British Museum blog

Hitchcock’s Blackmail and the British Museum: film, technology and magic


Matthew Cock, British Museum

I was intrigued to read in a recent article in the Guardian newspaper (A Hitch in time) about Rescue the Hitchcock 9, a major campaign by the BFI to restore all nine surviving silent films by one of the greatest directors of all time, Alfred Hitchcock. It drew my attention because one of these is Blackmail (1929) whose climactic chase sequence was shot at the British Museum.

With three of the films, including Blackmail, the BFI have the original ‘camera negative’ – the very film that passed through Hitchcock’s camera. These, according to the Guardian, will be “fed through a digital scanner, copied using a cold light source, with each of the 100,000 odd frames given a unique number. Once in the digital realm, stored as images of 4096×3112 pixels (about double the current release-print standard), the films are subjected to careful cleaning and minute analysis for colour balance”.

A still from Blackmail. © 1929 STUDIOCANAL Films Ltd.

A still from Blackmail. © 1929 STUDIOCANAL Films Ltd

My first reaction was to wonder what the restored film would reveal of the interior of the Museum 82 years ago. I did a few searches online to see if I could find out more about the scenes, and soon discovered that Hitchcock’s filming of the British Museum wasn’t as straightforward as it might seem. Because the chase sequence wasn’t actually filmed on location at the Museum – it was filmed at Elstree Studios using a process invented by the German cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan and refined while he was working on Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, completed only two years earlier.

A still from the chase sequence in Blackmail. © 1929 STUDIOCANAL Films Ltd

A still from the chase sequence in Blackmail. © 1929 STUDIOCANAL Films Ltd.

Hitchcock talked about the filming in an interview with Peter Bogdanovich for his book The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock in 1963, and explains the process.
Bogdanovich asked him:

“Was the chase through the British Museum shot there?”

“No, it was all process. You see, there was never enough light in the British Museum, so we used what is known as the Schüfftan process. You have a mirror at an angle of 45 degrees and in it you reflect a full picture of the British Museum. I had some pictures taken with half-hour exposures. I had nine photographs taken in various rooms in the museum and we made then into transparencies so that we could back-light them. That is more luminous than a flat photograph. It was like a big lantern slide, about 12 by 14. And then I scraped the silvering away in the mirror only in the portions where I wanted the man to be seen running, and those portions we built on the stage. For example, one room was the Egyptian room, there were glass cases in there. All we built were the door frames from one room to another. We even had a man looking into a case, and he wasn’t looking into anything on the stage. I did nine shots like this, but there was barely any set that could be seen on the stage. The front office was worrying about when the picture was going to be finished. So I did it all secretly because the studio heads knew nothing about the Schufftan process. I had another camera set up on the side photographing an insert of a letter, and a look-out stationed at the door. When the big-shot from the front office would walk through, we would just be shooting the insert of the letter. They’d go on through and I’d say, “All right, bring back the Schufftan.” I did the whole nine shots that way. The chase on the roof was a miniature. We just built a skeleton ramp for him to run on.”

Actors, seemingly on the roof of the British Museum Reading Room. © 1929 STUDIOCANAL Films Ltd.

Actors, seemingly on the roof of the British Museum Reading Room. © 1929 STUDIOCANAL Films Ltd.

It’s wonderful to discover that Hitchcock used the latest special effects technology (replaced by matte shots and ultimately CGI and blue screen) to conjure up a virtual image of the vast and solid British Museum in a studio 14 miles away, to trick not only the viewer, but even the studio heads who funded the film.

Today the film conservators at the BFI, while using digital techniques to enhance the original images, in these sequences of Blackmail they are not revealing the real world, but in part the magic alchemical trick that is photography and film – where for a brief moment a virtual world was conjured up before the lens, using the same materials – glass lens, silver (on mirrors and as the basis of photographic film) and the creative vision of the maker.

This post is the result of some recent research I’ve done into films shot at the British Museum, which has resulted in a Wikipedia entry on the subject and a playlist on the British Museum’s YouTube channel. Neither is comprehensive, and I’d welcome any contributions to either of them.

Do support the BFI in the project and make a donation to Rescue the Hitchcock 9.

If you are a broadcaster or film-maker interested in the British Museum as a location, please contact the Museum’s Broadcast Unit.

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