power of sound but also knew when not to use it.
No sooner have Blackmail's opening credits finished than we’re in the middle of a high-speed pursuit. The police are dashing across London to arrest a man. Arriving at his seedy bedsit, they find their suspect lying down reading the newspaper. The man’s hand slowly moves towards the pistol on his bedside cabinet. The policemen watch closely. His hand edges closer. They keep staring. Then, as he goes for the gun, they pounce.
A quick struggle later and the guy’s been fingerprinted, photographed and locked up in a cell; a fluent, near-perfect montage of visual storytelling. A whole 10 minutes whiz by before you realise there’s been no dialogue whatsoever – in either version of the film.
Only when Detective Frank Webber (John Longden) and his buddies are strolling down the corridor after the arrest do we hear a snippet of speech. What do they say? Who knows. The first bit of talking in a British talkie and Hitch blows it on inaudible workplace banter. The rascal.
Later, when the body of a dead artist – murdered by Frank’s girlfriend, Alice (Anny Ondra) – is discovered, we hear another spoken exchange, this time over the phone. Names and places are repeated and misheard several times as wires become increasingly crossed; an unexpected comic interlude completely missing from the silent version.
Is Hitchcock simply mocking this new technology? Does he look down on dialogue? The way he savours talking to Anny Ondra in front of the camera during a sound test suggests otherwise.
Rather, Hitch seems to be playfully reminding us that it’s better to show than to tell; an attitude that led to some of the director’s most striking sequences, such as the crop-dusting scene from North by Northwest, not just being dialogue free, but not using any form of musical accompaniment.
It’s this trademark omission of sound that we get a taste of in Blackmail. At the beginning of the film, Frank and Alice meet for dinner. On their way out, the guard on the door shares a whispered joke with our heroine. She giggles. We, like Frank, hear nothing. Jump to the gruesome murder scene, in which the artist rapes Alice, and Hitch does the same thing in reverse.
In the silent version, Neil Brand’s score conveys the horrific actions as they occur off-screen, witnessed only as violent shadows.
In the sound version, there is no music: only Alice screaming. Halfway through the scene, Hitch cuts to a policeman passing by the window. Inside the room, we can hear Alice’s cries for help – outside in the street, he can’t.
Just as the camera forces us to watch events from a set perspective, the microphone’s selective hearing positions the characters and the audience. It’s a trick that Hitchcock nails in Rear Window. James Stewart’s photographer, Jeff, is stuck in his apartment, confined to watching the neighbours around him. Why do we share his frustration? Not just because of the camera’s physical position inside the flat, but because we only hear what he does; the soundtrack is completely restricted to Jeff’s point of view.
At other times, Hitch uses sound to shut out the audience altogether. In Blackmail, when Frank calls Scotland Yard to report a vital clue, he closes the door of the phone booth mid-conversation, stopping us from hearing an important plot twist. In the silent print, Hitch contrives the same shortage of information by not using any title cards. Where does he get off being so withholding?
"If it's a good movie," Hitch famously said years later, "the sound could go off and the audience would still have a perfectly clear idea of what’s going on."
The fact that he already seemed to know this at the age of 29 and, moreover, had started to abuse it to generate tension is, frankly, incredible.
But as well as the lack of sound, Blackmail marked the director’s first, and arguably most famous, audio flourish: 'the knife scene'. The morning after the murder, Alice’s family discuss the day’s bloody news. A nosy neighbour soon enters the room and starts gossiping with them.
In the silent scene, we read the woman’s speech on screen (while Neil Brand cheekily recreates her chatter with a fast-paced piano). The tension comes from close-ups of Ondra’s superbly expressive face. In the sound version, though, it’s all done through dialogue.
"Knives is not right," says the woman. "I could never use a knife. Mind you, a knife is a difficult thing to handle…"
She goes on gabbing like that for several minutes. But with every sentence, the word “knife” gets louder. Soon, the rest of her speech is just a blur, while “knife” cuts sharply through the soundtrack. No one else in the room notices. Guilt-ridden Alice, though, is in her own aural nightmare. And we’re sharing it with her.
Just as Alice reaches out to slice some bread, the noun suddenly screams out: "KNIFE!"
Even when you know it’s coming, it still makes you jump.
Distorting the dialogue is an inspired way for Hitchcock to adopt Alice’s perspective, manipulating the audience using only the sound he has in front of him.
His eyes are equally subjective: stumbling into Piccadilly Circus replaying the murder in her head, a shocked Alice spies a neon sign for cocktails. Quick as a flash, the sign’s shaking hand morphs into a stabbing knife – something, of course, that only we and Alice can see.
Couple that with witty repeat-sightings of one of the murder victim’s paintings (a laughing court jester) and Blackmail is a tour de force in visual POV; you can see the influence of Alfred’s time in Germany in his wild, expressionist camerawork. But the director is doing even bolder things with sound to achieve the same effect.
In the silent Blackmail, for example, Neil Brand uses jeering trumpets to conjure up the painted jester's mocking accusations. In the sound version, Hitch simply puts Alice next to other people laughing.
This idea of accompanying events with diegetic sound (noises originating from within the scene) rather than non-diegetic sound (e.g. music) evolved over Hitchcock's career. Can you remember the Rear Window soundtrack? Probably not. Why? Because there is no score: any music we get is purely diegetic, overheard by Jeff from the musician who conveniently lives next door. (No wonder the film was nominated for a Best Sound Mixing Oscar.)
"I think what sound brought of value to the cinema was to complete the realism of the image on the screen," Hitchcock said in a 1963 interview.
He’s certainly got an ear for bringing locations to life. Blackmail’s titular threatening begins in Alice’s family shop, when a shady bloke who saw Alice at the crime scene wanders in. The bell rings as the door opens.
Every few minutes, as the conversation unfolds, the door keeps opening, breaking the tension with its intrusive tinkle. Noise from the street spills into the shop. Engines, horns, voices. Then the door closes and we return to silence. The tension builds once more.
Unexpected sound can have a strong impact upon a quiet audience – horror movies have been relying on loud noises to make people jump for years. It’s no surprise, perhaps, that Hitch was there first. The discovery of the artist’s dead body is introduced (how else?) by a woman screaming. At the time, we don’t know where the noise is coming from: we’re walking through the streets with Alice when the shriek suddenly arrives, prompting Hitch to cut between scenes.
Consider for a second how hard all this must have been – we’ve all seen Singin' in the Rain. Technological limitations at the time meant that post-dubbing wasn’t an option. Anny Ondra, a Czech actress, couldn’t speak English very well, so an uncredited Joan Barry had to literally stand off-screen and lip-synch the lines live into the microphone.
Master shots with actors all in one frame were the easiest way for directors to tackle this new challenge, but not young Alfie. While people were speaking, he happily panned around the set, looking wherever the hell he liked, all too aware that while audio recording was a big step forward, sound didn’t always have to be seen. That knowledge is a vital part of what made Alfred Hitchcock the master of suspense.
From distorted dialogue and diegetic music to no noise whatsoever, Blackmail proved that most Hitchcockian principle: sound is important, but silence can be even more effective.
In fact, as good as the talkie Blackmail is, the restored silent print is arguably the superior cut. It’s slicker. It’s meaner. It’s faster. And alongside its outspoken cousin, it cemented Hitchcock’s ability to acoustically blackmail audiences for the rest of his career.
Blackmail is showing (in both sound and silent versions) in August as part of the BFI’s The Genius of Hitchcock season.