Good morning, Mr Edison, glad to see you back. Hope you like the KINETOPHONE. To show you the synchronisation, I will lift my hand to count to ten.

William Kennedy Laurie Dickson

  • The conventional view is that the JAZZ SINGER (1927) was the first sound film. However, it was neither the first film to use music or spoken words, but is was the first that was promoted and given financial support by Warners to boost falling audiences. Following its popularity, the rest of the major studios followed their lead. Many exhibitors got themselves into hock with Wall Street to get the technology needed to screen projected images and sound.
  • There had been a number of attempts by Edison to master the synchronisation of sound to the moving image. The earliest recorded example was 1877, following a number of iterations, the technology was available from the early twenties. Silent films were booming so there was little demand to embrace the technology as the film techniques were creating amazingly sophisticated imagery and camera movement.
  • In many ways the development of the sound projector a remarkable invention. Unlike the moving image, there had been no antecedents to sound recording and its development happened all at once over a relatively short period. The the desire to capture and reproduce still pictures pre-dated the moving image, but there is no such thing as ‘still’ sound. The invention of the telephone in 1876 was the ground-breaking factor that demonstrated that electrical signals could serve the purpose of sound recording.
  • Warners put their backing into the VITOPHONE system which meant that the music from the broadway hit THE JAZZ SINGER could be captured and played on a disc. The film also features improvised dialogue, including Al Jolson, declaring “You ain’t heard nothing yet!”
  • The popular use of sound was the most significant transformative event to affect film-making. There was a period of adjustment, as famous stars from the silent era fell from grace when their voice failed to match their persona. This change inspired the great films SINGING IN THE RAIN (1952) and THE ARTIST (2011) and there was a certain romantic attachment that remained with silence. As well as actors, musicians lost their income at the dream houses, as they were no longer required for the accompaniment.
  • Initially, the introduction of sound sent some of the developments in the art-form into reverse. Images became static due to the noise of camera movements. Actors would form a semi-circle to speak into concealed mikes. These issues were addressed by the rapidly improving technology – boom mikes, blimps to deaden the noise of the camera, dubbing and sub-titles were also introduced to reach international audiences. The Universality of the silents ended.
  • Christian Metz identifies the channels of information in film (1) The Visual Image, (2) Print, and other graphics, (3) Speech, (4) Music, (6) Noise, sound effects. Interestingly, three of the five are aural elements.
  • The innovations continue with voice-over and the spectacular, immersive effects to support computer generated imagery. Spielberg and Lucas pushed the boundaries of what is possible with sound by developing THX through Lucasfilm – a quality assurance certificate to mark authenticity of sound in cinemas (and home viewing)

MAIN FEATURE: Blackmail (Hitchcock, UK, 1929)


This originally appeared as part of Movie Rob and Zoe’s Hitchcock Blogathon.

The transformational impact of sound was considered a threat to the artistry of cinema. Chaplin argued that it destroyed ‘the great beauty of silence’. Typically, Hitchcock saw the innovation as a great opportunity to reinforce the visuals by emphasising or distorting the meaning in interesting ways. BLACKMAIL was not the first British talkie, THE CLUE OF THE NEW PIN released in the same year was probably the first, however Hitchcock’s film has the distinction of being shot in silent, then reshot with sound, and released in both versions.

Many cinemas had not yet converted to sound, so the two releases were distributed simultaneously with slight differences – the silent version has a  cut to a shop-bell, for example – but it is the sound version that is the most enduring. BLACKMAIL is a peculiar melodrama based on a popular stage play that becomes a disturbing psychodrama in the hands of Hitchcock. It was advertised with the tag-line ‘A romance of Scotland Yard’, as the protagonist Alice White (Anny Ondra, voiced by Joan Barry, because of her accent) is in a relationship with detective Frank Webber (John Longden). Following a brief tiff in a restaurant Alice leaves with artist (Cyril Richard) who she appears to have flirted with previously. He takes her to his studio where the innocent flirting takes a sinister turn when the artist attempts to rape her, in self-defence, she kills him with a knife.

Alice takes cover in her parents tobacconist shop, not realising that a criminal named Tracy (Donald Calthrop) has seen her escaping the scene. Frank is put on the murder investigation and attempts to the evidence of her involvement in the murder. The plot is forebodingly dark as none of the characters are innocent. Frank’s motivation for concealing the evidence is to protect Alice, but also to win her back and keep her. Although this was not the first talkie, it was the first film to recognise the expressionistic potential of sound. In the artist’s studio there is the startling portrait of a jester that seems to point at the audience, implicating them in the crime, as they are witnesses. Hitchcock puts the sound of mocking laughter over the image.

The scene in the artist studio also demonstrates his masterful use of a musical score. Elements of the music give a creepy emphasis to the action and the innocuous tune that is played on the piano becomes charged with an intensity that comes back to haunt Alice as she walks through the streets of London. The most famous scene is the one set around the breakfast table where the gossipy neighbour relates the story of murder. The camera closes in on Alice as the sound is manipulated so that there is an emphasis on the word ‘knife’. Eventually, all other words fade and Hitch reveals Alice’s tormented mind as she is mocked by the repetitive chant of “knife, knife, KNIFE!”

It’s a remarkable that scene builds up tension as the plot becomes more and more intense. Tracy makes blackmail threats to the couple. The finale features a stunning action sequence over the roof-tops of The British Museum and the reading room of the British library. The use of landmarks became something of a signature in films like SABOTEUR (1942) which concludes at the top of Statue of Liberty, or the end of NORTH BY NORTH WEST (1959) with its chase across the faces of Mount Rushmore. Unlike these later films, the conclusion is not conventional as there is very little sense of resolution. The police decide that Tracy was guilty of the murder, however Alice and Frank are left with their sense of guilt as the jester points and laughs. Chilling.

Coming next, Dirk students pick their favourite cinematic noises. The next seminar is about The Dream Houses.

2 responses to “DIRK’S FILM SCHOOL: SOUND

  1. Pingback: Dirk’s Five: The Art of Noise! | The Dirk Malcolm Alternative·

  2. Pingback: Favorite Posts from Aug + Sept | Literary Vittles·

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