‘Blackmail’ – Sound in film

Everything, MDA 1700 Film Communicating in Film: Styles and Movements

Sound has always been a part of film. Even during the ‘silent era’, music was used to complement the moving image. Sound combined with the moving image is irrefutably effective in achieving reactions from the viewer. I would like to talk about the first ‘talkies’, or the first films with synchronised sound. More notably; Alfred Hitchcock’s 1929 film ‘Blackmail’. ‘Blackmail’ was the first British film with synchronised sound, and is an interesting film due to the fact that, arguably, it was the first film to use synchronised sound as more than just a gimmick.

To explain further I shall have to backtrack to 1927, when an American film titled ‘The Jazz Singer’ was released. ‘The Jazz Singer’ was the first feature film ever to use synchronised sound, however, the synchronised sound in this film was not used to any noticeable artistic effect, but rather the film was largely used an excuse for Hollywood ‘show-off’ this new found audio technology.

Alfred Hitchcock, being the genius that he is, decided to take a different approach. He decided to take this new technology, and use it as a storytelling technique. the film ‘Blackmail’ used sound as a form of narrative exposition. Here is an example: (In the chronology of the film, this scene takes place after the main character, played by Anny Ondra, has just killed a man, by stabbing him to death.)

In this example, Hitchcock has manipulated the dialogue in such a way that it evokes empathy towards the protagonist. The main character (the blonde girl seen in the close up) has just murdered somebody, and has a feeling of overwhelming guilt and paranoia. These over-looming emotions, felt by the main character, are emphasised through the use of sound, by lowering the volume on every bit of dialogue spoken by the woman, apart from the word ‘knife’. By doing this, the audience hears sound from the protagonist’s perspective, it puts the viewer in the shoes of someone guilty of murdering a man with a knife. Any mention of the word ‘knife’ would get said person’s attention.

Obviously the word ‘knife’ is not used this frequently in everyday conversation, however, from the perspective of the protagonist, paranoia may cause her to feel as if she’s hearing the word ‘knife’ an excessive amount of times. It is more than likely that the word ‘knife’ was not used this much in reality, therefore the sound is used to express the auditory hallucinations one might feel when suffering from paranoia.

This was a very important film. Hitchcock has effectively used dietetic sound to express the emotion of a character, and evoke empathy from the audience. This added an entirely new layer to film that had not been present before. It opened up new opportunities for film makers; exposition through sound.


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