"I think what sound brought of value to the cinema was to complete the realism of the image on the screen. It made everyone in the audience deaf mutes." -Alfred Hitchcock
Borgus.com - Because he is known for his visual techniques, Alfred Hitchcock’s unique use of sound is a topic which receives less attention. While his first several films were silent, Blackmail (1929) started him on a path of aural manipulation that continued through his later works. Blackmail showcases Hitchcock’s instinctive styles of soundscaping during a time period where little was yet known about the cinematic powers of sound. Blackmail demonstrates ongoing tactics, such as: withholding sound from the viewer to pique curiosity, exaggerating sound as a form of narrative emphasis, and creating tension through both ambient noises and silence. Further, in a world where music was the dominant form of narrative accompaniment, he stripped music score away from his scenes and instead used the act of singing (and whistling) as a suspense device. Lastly, Hitchcock’s manipulation of human speech ranged from technical malfunctions of telephone calls to dizzied audio abstraction of the characters’ subjective thoughts. This article will outline the major uses of sound in Hitchcock’s Blackmail, and demonstrate that it is an essential foundation to his usage in later works.
At the time of Blackmail’s release, most theaters still didn’t have speakers, only 22% having sound. Nonetheless, Hitchcock was keen to consider those 5,200 theaters worldwide which did have sound, and knew that more would follow (Belton 1999). Film scholar Elizabeth Weis wrote The Silent Scream in 1982, a thorough examination of the use of sound in Hitchcock films. According to Weis, Hitchcock saw the arrival of sound technology as a ‘new dimension of cinematic expression’ (Weis 1982, p.14). This dimension enabled him to break away from the flat plane of the visual and create cinematic worlds more deeply entrenched in realism.
1. Sharing Secrets
Since he was known for his manipulation of viewer expectations, it is not surprising that Hitchcock intentionally withheld sound information to heighten curiosity. In Blackmail, he teases by allowing the characters to keep secrets from us, and each other. The viewer is cued early in the film – when Alice laughs as the doorman whispers into her ear – that some information is going to be kept from us. After laughing at the doorman’s secret, Alice White (Anny Ondra, voiced by Joan Barry) walks down the street with her boyfriend, Detective Frank Webber (John Longdon) who is also unaware of the secret, playfully shunning him. This tactic came around again in his 1955 The Trouble With Harry, in which a whisper into the ear is used as a running gag, leaving the viewer curious what Jennifer (Shirley MacLain) wants as a gift. In both films, the whispered information was irrelevant to the plot, serving only to playfully tease the viewer.
Conversely, there are moments where he lets us in exclusively. The phone booth in Blackmail becomes a dual private and public space, as a way to allow the viewer to share secret information and to exclude others from it. Hitchcock uses the phone booth in three key moments in the film: first, to reveal subjective fears of Alice; second, to reveal Frank’s knowledge of the murder; and third, to plant a plot twist in which the police suspect the blackmailer. The first time Alice walks into the phone booth within her family’s newsagent shop, the viewer is allowed a subjective viewpoint on her guilt. As a nearby gossiper is rambling on about the murder, we follow Alice into the booth; the gossiper’s voice drops to silence as she closes the door. We are inside the booth with Alice as she looks up Frank’s number in the phone book; instead of dialing the number she gets frightened. As she opens the booth to leave, the gossiper’s voice comes back – still talking about the murder. The brief absence of the murder-talk in the booth allows us to internalize Alice’s desire to hide from it.
A few moments later Frank arrives and enters the booth pretending to make a call. Then, he asks Alice to come into the booth with him, presumably so they can talk in private. While both are in the booth, we are made privy to the conversation, revealing that Frank knows Alice committed the murder. He brings out her glove found on the scene and she grabs it in shock, unable to speak. Unfortunately for the characters, the phone booth’s privacy excludes the visual; Tracy (Donald Calthrop) knocks on the door to speak to them having just seen the glove through the glass. Because he was snooping around the area the night of the murder, he saw Alice enter the apartment and somehow found the matching glove. Seeing it confirms his suspicion that she committed the murder and sets up his attempt to blackmail her.
Later, as Frank receives an update from Scotland Yard, he takes the phone call in the booth with the door cracked open so we can hear. As his conversation gets more interesting, he closes the door on us, reducing his speech to mere mumbles. This information is withheld until he is able to reveal it as a dramatic twist to Tracy in the next scene. As Frank leaves the booth hurriedly, Mr. White, also frustrated by not hearing the call, yells out, ‘any news Frank?’ The answer is withheld, increasing tension until Frank dramatically reveals the police are looking for Tracy, thus turning the tables on the blackmailer. These moments are pure timed manipulation of viewer access to information.
Hitchcock also tended to switch back to silent-film mode by placing the actors out of the microphone’s reach intentionally. In the final sequence of Blackmail, we are given a distant view through glass doors within the police building, as Alice and the doorman knock on the Inspector’s office door. Since we see it through the glass doors from a distance, the knocking sound is absent as well as the dialogue of the doorman explaining who is there and the subsequent permission to enter. Hitchcock’s act of withholding the audio of this simple moment from us, allows us to see it from an objective viewpoint and consider the implication of what she is about to do – confess to the murder. Subsequently, Hitchcock switched to silent-film mode in To Catch a Thief (1955), also through glass doors, as a conversation is carried out with broad motions of the actor’s bodies, rather than dialogue. During a key moment in Torn Curtain (1966), Sarah (Julie Andrews) is made privy to the secret which we’ve known all along – that her husband (Paul Newman) has been sent to spy. He reveals this to her on a distant hill, in which they both walk away from the microphone. In the distance we see him explaining something to her, and witness the moment she changes from anger to glee, punctuated by her embrace. Since the viewer already knew this information, Hitchcock chose not to bore us with the dialogue, focusing instead on the visual moment.
2. Ambient Sound as Suspense Device
In Blackmail, Hitchcock used the ambient sounds of his settings by manipulating them for the purposes of suspense, as a way of expressing character emotion. In order to enhance the feelings of guilt from Alice after she murdered The Artist, Hitchcock used surrounding sounds to amplify those feelings. As Alice is slowly walking through quick-moving crowds in a daze of shock, car horns enhance the counterpoint between the busy world and her stoic stake of shock. She soon walks through a crowd of theater goers who are laughing under a billboard which reads: ‘a new comedy.’ The sound of laugher increases the tension as Hitchcock plays this humorous tone against her guilt. Each of Hitchcock’s car horns are taunting her to snap out of it. As she wakes up in bed the next morning, caged song-birds in her room whistle happily to the extent that they become intrusive, further escalating her frantic mental state. Later, while she sits down to eat at her family’s shop, the door chime rings abstractly instead of its recognizable quick burst. The sound of the chime is stretched out over several seconds resembling the long protracted tone of a tuning fork. This abstracted reality, created purely through sound manipulation, brings the viewer into her subjective state of mind – ultra sensitive to the sounds around her as she sinks further inward, hoping to hide from what she has done.
When Tracy comes into the shop to intimidate them, saying, ‘what a chance for blackmail – I could never do a thing like that,’ the door chime sounds and a delivery man walks in with a newspaper. The ambient sounds of the street spill into the room. Car horns, honking happily, further counterpoint the seriousness of the line just spoken. Then, as the delivery man walks back outside, he shuts the door behind him silencing the street sounds. At this point we know the line was spoken ironically, because of course Tracy does intend to blackmail. The sudden burst of comic energy from the delivery man’s entrance is Hitchcock’s way of indicating this irony. It is also a reminder that the outside world is ready to intrude on their private conversation, and that if Alice is implicated in the murder she will have to face public scrutiny.
When Tracy finally does escape through the window and flee for his own life, he crashes through with the sound of shattering glass, immediately letting in the ambient street noises once again. This time the car horns seem to be screaming out, rather than being comic. As the chase sequence begins, Hitchcock switches to silent-film mode with full music score, but adds rhythmic sound effects to further propel the tension. The beeping Morse code from a telegraph creates a sense of frantic urgency, and as Tracy makes his way to the British Museum, car horns add to this sense of panic.
3. Song as a Suspense Device
Hitchcock tended to find clever ways to incorporate songs into the plots of his films. Josephine (Doris Day) sings 'Que Sera Sera' at the climax of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) in order to catch the attention of her son being held by kidnappers in the same building – the very act of singing generates suspense. In The Lady Vanishes (1938) the secrets Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty) has memorized are in the form of a tune that she must sing to the recipient to be decoded. More than half of his films include music as an essential component, and eight of his protagonists are musicians (Weis 1982, p.87).
Characters in Blackmail whistle, hum, sing, and play the piano but they don’t do it for amusement. Hitchcock has designed each moment of musical activity to evoke suspense. As Alice enters The Artist’s apartment she explores the rooms, and gives the piano a try for a few seconds, a metaphor for her mental state – she’s going to try spending time with him, but is rather apathetic about it. The Artist starts out by whistling but soon is playing a full song on the piano with lyrics while he convinces Alice to try on a dress. He uses this moment as an opportunity to hide her clothes and force her to walk out in the open in her underwear, while he continues to play the song ‘Miss After Day’ (Belton 1999). After Alice murders him, the film’s music score repeats the song for dramatic effect. From this point, Hitchcock uses the motif of song as a reminder of the murder. Frank whistles a tune as he investigates the murder scene, and Tracy hums while buying a cigar and later whistles at the breakfast table in order to intimidate them into blackmail. In Frank’s usage, the whistle is a subtle expression that he’s already feigning ignorance among his other police colleagues; he already knows Alice was having an affair with The Artist and that she was probably involved in his murder. In Tracy’s usage of song, it is a flamboyant tease that he knows their secret and is wielding power over them, playfully trying to decide whether he wants to extort them for money. He whistles ‘The Best Things in Life are Free’ (Belton 1999) as a direct expression of his intentions – that they can be free if they pay him.
4. Dialogue as Expression
Human speech takes on unique attributes in Hitchcock films, often setting up situations where the act of talking is more important than what is actually being said. Dialogue has always been something which Hitchcock treated as merely sounds emanating from the mouths of his characters, whereas the story was revealed visually in other ways – by a glance, a close-up on an object, a reaction, etc.
Hitchcock often portrayed speech from the perspective of a character’s mind – either selectively manipulating speech heard through their ears, or projecting their internal thoughts as voice-over. In the infamous scene in Blackmail, he manipulates the speech of the gossipy neighbor in the shop when she’s talking about the knife used for the murder. Hitchcock deliberately accentuates the word ‘knife’ in a repetitive rhythm, mixed with mumblings that were literally spoken by the actress as unintelligible abstracted syllables. This way, we get a clear sense of how Alice’s mind perceives the woman’s dialogue, subjectively singling out only the one word, as she slices the bread. Often a character is talking off-screen while Hitchcock’s camera pans toward an object or a reaction on someone’s face. Since the camera stays on close-up of Alice during this scene and the gossiper is off-screen, the focus is on the reaction of Alice with each utterance of ‘knife.’
‘When we tell a story in cinema, we should resort to dialogue only when it’s impossible to do otherwise’ -Alfred Hitchcock
Another ploy that Hitchcock creates with dialogue is: missed information, or a sense of misunderstood language in a time of crisis. In Blackmail, the housekeeper frantically calls the police, and while she is relaying the address she thinks the dispatcher has heard the address incorrectly. We hear both sides of the conversation and know it’s correct, but she repeats the address frantically. In The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) it’s a confused name, Ambrose Chapel, which Benjamin (James Stewart) thinks is a person but is actually a location. In the same film, he has trouble hearing his son while speaking with him on the phone – a way of building tension surrounding his kidnapping. In the final moments of Blackmail, a random phone ring at the police station delays Alice’s confession long enough for her to decide against it. She had been torn about whether to confess, and she was slowly fumbling with getting the words out. The phone rings, distracting the Inspector and ending their conversation, and thus ending the suspense; confession thwarted.
5. Silence and Absence of Music
‘Silent film’ as a description is not entirely accurate because most films of the time period were screened with loud music accompaniment. It is only with the advent of sound, and Hitchcock’s full manipulation of the soundtrack that he truly pushed silence forward as a device of its own. Silence in a Hitchcock film represents the realism of traumatic events, as well as their secrecy from the public world. Contrary to convention, he used silence without music to heighten moments of tension.
A common question raised in a Hitchcock thriller is whether the neighbors had been able to hear the murder, and, in the case of Blackmail, Hitchcock’s lack of music score during the murder scene allows us to ascertain that for ourselves. Often ironically, the murder is loud enough to be heard as a desperate scream bursts out through the silence, and Hitchcock accentuates the fact that those nearby still fail to notice. When Alice kills The Artist it happens off-screen behind the curtains of the bed canopy. As Hitchcock cuts to a view of a policeman walking casually down the sidewalk outside, we hear Alice scream, ‘Let me go! Let me go!’ Her cries for help are unheard by the policeman, thus creating a feeling of isolation from the outside world. With the use of simple juxtaposition of sound not reaching a hero’s ears in a time of crisis, in addition to the irony that the policeman seems happy, Hitchcock uniquely creates a desperate situation. The viewer is compelled to warn the hero, but of course is a helpless viewer – also unheard by those on the screen. The silence creates a state of paralyzing shock, the feeling that time has stopped. We see only Alice’s flailing arm reaching through the curtain, desperately feeling around for the knife, which she grabs. As she carries out the murder, The Artist makes no sound. Alice’s screams of panic continue rhythmically with each breath and then gradually subside as her attacker falls limp; the room fills with silence. Finally, The Artist’s hand flops out into view, indicating that he is now a corpse. Silence continues as Alice stands up, carefully places the knife back on the table, and stands in shock. Only after a long, tense silence does music score begin, resembling the very piano piece that The Artist had been playing.
Silent murder scenes would become a hallmark of Hitchcock’s aural style, especially in films such as Torn Curtain, where a man is burned in an oven; Strangers on a Train, where a girl is strangled in a park; Rope (1948), where a man is murdered with a rope; Rear Window, where Jeff frantically fights for his life and falls off a balcony; and Saboteur, where Fry falls off the Statue of Liberty – all in silence without music score. An ironic exception of course is The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) in which the murder takes place during a loud orchestral concert; the villains plan to fire a gun precisely timed with the clash of cymbals so to mask its sound.
With the release of his first sound film Blackmail, Hitchcock’s techniques of film sound pushed the art forward and continued to stretch the boundaries throughout his career. As Hitchcock manipulated sound the viewer, prompting and teasing, he showed that he was in control, orchestrating his soundscape like no other director could. Sound enabled him to add a sense of depth to the worlds he created – a third dimension evoked only in the minds of the viewers who always came back for more.
Written by Jeffrey Michael Bays, an award-winning radio producer most widely known for 'Not From Space' on XM Satellite Radio. He is also filmmaker and film scholar with a Master of Arts in Cinema from La Trobe University. Jeffrey has written for Peter Marshall's Director's Chair, and is currently writing a book for Micheal Wiese Publishing. As an avid fan of Alfred Hitchcock, Jeffrey directed the Australian suspense film Offing David and is currently in development of two new films.
Belton, J 1999, ‘Awkward transitions: Hitchcock’s Blackmail and the dynamics of early film sound’, The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 83 No. 2, pp. 227-246.
Truffaut, F 1984, Hitchcock by Truffaut: The definitive study, Grafton Books, London.
Weis, E 1982, The silent scream, Associated University Presses, New Jersey.
Blackmail 1929, British International Pictures. The Lady Vanishes 1938, Gainsborough Pictures. The Lodger 1926, Gainsborough. The Man Who Knew Too Much 1955, Paramount, Filmwite Prod. Rear Window 1954, Paramount. Rope 1948, Transatlantic Pictures, Warner Bros. Saboteur 1942, Universal. Strangers on a Train 1951, Warner Bros. To Catch a Thief 1954, Paramount. Torn Curtain 1966, Universal. The Trouble With Harry 1955, Paramount.