Alfred Hitchcock’s first talkie picture (actually a brilliant make-do compromise between studio-mandated sound and previously filmed silent footage) hasn’t aged particularly well, but is an interesting portrait of both the time and the early development of his trademark style. Adapted from a talky stage play, Hitchcock shoehorns in some revolutionary staging of uneasy liminal spaces (particularly his favourites of stairs, family spaces in the public eye, and super-real landmarks). This staging hints at the complicated Freudian underpinnings of desire that push the four main characters through a predictable morality play of guilt and punishment, society’s law and karmic fate, against a backdrop of universal entrapment.
The film opens up with a raucous silent segment of dignified Keystone Kops careening about the streets in a Model T in pursuit of justice. Sound begins with the arrival of a policeman’s girlfriend, who seems like a bubbly goodtime girl, a flirtatious flapper all men are drawn to. Later on, we discover young Alice White is also a meek, dutiful, and conservatively dressed shopgirl amid the aspirational furnishings of the family’s combined home and business. Her social bubbles are the only expression possible of her desire for excitement and new experiences; she’s all to aware that this dull courtship is to be the brief highlight of her youth before settling into a staid domestic and business routine, and that only if she plays her cards well. Her carelessness with small but pricey garments turns her gloves, left behind first on a café table and then at the murder scene, in the object petit a Zizek identified as Hitchcock’s MacGuffin, the lack or loss of a thing that sets the plot in motion and stands in for desire – in Alice’s case, to step back from her life and be forced into a new one. Note that she immediately sends her man to reclaim it, however; she makes her loved ones into the jailors that keep her safely barred from her fantasies.
Alice does desire the handsome stranger who flirts with her behind her boyfriend’s back. She wants to be an exotic muse, have a passionate affair, but it is never a real possibility. Inside the moralistic threat and anxiety of her gradual assenting to the artist’s manoeuvrings is one constant stance: I want this, but I won’t have it.
Here, her veneer of sophistication first begins to crack – if she was really a liberated flapper, Alice would not expect the kind of man who picks up strange women in bars to respect her boundary while she revelled like a child in the atmosphere of sensuality and erotic potential. In another Zizekian construct, she tries to live her fantasy courtship only for it to be nightmarish brutality when realised.
Women in Hitchcock films are usually the most interesting characters. They are already tormented beings underneath a coy or brittle façade, by their own unfulfilled desires and the conflicting demands of the era – be both virginal mother figure and inflamer of male passions. The cool Hitchcock blonde has responded by disavowing all passion, maintaining visual beauty, but impenetrable. The plots dovetail with the breakdown of her repression and struggle with these forces, the outcomes defined as happy or melancholy with her resulting autonomy or destruction.
Blackmail ends with Alice escaping the electric chair only by enforced silence. She would confess to expiate her guilt (and escape the now intolerable confines of a dreamless middle-class life), in some sense bringing together her two lives: the everyday bland obedience and dangerous bohemian wildchild. Even after she has escaped from her own actions back into her safe life, that life has lost the fantasy underpinnings that made it bearable.
Not that the three men fare much better. The artist – a trust-fund dilettante, judging by his opulent loft studio – has simple animal desires and a spoiled heir’s expectation that whatever he wants is already his. He’s punished directly and immediately for his assault, killed by his victim as the only means of escape. It’s easy to forget in the action that follows that the artist was himself being blackmailed by a man who made a living witnessing crimes; most likely, he made a habit out of breaking the law, and the karmic punishment covers more sins than we see on screen.
The blackmailer desires money, obviously, but even more he desires the humiliation of his “betters.” Beyond the potential for financial stability, which he could achieve in any number of legal or illicit ways, he desires payback from the world that has shown him no respect, from those who are respected. His punishment is obvious, and somewhat appropriate given his chosen profession of wrongly punishing others – he is hounded to death in the centre of British imperialist wealth by the policeman who has wrongly accused him of the murder. He is in an immediate sense both guilty and innocent – literally living off others’ guilt and innocent of this particular murder – but his punishment is appropriate according to the natural selection of the criminal sphere.
The blackmailer chose to enmesh himself in the crimes of others, and in this case was not quick enough to escape his own trap. He wasn’t as smart as he thought he was, and his victims weren’t as wholesomely naïve as he thought they were. The white knight he looked forward to degrading was willing to leap into the mud with him first, use his own methods to entrap him, and to take the same satisfaction in the blackmailer’s grovelling ruination. Like Hulda in Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard To Find, he was done in not by his own immorality but by his expectation of integrity in the upstanding citizen he’d use.
Frank Webber, the boyfriend and, coincidentally, the detective assigned to investigate the artist’s murder, staidly desires advancement: promotion in work and marriage to the well-to-do shopkeeper’s daughter. Unfortunately, he lacks the maturity to earn either. The fates of himself, his girlfriend, and the blackmailer turn entirely on Frank’s connections and quick thinking, twisting the blackmailer’s evidence to implicate him instead of Alice. Frank is directly implicated in the blackmailer’s death, pushing the chase to reckless extremes; after all, isn’t it easier to tie up the loose end of the blackmailer and his tales of the real murderess than arrest him? He ruthlessly pushes back the other possible loose end, his girlfriend’s guilty conscience and the confession that would end his career, by bullying her into silence and preserving his future – both career and unincarcerated future spouse.
Nevertheless, Frank is punished by getting exactly what he wants, after destroying the fantasies about himself and Alice that made his dreams desirable.
The justice system is absent from this morality tale except as a tool. Instead, fate dispenses with a hard-boiled but right-wing conservatively just hand. Of the four criminals (rapist, murderer, blackmailer, and corrupt cop), two receive the death penalty and two get life in prison. Intentions cannot affect fate’s judgement, but impulsive actions can twist it to reflect one’s secret true character.
Class is the only other factor that can move fate’s hand in Blackmail: the dissolute rich man and the lower-class criminal are both punished by death. Although Frank uses the blackmailer’s methods and Alice revels in the artist’s sensual lifestyle, both are solidly middle-class but remain silent, disavowing their desires and crimes. They embrace and are rewarded with respectable middle-class futures.
The big! twist! of that, however, is the ‘true’ tragedy: while a successful match as the universal signifier for a happy ending was a cliché in Shakespeare’s time, these two will be punished for the rest of their shared lives by it; not a love match but partners in a perfect crime trapped in a mockery of marriage, only together to ensure the other keeps the secret that would destroy them.