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The Age of Trump is an Age of Conspiracies. In lock step with the zeitgeist, elements human, natural, and perhaps even ethereal conspired against last night’s screening at the Syracuse International Film Festival of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1929 silent movie Blackmail with an original score by the wide-ranging film composer and song writer Erin O’Hara, and performed live by her and an ensemble of six instrumentalists.
Even by the dark standards of the Master of Suspense, Blackmail is a disquieting entertainment. Actually, creepy is a simpler and better word for the questions it raises and the way it raises them. As if summoned by the celebrated director from beyond the grave (come to think of it, I seem to remember that his body was cremated and his ashes scattered over the Pacific), sepulchral Iroquois fog dutifully crept across the heart of Upstate New York as the crepuscular show-time rapidly approached.
I was late for the show, hammering down the grade of Interstate 81 towards the city in my vintage Honda and hand-me-down Dolce & Gabbana tuxedo, the autumnal reds and golds of the magnificent Onondaga Valley buried in the shroud of gloom. Said shroud slowed me considerably and made me even later. As yet the biblical rains and flash floods forecast had not been unleashed. These came later and with a vengeance. Call it a conspiracy if that works for you, but climate change has come to Trump Country.
Luckily, as the weather god went toe-to-to with the Christian one in front of the green screen in the sky, the organizers of the film festival were just launching into a half-an-hour of congratulations of self and others with strings of thank-yous, handshakes, backslaps, introductions, re-introductions, introductory remarks and re-remarks lofted by a numbing succession of politicians, college deans, provosts, vice-presidents, heads of departments, spiritual advisers and fully certified heating-and-air-conditioning specialists. I arrived ten minutes after the scheduled start of the event and still had twenty minutes of this dispiriting revue to endure. Hitchcock’s ashes were spinning furiously in their watery grave as anticipation, enthusiasm, and uplifting energy drained from the near capacity audience filling the timeworn grandeur of the Palace Theatre cinema in East Syracuse.
Luckily again, the film was eventually allowed to begin and, even more luckily, O’Hara’s music with it. The movie opens with dynamic—the cineaste would probably say kinesthetic—footage of a police wagon speeding along the streets of London, its Georgian, Victorian, and Edwardian architectural fabric still fully intact a decade before large swathes of it would be obliterated in the Blitz.
O’Hara framed the eighty-minute film, which was soon to be remade by Hitchcock as a talkie as sound technology was then supplanting the silents, with her own song, “My baby loves me in the middle of the night.” It’s a bluesy line, especially brave for it archetypal quality that risks cliché had it been devised by a lesser talent and delivered by a less compelling voice than hers—rich yet clear, liberatingly sensual yet magnificently controlled.
On the one hand that opening line works in counterpoint to the action: we race down the boulevard not in the middle of the night, but in broad, bleached daylight. (Unlike Syracuse there was no fog in London town, though the film climaxes at the British Museum.). We know not just from the title of the film but also from the Hitchcock canon that a crime will follow and that it will happen in the night. The song immediately makes one think of cars on the move, nocturnal acts of violence, twisted romances—Vertigo, Pscyho, Rear Window. Yet the music projects a suspicion—another Hitchcock fascination and indeed another Hitchcock movie title—of what it sees on screen. O’Hara’s score will be no dutiful embrace of the master’s dictates.
While O’Hara’s song initially cuts against the visual grain, its follow-up line “… like the spoke of wheel” is perfectly synchronized with a close-up of the police van’s tire, the lyric wedded to the image like the ring it conjures, even while the spokes of 1920s automobile wheels were sharp and dangerous and definitely not something you put your finger into when they’re spinning.
Introduced by the shuffle of the percussion and a cool scrim of guitar and strings, the tune abides by its languorous pace, both love song and lament, as the squad car hurtles towards the movie’s fate.
It’s a great song—a provocative, powerful and unexpected take on Hitchcock’s silent masterpiece.
With the audience enthralled, it was time for the ethereal conspiracy to kick in: the fire alarm went off. No one left except me. Call me crazy, but I bolted from my seat faster than a Friend of Bill making for a Haitian barbecue, heading for the door even as the floodwaters were rising beyond the threshold. Better to be drowned than burned, I say, especially with the incense of movie-house popcorn wafting over the waves.
Fortunately for them, all those skeptical Syracusans were not incinerated in the plush: there was no fire, and before too long the unflappable and unerring conductor Travis Newton took it again from the top. This meant we got to hear O’Hara sing her hip and haunting song again.
At last the movie unspooled, uninterrupted before us. It is quite a length for a composer to confront, one longer than Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The task of providing music is especially demanding in the case of a psychological drama like Blackmail, which has almost none of the punch and mayhem of silent film comedies. O’Hara has tremendous song-writing gifts demonstrated over a quarter century of creative work and performance, and brilliantly deployed in Blackmail. She also has a distinguished catalog of in film credits including scores for the gripping Day Zero (2003), Michael Moore’s Sicko (2007), and for an informative, entertaining, and unexpectedly optimistic documentary shown at last year’s Syracuse Film Festival called Stink about cancer and poisonous chemicals in household products. In these projects the composer’s task is to produce discreet cues, the longest of which is but a few minutes in duration, rather than to come up with an hour-and-a-half of nearly continuous music that must shape and color the silent black-and-white action of Blackmail and the desires and dreads of its characters.
The job is still more demanding because Hitchcock’s camera takes its time trawling the back alleys of East London, patrolling the corridors of Scotland Yard, gaping at the lights of Piccadilly Circus and the shadows cowering against lonely walls, and dining in a boisterous tea-room where the heroine and her detective beau scramble to find a table for two. After finally sitting down they have a spat started by young Alice so that she can part company with her current date and step out with another admirer, a painter who happens to show up in the same tea-room. His is the wrong name to have on her dance card.
O’Hara does not sing again until the close of the movie, but in between her unforgettable solos, her ensemble writing enlivens the film’s fascinating views of social life in London in the waning roaring twenties, the strategizing of detectives, the interrogation of suspects, and the hushed panic of the couple trying to conceal a crime.
O’Hara’s bass-lines are often cyclic and often descending; they both follow and fuel the action. Above these hypnotic patterns the violins converse consonantly, often in clever canons, or quarrel in knots of dissonance, the shifting and subtle sonorities more varied than one would ever have expected from the small chamber ensemble thanks to the expert orchestrations of Lexia Christante.
The flow and eddy of young romance are broken by moments of violence and flight that O’Hara captures with expressionist clusters and fragments: when the blackmailer jumps through a closed window and finally, after a chase through the British Museum’s Round Reading Room, falls through its famous dome we hear the shattering shriek of violins.
One of the creepiest scenes and locations in all of Hitchcock is the painter’s studio. Blackmail came out before Hollywood’s so-called Hayes Code set about sanitizing the silver screen. In this seamy Hitchcockian atelier almost anything goes. The heroine changes into a fetish tutu behind a screen. When she takes paintbrush to blank canvas to do a slapdash self-portrait, the artist sidles up behind and puts his hand round hers to guide it in the addition of shapely legs and hips, finishing off the form with breasts. O’Hara’s music inexorably ratchets up the slow-motion terror of this fully-clothed foreplay.
When Alice kills the artist just off-screen because he tries to rape her, O’Hara marks the act with a terrifying sonic collision. Silence follows and then the pizzicato drip of blood from the mortal knife. Even if Hitchcock’s movie appears to harbor an ambiguous attitude towards that killing, one that spawns a cover-up by the detective and an attempt at blackmail by a lowlife lurker, O’Hara’s music is, in all its compelling nuance, clear in its judgment of the real crime. Her soundtrack is both a signal contribution to Hitchcock’s art and a bold rejoinder to it.