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Monday, 13 July 2015

Blackmail and Brand at Saffron Hall

This is a review of Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929) with full orchestra at Saffron Hall

More views of or before Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

13 July

* Contains spoilers *

This is a review of a special screening, at Saffron Hall, of Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929), with a score by Neil Brand, performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under the conductorship of Timothy Brock

From the opening blasts on the brass in the overture to Blackmail (1929), composer Neil Brand (@NeilKBrand) establishes a contrast between a martial, accented tone, where Morse code is not out of place, and a softer one, complete with, in the ranks (no pun intended !) of the BBC Symphony Orchestra (@BBCSO), a celeste. As conductor Timothy Brock and he were to agree in the Q&A*, Saffron Hall’s (@SaffronHallSW’s) acoustic response is incredibly live, which made for a thrilling evening of silent cinema, adeptly accompanied by at least a hundred players.

Moving from a quickly rotating wheel to a police-van, crammed with listening / transmitting gear and personnel, so a tone of grandeur was established, and it was communicated in scenes that led to an arrest where violent resistance was attempted – the impression that this was a film, too, of high energy and high anxiety, with ‘swirly’, kaleidoscopic string-effects that felt as if they were in tribute to Bernard Herrmann and his score for Vertigo (1958) (also, of course, Hitchcock).

Here, as for Underground (1928), an appropriate appreciation of pace is the hallmark of Brand’s writing, and, even in the quieter moment of the identity parade, he marks the presence of time in the moment by a chime, and soon after engages us with a jazzy feeling that he gives to muted trumpets (as well as nodding towards the signature-tune of Alfred Hitchcock Presents for the usual Hitch cameo).

The boldness of Hitchcock’s direction, and his love of symbolism, is all over this film, with plonking a waitress smack in the middle of Frank and Alice, after they have fought it out with another couple to get seated at the same table (momentarily, we have till a better opportunity seems to present itself one member of each couple facing the other in a stand-off) :

We ‘hear’ their words through the inter-titles, of which there is here a plethora, but he teasingly deprives us of their faces, and so their expressions (although, from the note that we see Alice take from her handbag, we know that she is not playing Frank straight**). Hitchcock, when Alice has given Frank the slip, also has the big shadows of ‘The Artist’ and of the man whom we come to know as Tracy all over where Alice is waiting for the former outside where he lives : there, after she has ascended through more shadow (with staircases cut away so that we can see their upwards progress), she then comes to be haunted by his laughing image of a jester.

Even before we get to his atelier, which madly in keeping with having painted a jester has the look of a mediaeval castle, those shadows, and Brand’s score, have told us that no good will come of a girl accepting an invitation to a Bluebeard’s dwelling of a place like this… Alice, who is willing to conform to the idea of a girl who just wants to have fun, just cannot resist exploring, and (with her host’s help, happy to be that close) creating an androgynous painted monster. Maybe, too, that little dress, so conveniently left out, is not meant ‘to be resisted’ ? already, when she has toyed with getting into it, the commanding words Put it on have uneasy undertones in the orchestral writing, reminding us that this may not be the best fashion choice ever.

When, with what is perhaps spontaneous, but no longer a borderline playful removal of Alice’s own clothing***, the pair end up tussling, it is a struggle of shadows that we see and, of course, we are catapulted forward twenty-five years to imagery of Grace Kelly, resisting attack from Robert Cummings, in Dial M for Murder (1954) (although the hand that emerges is with the knife in 3D (yes, it was so made), it seems to come out of the screen).

Afterwards, strings and an eerie kind of playing [for those who had not seen, we were told in the Q&A that it was not a theremin, but the effect of bowing a vibraphone on full****], give the immediate psychological significance although, by contrast, Hitch and Brand make Alice seem very purposive when dressing, covering her tracks, and leaving.

However, the shadows are there, and Alice now seems to descend a toy staircase (as if she is beginning to disassociate as, later on, in Marnie (1964), which Brand acknowledged was in his mind now). Soon, then, we hear and are shown, in how she hesitates to cross the road, and in the daggers that she hallucinates in the neon of Piccadilly Circus (against which, not for the last time, she seems so small), her purpose is much less so, as she drifts all night…

At this stage in the proceedings, and by kind courtesy of Neil Brand himself, a link to his piece in BFI's (@BFI's) Sight & Sound (@SightSoundmag) :

With the police at the scene of the crime, once the alarm has been called, the military-type theme returns, in a heavy guise. Then Frank arrives, and is directed to have a look around : when he recognizes first Alice’s glove, and then that the dead man is The Artist, the moment is pure theatre, but we do not linger with him, as there is dramatic irony in Alice’s mother saying, via the inter-title when she has brought in a cup of tea, that anyone would think that Alice had not been to bed. And then, just as soon, Alice is left alone to get out from under the covers, in her clothes and even shoes, and with her thoughts. As she repairs her overnight damage in the mirror, a little touch of the sound of Vertigo, and we somehow know that life is never going to be the same :

* At the breakfast table, when asked to cut the bread, the combination of hand, shadow, and knife brings it all back

* Behind the counter, and against the towering shelves, Alice White, newsagent’s daughter, looks small again

* We have a spectral, soft-focus Alice, but we also have Frank, showing her the glove, and (ironically) saying This is the only clue that you were there

* When Tracy comes onto the premises, Hitchcock steps back with the camera, and we have space for deliberation, with these figures just standing there in the Q&A, Brand told us that, scoring this, he was challenged, and just had to strip back and think of the sub-text

* Tracy reaching towards Frank’s pocket, somehow knowing that the glove is in there and then he shows us that he has its pair

Vertigo seem to be with us again : when asked in the Q&A, Brand said that he only quoted the themes for Hitchcock Presents and, when the patrolling bobby knows nothing of what is happening high above, that of Dixon of Dock Green. However, he said that the chordal structure of the main theme from Vertigo, with its elevenths and thirteenths, is capable of being both major and minor, and Brand was glad to learn that a Bernard Herrmann sound had been heard through the use of this structure, with which he meant to evoke film noir, but without directly quoting the theme*****.

At the heart of the plot, the nub of the problem faced by Frank and Alice is in the awkward breakfast and its aftermath, with Frank at the back, on the step, and Tracy sniffing the cigar that he forced Frank to buy him. Elsewhere, though, Mrs Humphries is calling at Scotland Yard, with the note that Tracy had left for her lodger. With his score, which Brand was keen to stress to us that Timothy Brock had orchestrated and developed, we hear how paced it is, and how it is in and out of themes as emotions rise and fall.

So, when a search is under way, looking for Tracy through a montage of mugshot books and wanted bills, the martial quality in the music is there in louder form, but, very soon after, we have jazzy notes accompanied by strings : talking about Hollywood orchestras later, Brand said that that string players were always classically trained, but those on trumpets or saxes were jazzers, who were able to deliver with an immediate, full sound.

When the photo of Tracy is found, we are given harp glissandi, and then, on xylophone, dashes and dots of Morse. In Frank’s perception, Tracy becomes, as he calls him, a suspicious looking man with a criminal record, and, with a big sax swagger, he leans cockily on the mantelpiece domesticity itself, and the assertion that a man, once fingerprinted, is assumed to lose credibility. In large form, a reference to that Vertigo sound again, before we end up with ‘brassy’ negotiation, and then, with ‘pregnant’ strings Tracy trying to persuade himself as much as Frank that he has reason to be believed over and above Alice and him (my word against hers).

But his nerve does not hold, when other police arrive, and the whirl / swirl of the orchestra must reflect as much his state of mind as Alice’s confusion, having tried to tell Frank that she does not want him to do this and that she has something to say, but being silenced. Out through the window Tracy goes, and we revert to the opening image of the van-wheel in motion, as he flees, but keeps encountering police officers, to whom, rightly or wrongly, he thinks that his status must be known:

So it is that, after he has paused for a drink, we see him as the pursuers do, as a speck against the hugeness of the façade of The British Museum, between whose monumental columns he passed, and which towered above him. Inside, massive Egyptian heads also stress his insignificance, and his likely fate being in larger hands, and when he descends a chain there is another huge head behind him, with Brand giving us heavy brass, and throaty trombones. A momentary glance into the Reading Room, and then terribly small again Tracy is on the breast-like dome, and, next, has plunged through the glass, back into the famous space below.

As at the opening, when Alice is waiting for Frank (and berating him for keeping her waiting), we are at Scotland Yard. There is an open, gracious theme as she asks to speak to the inspector, and is told that she needs to fill in a form. In terms of instrumentation, we are down to her small voice, and, when she is shown in, we find that Frank is there : again, he is wishing to head her off in the light of Tracy being implicated. Just when she is about to speak, news of what happened to Tracy obliges the inspector to leave her in Frank’s charge.

As they leave the room, we can see her torment in her tortured hand on her bag, and then, now that she tells him, and when Frank finally realizes what did happen, he drops her hand (with nothing offering a way back).

At this dramatic conclusion, the applause was enthusiastic.

Brand was welcomed to the stage, where he warmly embraced Brock, and where the orchestra and both men took several curtain-calls : the film had been honoured by this playing, and this score, and this first venture by Saffrons Hall and Screen had been very well received.

But do not take one's word for it, as there is verification by Tweet here, with even a link to another review :


* Which was hosted by Saffron Screen’s (@Saffronscreen’s) Rebecca del Tufo (@BeccadT), since this successful community cinema, also based with Saffron Hall at The County High School, was its projection partner for the evening.

Neil Brand, Timothy Brock, and Rebecca del Tufo at the Q&A (left to right)

** Seeing, further on, the portrait of Frank as a constable in Alice’s room suggests that they have been going steady for a while (he has now risen through the ranks), as does the dutifulness with which, when prompted, he gave her a peck on the cheek when she has waited for him after work. Is having him as a beau more to satisfy her parents’ needs than hers ? (My Russian friend, pragmatically, had no sympathy for Alice for putting herself in harm’s way with The Artist (and being no better than she should be), but that is just she…)

*** Contrast with the mucking around, even with a stranger, in Menschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday) (1930), which Brand (and Jeff Davenport) played for us at Cambridge Film Festival 2014…

**** One heard / seen recently when, in chamber configuration, Britten Sinfonia (@BrittenSinfonia) performed Joey Roukens’ new work Lost in a surreal trip (2015) (where these ears, at least, detected North by Northwest (1959)).

***** And, on the use of the theme itself in The Artist (2011), Brock and he said that they gathered that the theme had been used as a place-holder, which, when those composing for the film did not satisfy the director with anything else, simply came to be used at that point in the film : Brand agreed that the direct use of the theme not only is a musical strength that is not ‘earnt’ by the film, but also that it inaptly connects us straight to the pair of Kim Novak and James Stewart.

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

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