Sunday, May 13, 2012

Once Upon a Time on the Set of Blackmail

21 Essays is a proud participant in
For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon III,
May 13-18, 2012.

If you like this blog...  
if you like Alfred Hitchcock...
if you support the cause of film preservation...
then please follow this link to make a donation to the National Film Preservation Foundation to support the effort to make the recently discovered silent film The White Shadow (1924) accessible to a wide audience via the internet.

We're trying to raise $15,000 and it's going to take many generous small (and large!) donations to get there.  With great appreciation for your generosity, THANK YOU!

Blackmail-blogging, essay 1 of 6 blog entries
Once Upon a Time on the Set of Blackmail

Introduction:  The Setup

The thought of young Alfred Hitchcock as a bright and eager assistant on the set of The White Shadow (1924) reminded me of another precocious kid who haunted film sets.  Just four years after The White Shadow, Alfred Hitchcock played the role of the respected director and Michael Powell (later to direct Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes, Peeping Tom, and other classics) was the kid with his eye on the director’s chair.  Here’s how Powell described the scene in a 1987 interview with Raymond Durgnat:

“… Hitchcock heaved himself out of his chair, which was a very difficult operation because he’d just fitted into it, and he said, ‘Mr. Powell?’  ‘Yes, Mr. Hitchcock?’  ‘Mr. Cox and I usually have a few beers after the shooting. Would you join us?’  And we were friends ever afterward. [laughter]”

At this very early point in his film career, Michael Powell was employed as the still photographer on the set and the movie was Champagne (1928). Afterwards, Powell continued to work with Hitchcock on The Manxman (1929) and then Blackmail (1929).

I like to imagine that Powell continued to join Hitchcock for beer after a full day of shooting.  Dissolve to...

Part One, The First Fantasy Dialogue

(Alfred Hitchcock enters the crowded bar.)

Hitchcock:  “I’m looking for Micky Powell. Has anyone seen him? Comic chap with a silly grin—it disguises his ambition.  Ah, there he is...  Mr. Powell, so good to see you after a hard day of filming.”

Powell:  “A hard day for whom?  You don’t even look through the camera.  Anyone can see you have the easiest job in the studio.”

Hitchcock:  “Blackmail is already finished for me.  I am hard at work on my next film.”

Powell:  “You appear quite attentive when Miss Ondra is on the set.”

Hitchcock:  “It is a director’s job to be in love with his leading lady.  That is private wisdom for any would-be director.  Please do not share this wisdom with Alma*.”

Powell:  “Someday I hope to find a collaborator as talented as Alma.”

Hitchcock:  “Good collaborators are essential but never let them take the credit.  It was Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger and it will be Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail, and script doctors like Micky Powell and Alma must be content with that.  The screenwriter must never share the credit, Mr. Powell.”

Powell:  “Yet I could imagine a credit of Written, Produced, and Directed by Alfred Hitchcock and Michael Powell?  I think it would look handsome on the screen.”

Hitchcock:  “Heresy. It shall always be Alfred Hitchcock alone above the title, with an apostrophe to flaunt my ownership.”

Powell:  “In my opinion, writers should shoot arrows at director’s credits.”

Hitchcock:  “Ha!  What writer could ever hit the bull’s eye?  I don’t think a director has anything to fear from your archers, Mr. Powell.  May I interest you in another pint?”

* Hitchcock’s wife and frequent uncredited script collaborator, Alma Reville.

Part Two, The Facts

Over the next six days, I’ll be using 21 Essays to explore possible linkages between Alfred Hitchcock and Michael Powell, offsetting my speculations against the background of a close look at the sound version of Blackmail (1929).  Frankly, little is actually known of the private relationship of these two ostensibly public figures.  Hitchcock rarely spoke about Powell, and, for his part, Powell only began elaborating about their relationship after Hitchcock’s death.  And while there’s no reason to doubt Powell’s stories, it would be nice to find some independent confirmations of them!

Here’s what we know:  Twenty-three-year-old Michael Powell met Alfred Hitchcock (age 29) in 1928 when Powell was hired to work as stills photographer on Hitchcock’s Champagne.  Powell continued to work with Hitchcock in this uncredited position on The Manxman (1929) and Blackmail (1929).  Powell claims that he was invited to work on the script of Blackmail, and that he himself suggested the use of the British Museum for the climactic chase.  His full claim was that he conceived and wrote a new third act for the movie at the request of Hitchcock himself.

All of this is very plausible.  Hitchcock and Powell remained friendly throughout their lives, although their paths rarely crossed.  Powell was certainly creative enough to contribute original ideas to a script and the movie completely rewrites the third act of Charles Burnett’s play Blackmail.  Hitchcock often noted that there were difficulties settling on an end for the film.

The fact that Hitchcock never mentioned Powell in association with Blackmail means little.  Hitchcock was a master self-promoter—an expert at the art of personal branding.  He rarely discussed watching movies by other filmmakers and was a master at steering interviews away from the subject of influences.  He flaunted an air of modesty even as he claimed all credit for himself.  That was simply Hitchcock’s way.

In 1929, it’s very easy to imagine that Powell already displayed creative and leadership traits destined to blossom during his remarkable directing career.  It’s easy to imagine that Hitchcock would have noted his latent talents.  And it’s extremely easy to imagine—especially considering various tantalizing similarities between their works—that each of these artists kept an eye on the other’s work as they matured, keenly watching each other’s films and silently cribbing ideas.

Beauty in green:  Ludmilla Tcherina in The Tales of Hoffmann (1954),
written, produced and directed by Michael Powell and
Emeric Pressburger.

Beauty in green:  Kim Novak in Vertigo (1958),
directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

More facts about their relationship…  Blackmail was the last movie where they worked together.  In 1935, Powell went to Hitchcock for advice concerning his stalled career in so-called  “quota quickies.”  In 1945, Powell traveled to Hollywood, looking for an American actress to play the lead in A Matter of Life and Death.  He stayed with the Hitchcocks and Alfred Hitchcock suggested he use Kim Hunter, recent star of Val Lewton’s The Seventh Victim (which ushers in a whole new slew of conjectures on the influence of Lewton upon Hitchcock—but that’s another series for another blogathon…).  In 1952, Powell visited Hollywood again and once more was chauffered about the studios by the Hitchcocks.

Last of all, there’s the seemingly obvious linkage that’s really not much of a linkage at all.  Both Hitchcock and Powell simultaneously made groundbreaking film masterpieces about psychotic serial killers in 1959-60.  Hitchcock made Psycho and Powell made Peeping Tom.  While acknowledging that the relationship between the movies is primarily coincidental, it’s still pleasingly symmetrical to think of both men working together on Blackmail early in their careers and then plumbing so many of the same themes thirty years later when both Hitchcock and Powell were at the heights of their powers.

A respect for professionalism:  David Farrar in
The Small Back Room (1949), written, produced and directed by
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

A respect for professionalism:  Harry Hines in
Strangers on a Train (1951), directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

We all go a little mad sometimes.  Kathleen Byron in
Black Narcissus (1947), written, produced and directed by
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

We all go a little mad sometimes.  Anthony Perkins in Psycho (1960),
directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

Reference Sources
A Life in Movies by Michael Powell
Million Dollar Movie by Michael Powell
Michael Powell: Interviews by David Lazar
Hitchcock's Films Revisited by Robin Wood
Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light by Patrick McGilligan
The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock by Donald Spoto
Arrows of Desire by Ian Christie
Hitchcock by Francois Truffaut
The Hitchcock Romance by Lesley Brill
A Companion to Alfred Hitchcock by Thomas Leitch and Leland Poague

A special thank you to Joe Marcincuk for tracking down and delivering a copy of A Life in Movies to me in the nick of time.

© 2012 Lee Price


  1. This is a terrific post, Lee. Very informative and interesting to read. I love the comparison of the screencaps and speculation that they might be more than coincidental. Can't wait to read the rest of your essays.

  2. Interesting comparison between the 2 directors. There also seems a relationship between how each director conveyed psychological states of near madness on film, such as David Farrar trapped in his apartment and seeing things in 'The Small Back Room' and James Stewart slowly losing his mind in 'Vertigo' - both directors seem to use an expressionist technique here to depict the unstable inner mind.

  3. Thanks, Marilyn! It's an honor to be part of this great blogathon!

    grandoldmovies: Powell was quite explicit that he was channeling German expressionism in "The Small Back Room." Hitchcock was, as usual, more guarded in acknowledging his influences. But Hitchcock actually worked at UFA and the expressionist influence surfaces frequently. Another German influence: I consider Fritz Lang slightly apart from German Expressionism, but both Hitchcock and Powell cribbed much from Lang, too, particularly his German films.

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