Hitchcock’s “Blackmail”: underscoring MacGuffins and Spoilers

Or…What to Expect When You’re Expecting Something from a Hitchcock Movie

I accompanied Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929) on piano a couple days ago at MoMA, and I recalled and repeated the way I usually try to handle the murder scene. I know…I probably should have yelled “spoiler alert” there for you, but you can pretty much assume someone’s going to be killed when a film has “directed by Alfred Hitchcock” in its opening titles. So, how to underscore the scene in Cyril Ritchard’s flat? You know something severe is going to happen because it’s a Hitchcock movie, plus if you know Mr. Ritchard it’s because he was the original Captain Hook in the musical of Peter Pan…so you’re a little suspicious yourself. No one’s expecting Cyril and Anny Ondra to sit down to tea and a nice game of backgammon.

Do I play the anticipation and suspense throughout the scene? Hitchcock hints slightly that something may go wrong, but it’s not obvious and the hints aren’t overt. This scene doesn’t really fit Hitch’s definition of suspense, since his tenet hangs on the audience being told there’s a bomb under the table. We’ve been told nothing of the intentions of Cyril, painter of harlequins. And we aren’t told anything more about what they are until just before the infamous incident happens.

My tactic is to honor and underscore the reality of the scene, that this is a date. We’ve been shown that Alice White (Ondra) is sort of cheating/flirting with Richard behind her boyfriend’s back — almost literally, in the restaurant scene that precedes their coming up to see his art. Alice is nervous in a couple moments, but my feeling is that since this film is her story, the way to go is to follow her experience of the scene. The attack and knife use that happens is unexpected for her, and the non-premeditation of the attack is what Alice’s story arc is about for the remainder of the picture.

I talked about this in more detail in an episode of my (sporadic) Silent Film Music Podcast in 2015, and included a performance recording sample.

“The Silent Film Music Podcast with Ben Model”, episode 7, posted in January 2015.

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