Analysis of cinematography and mise-en-scene of a short sequence from Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929)

Alfred Hitchcock’s movies are renowned to have their characteristic elements of suspense, drama and crime.  Not least of Hitchcock’s distinctive style is the quality of cinematography and mise-en-scene.  The movie Blackmail, released in 1929 is no exception to this rule.  This essay will analyze the cinematographic merits of one particular segment from the movie, namely the sequence of shots surrounding the murder.

It is important to note at the outset that Blackmail was first conceived and filmed as a silent movie.  To this extent that visual imagery was the primary mode of communicating to the audience the cinematographic style reflects this.  In the depiction of the murder, the director does away with the ghastly details of the struggle between Alice and her harasser and we are shown only a scuffle behind a curtain and her hand snatching the knife.  Furthermore, as Leanne McGrath points out,

“After she has committed her crime, Alice freezes every time she hears bird song or whistling because the artist whistled. At the breakfast table, a family friend is discussing the murder and repeats the word knife. Hitch cleverly drowns out all other sound so this is all Alice, and the viewer hear. It pierces the silence as it literally stabbed the artist. But on the other hand, sound is never more important than image. Hitch is famous for letting viewers use their imagination – what we see will always be more terrifying than anything he can show us”. (McGrath, 2009)

Another remarkable aspect of the sequence of shots succeeding and preceding the murder is the near perfect symmetry at all levels of execution. For example, a careful study of the sequence would reveal symmetries at the level of overall construction, symmetries within the larger plot of the film as well within the sequence in discussion.  One can even discern symmetries within the composition of the individual frame.  The manifestations of these symmetries are ascertained from the general principle of classical cinema, namely that of ‘centering’, whereby the actors, objects and props on which the director draws our attention to are placed at the centre of the visual frame with equal spacing on both sides (Wood, 1989).  Such a technique does more than induce symmetry at the level of the visual, for when employed skillfully, it has the potential to create dramatic effects within the context of the film’s narrative.  As noted film critic Robin Wood points out, there are numerous examples of the usage of symmetry as a cinematographic technique in the film Blackmail.  The two most notably ones with respect to the sequence in discussion are:

“1) The use of the screen in Crewe’s apartment during the “murder” scene to separate Crewe (at the piano) from Alice (changing her clothes), symbolizing the barrier that Crewe will try to breach; 2) The strongly symmetrical triangular compositions during the scene between Alice, Frank and the blackmailer in the back room behind the Whites’ store, in which Alice (seated, compelled to silence by her lover) is placed centrally in the foreground of the image while the two men struggle for domination (of her, of each other) behind the sofa”. (Wood, 1989)

There are some important external factors that had played a role in the overall style of Blackmail’s mise-en-scene.  Firstly, the film is not an original story but an adaptation of a famous play by Charles Bennett, where “the plot concerns a woman who is being blackmailed for the murder of an attempted rapist, and Hitchcock used the new medium of sound to inaugurate his characteristic theme of the nightmarish amidst the commonplace” (Cook, 1996).  In the sequence immediately following the murder, for instance, the female protagonist’s “subjective feelings of guilt are conveyed by the seemingly endless clanging of a shop bell; later the word “knife,” recalling the murder weapon, emerges from a harmless conversation to haunt her long after the conversation itself has become an indistinct murmur on the soundtrack” (Cook, 1996)  These examples go on to show the mastery with which Alfred Hitchcock plays on the psychology of the audience with remarkable success.

Finally, it should be added that Hitchcock’s effective and masterly cinematography in the film Blackmail, and particularly in the murder scene, is partly attributable to the introduction of sound in films.  The late 1920s were the time when filmmakers were abandoning the silent picture genre and entering the “yet-to-be-explored” genre of movies with sound.  This necessitated a fundamentally different approach to film direction and Alfred Hitchcock immediately exhibits his mastery of new technology, by post synchronizing sequences which had already been shot silent.  By applying the same rationale, one could observe that the action sequence at the end of the film stands out for its cinematographic fluidity (Pomerance, 2004).

References:

Cook, David A. A History of Narrative Film. New York: W. W. Norton, 1996.

Pomerance, Murray. An Eye for Hitchcock. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2004. .

Wood, Robin. Hitchcock’s Films Revisited. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989.

Blackmail (1929) – Reviewed By: Leanne McGrath, retrieved from <http://www.eyeforfilm.co.uk/reviews.php?id=5678> on 16th August, 2009

Iain Morrison, The Art of Murder, retrieved from <http://www.imagesjournal.com/issue09/features/artofmurder/text5.htm> on 16th August, 2009.