Alfred Hitchcock's Blackmail

Cinema | Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail

Helen Sandler reviews a unique screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail, shown at Aberystwyth Arts Centre on the 29th of March, with live music performed by Philomusica and composed by Neil Brand.

Alfred Hitchcock's Blackmail
Anny Ondra

Alfred Hitchcock began filming his landmark thriller Blackmail in 1929 at a pivotal moment in British film history, just as silent cinema gave way to the talkies. The project started life as a silent, but Hitchcock then re-shot many scenes with dialogue, with another actress speaking the lines of the lead, Anny Ondra, out of shot (Ondra’s Czech accent did not suit the London girl she was playing). Many critics consider the silent version superior: Hitchcock was, after all, a master of the form at that point but a mere apprentice with sound.

It is not often that a twenty-first-century audience has the opportunity to view the silent work, but hundreds of people filled the Great Hall of Aberystwyth Arts Centre at the end of March to do just that. For this special night, Aberystwyth’s own symphony orchestra, Philomusica, was performing a score composed by Neil Brand – a graduate of the university and a doyen of music for the silents.

The hall was buzzing with anticipation as conductor David Russell Hulme raised his baton for the first part of the evening – theme music from four classics, illustrated with stills from the films. The orchestra, on stage in full view, performed rousing scores from Lawrence of Arabia, The Sea Hawk, Rebecca and The Big Country.

The main event, though, was Blackmail. It is the story of a naive young shopgirl who goes home with an artist she has met in a London cafe. When the man tries to force himself on her, she picks up a knife and stabs him to death. She bolts from the scene, and the audience waits in suspense to see if she will be arrested for the crime. Her steady boyfriend is a Scotland Yard detective who is assigned to the case, and when a blackmailer threatens to link her to the crime, it does not look good for our girl. Are we right to want her to escape justice?

Neil Brand’s score for this picture is inspired by the complex soundtracks of later Hitchcock movies. He plays with anachronistic touches, as when the Dixon of Dock Green TV theme tune introduces a bobby on the beat. When the murder weapon slashes into flesh behind a curtain, the repeated screech of the violins flashes us forward through Hitch’s canon to the Psycho shower scene.

The violinists exchanged tiny, incongruous smiles at this point, pleased with the effect. Indeed, the whole of this lively orchestra – made up of local musicians including students and staff of the university – seemed to revel in the score, which was by turns soaring, seductive, suspenseful and violent.

Screenings with live orchestra are rare in the UK and rarer still in Mid Wales. But the evening’s performance was proof that Philomusica have the flair and perfectionism for the task. More, please.