Peeping Tom

Page 1Page 2Page 3Page 4Page 5Page 6    by Iain Morrisson -- page 3 of 6

The murder scene from Blackmail.
(© 1929 British International Pictures.)

The Shock and the Aftermath

In Blackmail, an artist named Crewe is killed by a woman named Alice when he attacks her in his studio. This sequence begins when Alice meets Crewe at a restaurant. After some degree of hesitation, she agrees to go upstairs with him to his attic apartment. One of the first things Alice sees when she enters the room is a painting of an old court jester figure whose laughter is directed both at her and at us, insofar as we see the painting from her point of view.   Our subtle identification with Alice begins at this point. While Crewe frequently leaves the camera frame altogether, the focus remains upon Alice.

When Crewe urges Alice to try on a ballet outfit, she agrees. She changes behind a screen while Crewe plays a romantic song on a piano.   The camera isn't modest. It shows us Alice as she strips off her dress and pulls on the new outfit. When Alice comes out from behind the dressing screen, Crewe approaches her. In preparation for painting her portrait, he arranges her dress. But then he grabs her hair and attempts to kiss her.   Alice resists. She breaks away from his grip and says she should go home. When Alice goes behind the screen to change back into her dress, Hitchcock shows us a view of Crewe in distress over what has transpired. He has ruined his chances with Alice. Crewe goes back to the piano and starts to play. However, then in an almost comic move, he pulls her dress down from the partition and throws it across the room. We allow ourselves to laugh for it is not clear that he is a threat. Alice begs for her dress back and suddenly, Crewe strikes a sinister note on the piano. A shadow on his face casts a spiral shape that suggests instability and madness.

Crewe grabs Alice and drags her onto his curtained bed.   The curtains billow during the struggle. Alice blindly grabs for anything. Her hand reaches beyond the curtain and finds a night stand--and on the night stand her fingers curl around a knife.   We can't see what happens next, but the knife disappears with Alice's hand behind the curtain. The curtain continues to move from the struggles on the bed, but soon the curtain grows still. Then Alice emerges. She puts the knife down and mechanically turns towards the camera.   She is clearly in a state of shock. After several moments, her eyes begin to roam the apartment, looking for her dress. She finds it on the portrait of the jester. She pulls the dress from the painting--at which point Hitchcock provides a point of view perspective from the painting. She strikes the painting.  

Hitchcock's portrayal of Alice's trauma is convincing because Crewe's attack is unexpected. We share in Alice's trauma because in a sense we have been violated as a participatory and anticipatory audience. We have been laughing with Crewe and enjoying his attempts to seduce Alice. Alice has been portrayed as immature and innocent, excited by the paintings and the opportunity to play dress up. Thus, our expectations of Alice and what was in store for her character are also completely shattered at this point.

Hitchcock films the aftermath in a way that maximizes the shock-value inherent in the situation. He sets up this situation, and then, rather than diffusing the climax, he capitalizes on our emotionally-heightened state by having Alice face the camera. After she strikes the jester portrait, Alice turns away from the painting and walks directly towards us.   This unusual mid-sequence dissolve dramatically draws our attention to Alice's face and eyes. She stares directly at us as she staggers toward the camera--implicating the audience as participants in the scene and suggesting our responsibility for not recognizing the threat posed by Crewe. We enjoyed his flirting too much, we were titillated by his advances on Alice, we felt sorry for him after he was rejected and we laughed at his antics. The distinctive feature of the murder sequence here is how its aftermath enables Hitchcock to transform our emotions as spectators. We will see this same principle at work in Psycho.

page 3 of 6