Monday, 12 March 2012

Garden of forking paths? Hitchcock's BLACKMAILs - a real-time comparison

Having begun production as a silent film, the studio, British International Pictures, decided to convert [Blackmail (directed by Alfred Hitchcock, 1929)] to sound during shooting. A silent version was released [probably only in Britain] for theaters not equipped for sound (at 6740 feet), with the sound version (7136 feet) released at the same time.[*] The silent version still exists in the British Film Institute collection.[**] [Blackmail Wikipedia entry, last accessed March 12, 2012]
Critic and historian Charles Barr, in his 1976 article "Blackmail: Silent and Sound", in which he closely compares the two versions, notes that the silent version shows Hitchcock striving to escape a 'theatrical' style in which the action is generally viewed face on, with the camera occupying the position of the 'fourth wall'. In a theatre, this represents the position of the proscenium arch, which marks the boundary between a conventional stage and the audience.
     In the silent version, Hitchcock experimented with changing the position of the camera within a scene, and tried to avoid 'face-on' set-ups, that is, where the camera is placed at ninety degrees to the action. Because of the limitations of sound at this early stage - for example the need to position the microphone where it can pick up all of the actors in the scene but cannot be seen - Hitchcock was obliged to adopt a less experimental approach in the framing of the sound version. [Mark Duguid, 'Hitchcock's Style', BFI Screenonline]
Although 1929 was rather late for a "first" sound film, the delay enabled Hitchcock to produce an advanced meditation on the possible uses of sound. The text incorporates silent footage (lifted whole from the original silent version, made immediately prior to the sound version), which allows for a series of comparisons/contrasts between sound and silents/silence. The conceit of this early sound film is an attempt to keep a man silent (paying off a blackmailer). The heroine spends over a third of the film virtually speechless. When she finally speaks, her boyfriend urges her to keep quiet. The dialogue is laughably banal, yet the right word can cut like a knife. The opening scene, an exciting silent chase, is immediately contrasted with a poorly dubbed, confusingly cut dialogue scene that seems as if it will never end. But before we glibly assume silents were "better" movies, sound becomes a moral force, while silence is linked with corruption and moral lassitude.
     The text's position on "sound plus image" versus "image alone" is carefully paralleled with the depiction of Alice. Thematically, she veers from one extreme to the other. She is introduced as a chatterbox. After a violent assault, she becomes almost catatonic. Finally, she accepts speech as a moral imperative, achieving maturity and the audience's respect before slipping back under patriarchal control and enforced silence. Alice White becomes Hitchcock's personification of the course the sound film must take. [Amy Lawrence, Echo and Narcissus: Women's Voices in Classical Hollywood Cinema (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), p. 119]
Hitchcock first makes us aware that he is distorting the sound track subjectively when he exaggerates the loudness of bird chirpings to stress Alice's agitation on the morning after the murder. When the mother enters Alice's bedroom to wake her, she uncovers the cage of Alice's canary. Once the mother leaves the room, the bird's chirping is loudly insistent while the girl takes off the clothes she wore the night before and puts on fresh ones. The chirps are loudest, unnaturally so, when she is looking at herself in the mirror, the most "interior" action she performs while dressing. The sound reminds us of the tiny, birdlike jerkings that the girl made immediately after stabbing the artist. Just after the knife sequence there is another subjective distortion of sound, when a customer rings a bell as he enters the store. We are in the breakfast parlor, and yet the bell resonates much more loudly than it does elsewhere in the film. The camera is on a close-up of Alice's face to indicate that it is her point of view, once again, from which we hear.
     In a sense the use of bird noises in the bedroom scene should be distinguished from the other techniques mentioned here. Whereas aural restriction and distortion of loudness are related to character point of view, the choice specifically of bird sounds has a particular meaning for Hitchcock independent of the film. This sequence marks the beginning of an ongoing association of murder and bird noises in Hitchcock's mind that accrues meaning from film to film, from Blackmail and Murder through Sabotage (1936), Young and Innocent (1937), and Psycho, and culminates in The Birds. [Elizabeth Weiss, 'Chapter 2: First Experiments with Sound: Blackmail and Murder' in The Silent Scream - Alfred Hitchcock's Soundtrack (Rutherford, Fairleigh: Dickinson University Press, 1982) p. 46]

One of the elements that Film Studies For Free appreciates most about online audiovisual film studies (film studies in digital video forms) are the phenomenological possibilities they offer viewers for the experiencing of moving image and sound juxtapositions in real time. We can synchronously feel, as well as know about, the comparisons they make. In other words, unlike written texts, they don't have to remove themselves from film-specific forms of meaning production to have their knowledge effects on us.

Embedded above is FSFF's homemade example of this kind of simple, more or less medium-specific, eloquence: a real-time video juxtaposition, made for the purposes of scholarly comparison, of corresponding sequences from the silent and sound versions of Alfred Hitchcock's Blackmail (1929). It is a work intended to supplement the contribution of an earlier blog entry here, entitled Thrilling the Ears: Sound in Hitchcock's cinema in which the two sequences were separately embedded.

But it is also intended to publicise FSFF's support, as ever, for the very relevant For the Love of Film Preservation Blogathon which will take place this year between May 13-18, 2012 . The blogathon has a Hitchcock theme and will support an important film preservation and dissemination project focusing on an early 'Hitchcock film': The White Shadow (1923).

You can read more about the blogathon below, and much more about it at the linked-to websites. But suffice to say this may not be the last Hitchcockian video study here at Film Studies For Free this Spring!
It's time to reveal our fundraising project for 2012: Online streaming and recording of the new score for THE WHITE SHADOW, directed by Graham Cutts and everything else done by Alfred Hitchcock. It's all about access this year, folks. [For the Love of Film Preservation Blogathon Facebook page, February 1, 2012]
The good people at National Film Preservation Foundation are committed to making many of the films they have rescued available for cost-free viewing by streaming them on their website. But online hosting ain’t cheap. NFPF estimates that it will cost $15,000 to stream The White Shadow for four months and record the score. It is the mission of this year’s For the Love of Film Blogathon to raise that money so that anyone with access to a computer can watch this amazing early film that offered Hitchcock a chance to learn his craft, with a score that does it justice. [Marilyn Ferdinand introducing the cause supported by this year's For the Love of Film [Hitchcock] Blogathon at her website Ferdy on Films]
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4 comments:

Marilyn Ferdinand said...

Good on ya, Catherine. Thanks again for your undying support.

The Editor said...

Just looked at these films in class today… Freaky. But very helpful! Thank you!

Justin Horton said...

I took a seminar on film sound with Karla Oeler at Emory University last fall and, as one might guess, we looked at (and listened to) these same two sequences. I think you are quite right, though, that having them side-by-side makes their at-times subtle differences emerge. This is a great showcase for what the web video can do for the discipline. Kudos!

Catherine Grant said...

Thanks a lot, everyone. I have plans for some more of these kinds of comparisons!