The name Alfred Hitchcock connotes a posthumous, yet ubiquitous media presence. Documentaries, blockbuster films, and feuds between Hollywood actresses have covered almost every aspect of his life and work. But the recent controversy surrounding his personal life, and the academic focus on his landmark Hollywood films such as Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963), have begun to overshadow his earlier career and contribution to the British film industry.
With Psycho, The Birds, and North by Northwest in mind, it is easy to forget that Hitchcock’s film Blackmail, released only in 1929, was the first “talkie” to come out of the British film industry. The original tagline for the movie ‘See and Hear It – Our Mother Tongue As It Should Be Spoken’ suggests a certain naturalism. Finally, the visual and auricular components of experience combine in film to emulate life for the first time. But actually Hitchcock’s use of sight and sound in Blackmail is far more figurative and experimental than its tagline suggests.
Blackmail marked Hitchcock’s second venture into crime and thriller genres, following a small string of silent movies that he directed throughout the 1920s. Originally only the final scene was to be shot in sound, but once the technology was proven to work Hitchcock returned to the film and re-shot all 82 minutes in full sound.
It was also one of Hitchcock’s first films to cement what would be the repeated themes throughout his career as a film director. In Blackmail you can find his first cameo appearance, the resident blonde heroine, and motifs of male sexual aggression, crime, and murder.
However, the biggest experiment of all was Hitchcock’s use of sound. Anny Ondra, who played the heroine, spoke such little English that Joan Barry was required to speak her lines next to the camera while Ondra mouthed the words. When phonic sound was first introduced to the screen, and before dubbing was even conceived, Hitchcock began experimenting with voices and ways in which he could avoid having to use naturalistic acting techniques to achieve the end result he desired.
Rather than realism, the more general auricular aspect of Blackmail ventures further towards expressionism. He uses sound primarily to enact the consciousness; the listener lives inside the mind of the heroine, and realistic sounds become nothing more than white noise making up the background of the full soundscape.
In the murder scene, Hitchcock combines the visual melodrama of silent films, somewhat exaggerated and slow-motion movements, with the quick pace of screen changes. The accelerated pace of the scene is primarily dictated by the screams and cries of pain and anguish that come from the heroine as she fights off a sexual attack by stabbing her attacker with a knife. When she walks the streets of London following the murder, the figures of passers-by become translucent, almost ghost-like, whilst the heroine’s face, which is characterised by guilt, is the only visual aspect left opaque, the only remaining focus of the camera. She looks up to the flashing lights advertising theatre and cinema productions, and envisions the stabbing motion of the knife appearing in these same lights. The heroine’s vision become the viewer’s, as Hitchcock casts aside a naturalistic depiction in favour of subjectivity, expression, and the subconscious.
Later in the film, during what has been dubbed the ‘knife scene’ by film critics, Hitchcock uses sound in the same way to explore the individual consciousness of the heroine. A local lady speaks about the murder whilst the heroine sits nearby. The lady’s continual reference to the ‘knife’ used in the murder becomes the focus of this scene; all words and sentences used in between become muffled as the auricular focus turns from a naturalist portrayal of conversation to an exploration of the heroine’s consciousness. No other words can be heard throughout the remainder of this scene apart from the crystal-clear repetition of the word ‘knife’, which stabs through the audio enacting its own presence in the mind of the heroine. The weight of her guilt is emphasised by the very weight of the word in Hitchcock’s soundscape of subconsciousness.
In many ways the tagline ‘See and Hear It – Our Mother Tongue As It Should Be Spoken’ suggests a naturalistic culmination of sight and sound. But read beneath the surface, and it no longer means the same thing. Our mother tongue as it should be spoken – not as it is spoken. In Hitchcock’s first ever technological experimentation with sound he also successfully experiments with our experience of sound in life, as well as film. As viewers, we experience the sounds that our heroine filters out of life, as we would experience sounds in our own consciousness. Do we, as individuals, hear every sound of day-to-day life, or do we hear the sounds that we want to hear?