Academic journal article CineAction

Use of Glass in Alfred Hitchcock's Blackmail

Academic journal article CineAction

Use of Glass in Alfred Hitchcock's Blackmail

Article excerpt

In Alfred Hitchcock's Blackmail the protagonist, Alice White, works in a tobacconist's shop run by her family. The shop is a large room at the front of the White house, with a large glass window and an entry directly from the street. To one side of the shop is the family dining and sitting room, divided from the shop by a glass wall, half-curtained. In the shop itself is a telephone booth.

Hitchcock himself grew up in just such an environment, the child of greengrocers. Donald Spoto, in The Dark Side of Genius, describes the director's early childhood home in this way:

In 1896 the family moved to 517 The High Road, Leytonstone, leasing the modest premises from a grocer who retired to the quieter Chichester Road. By 1899, when Alfred Joseph was born, the store had been somewhat enlarged and fronted the family quarters: they lived behind and over the crates and shelves of produce, and unless they went around through a back alley to a small rear door, they had to pass through the shop to reach the family rooms. In the middle of a small, dark, and unsuccessful garden was the family outhouse. Privacy was even rarer than silence or sustained sunshine.(1)

Critic Robin Wood also grew up in a similar setting, and described the emotional environment in the following terms:

Blackmail was made a year before I was born and is set in a milieu thoroughly and depressingly familiar to me. My parents were antique dealers, hence a few rungs higher in the social scale than tobacconists, to whom they would have condescended, but in terms of sexual mores the differences would be minimal. In the environment in which I grew up all bodily functions were regarded as shameful. I was made to feel deeply ashamed of pissing and shitting, and these simple natural functions had to be referred to (if at all, in cases of direst necessity) in whispers, using absurd euphemisms ... I never heard the word "sex" spoken within my family ... I developed a vague sense that it was an obscenity, a "dirty word" that must not be uttered and that presumably referred to something even dirtier.(2)

Alice's family life, as delineated in Blackmail, shows no overt signs of such repression. Her father seems more avuncular than paternal, and her mother's parental rigidity is considerably softened by various signs of affection. It is possible that Hitchcock did not allude to these darker underpinnings of Alice's milieu merely because the social conventions of Britain in 1929 would have strongly disapproved. But the sweetness and light of this fishbowl environment also makes an ironic setting for the secret that Alice carries in from her life outside: she has killed a man who was trying to rape her, and fled from the scene of the killing.

All the glass in this environment creates an illusion of openness which contradicts our awareness of Alice's secret. It also serves many other interesting functions, as barriers between various dichotomous qualities, and as screens. Once the viewer becomes aware of the richness of Hitchcock's use of this substance in Blackmail, it also becomes more apparent in his other work.

I first noticed his use of glass when I was watching the film, trying to pay particular attention to the various ways he experimented with sound in his first sound movie. Most film directors with established working methods were intimidated by the advent of sound technology, and some even spoke out publicly against it.(3) Hitchcock seems to have taken it as another opportunity to develop innovative techniques for his brand of story telling.

His use of a mumbling voice interspersed with sharp ejaculations of the word "knife" to indicate the confused state of mind of Alice on the morning after her misadventure has been widely discussed, as has his restraint in using dialogue in the first reels of the movie. I have not found any mention however of his use of the telephone booth in the shop to modulate the volume of dialogue, or to hint at the secrets being protected, even though it is used as the site of one of the major plot developments--the entrance of the blackmailer--and that use has been carefully prepared by two earlier uses of the booth to stifle sound. …

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