REVIEW: Blackmail with the BBC SSO

Presented as a companion piece to The Sound of Hitchcock, the BBC SSO present a rare opportunity to see Alfred Hitchcock’s 1929 silent masterpiece Blackmail with full symphony orchestra accompaniment.

Wielding the baton again is silent movie music specialist Timothy Brock, the music created by contemporary composer Neil Brand specifically for the movie. Brand refuses to confine himself to the musical  style of the era, instead taking the best of the early decades of movie music and creating a beautifully appropriate soundscape to match the action.

Blackmail itself has an interesting history, existing in two versions, filming began originally as a silent movie but it was converted to sound during production. It is one of Britain’s first all-talking pictures, filmed on the first purpose-built sound studio in Europe at Borehamwood. It’s Czech-born leading lady Anny Ondra also a classic example of a silent movie star failing to make the grade in the talkies, her strong accent having to be post-dubbed by actress Joan Barry.

The story … During a date with her Scotland Yard detective boyfriend, Alice White has a fight with her boyfriend, Frank. Catching the eye of an admirer, she ditches Frank and leaves with the mysterious stranger. When they go back to his flat he attempts to rape Alice and she kills him in defence. Frank is tasked with investigating the case and soon realises Alice’s guilt. However, a petty thief with blackmail on his mind complicates matters.

What the movie does show is a fascinating glimpse of a film that bridged the gap between the overblown histrionics of the silent era and the more subtle talkies to come. Whilst there are exaggerated eye roles and meaningful glances a-plenty from our heroine, it is a stylistic hybrid which also demonstrates the burgeoning genius of Hitchcock and provides a tantalising glimpse of what was to come, indeed many of Hitchcock’s most famous trademarks are here (including the infamous cameo appearance): the beautiful blonde in peril, and a famous landmark used in the movie’s finale (here it’s a chase across the dome of the British Museum).

Surprisingly, the movie remains remarkably watchable, replete as it is with astonishingly sophisticated scene cutting and special effects for its era, and it is all enhanced wonderfully by the BBC SSO, there’s not much can beat the sound of an 80 piece plus orchestra in full flight.

A thoroughly entertaining evening, hopefully next season’s programme will offer more of the same.