Blackmail [1929)

A tightly-wound masterpiece.  Concision of expression.

Early Hitchcock at his finest.

In more ways than one, this film starts silently.  Foley artists.  A klaxon here and there.

And then all of a sudden we have entered the era of loosely-synched talkies.

It is quite a shock.  We realize how much we have come to depend on sound and dialogue.

But this film holds its own as images alone.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then how virtually-verbose a moving picture?

John Longden evokes our sympathy in many ways.  The jilted lover.  And finally, we descend into a dark place with his character Frank Webber.

A bit of gossip gives us all the context we need:  these were not the times when a woman could easily claim self-defense in the instance of a rape.  In the course of defending herself, Anny Ondra took a life.  We take it from context that her promiscuous presence in the room of a man after hours would be looked down upon in a court of law at that time (though that should have nothing to do with a just dispensation of the legal process).

No doubt, Ondra’s character is a prevaricating adventuress, but when it comes down to brass tacks she’s not a floozy at heart.  Poor Cyril Ritchard shan’t be painting any more saltimbanques any time soon!

We really don’t see it coming.  That is the brilliance of Hitchcock’s mise-en-scène.  Mr. Crewe (Ritchard) is as charming as Hoagy Carmichael until he gets a little too frisky.

And so Anny Ondra must walk the foggy streets of London with her beestung lips like Clara Bow meets Raskolnikov.

In an instant Frank goes from law enforcer to wrong side of the law, but it is out of love.  He knows.

Enter Donald Calthrop.  Oh how the tables turn for his character Tracy.  One moment he is smoking the finest cigar…sopping up runny yolk and savoring his blackmailed breakfast.  The next he is the prime suspect.  As in chess, several moves ahead are needed.  Overall, one cannot account for everything.  And so this is in some ways the rags to rags story of a criminal named Tracy.  To be sure:  the wrong man!

Alice (Ondra) nearly turns herself in.  She is one telephone call too late.  Fate intercedes.  It is as if blind justice, with her svelte legs, has sensed the order which must be restored.

Now…back in your seat, Jacques Carter:  I’m reading!

-PD

To Have and Have Not [1944)

Was you ever stung by a dead bee?  Their sting can’t possibly be as piquant as 19-year-old Lauren Bacall in this classic.  Humphrey Bogart would agree.  It was Bacall’s first film and the beginning of a “beautiful friendship.”  Their on-screen charisma here is both impossibly cute and sweltering (the latter due to Bacall’s sultry acting).

Walter Brennan can’t stop talking about dead bees (or stop talking in general).  His performance is magnificent.  The sub-plot involving Brennan’s character Eddie and Bogart’s Capt. Morgan (rum, anyone?) is truly touching.  Bogart plays the tough-yet-compassionate friend to the old alcoholic Eddie.  It is an underdog story and we are glad to see someone looking after the unfortunate Eddie.  It is significant that the novel upon which this film is loosely based was written by Hemingway, yet Eddie seems to bear a slight resemblance to Lennie from Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.  To round out the American literature lesson, William Faulkner is credited as one of the two screenwriters.

Of additional note (no pun intended) is the acting, singing, and playing of Hoagy Carmichael.  There are such fantastic musical moments herein.  One wonders whether Tom Waits was inspired by the songs from this film (and by Carmichael in general).  We must also remember that Ian Fleming envisioned 007 as looking like Carmichael.  His presence in this film adds immensely to the whole.

The direction of Howard Hawks is stunning, though deftly “invisible.”  We believe the events are actually happening.  Though it is Hollywood through and through, there might be a case made for Hawks’ own neorealism at this time when Rossellini was about to release the seminal  Roma città aperta (the epitome of cinematic veritas). 

-PD