Big Screen Blackmail: From The Big Sleep to Burn After Reading


Who knew extortion could be so devilishly entertaining?

Blackmail – the felonious, evocatively named act of threatening to reveal unsavory and damaging information unless a (usually equally unsavory) demand is met – is central to the plots of several of the most popular and praised films throughout Hollywood history, adding all sorts of provocative ingredients to an on-screen potboiler.

The latest entry into the genre of blackmail cinema is Joel and Ethan Coen’s dark comedy Burn After Reading (opening September 12), which features Brad Pitt as a gym employee who finds a forgotten computer disk containing the memoirs of a CIA agent (John Malkovich) and, aided by his boss (Frances McDormand) attempts to blackmail him over the covert secrets it contains, only to contend with another agent (George Clooney) – who happens to be sleeping with Malkovich’s wife (Tilda Swinton) – sent to recover the volatile info.

The highly anticipated film – which makes its world debut at the Venice Film Festival – is expected to deliver on the Coen’s tradition of upending of film noir conventions, and extortion – financial, sexual, homicidal and the like – has been an essential element of so many memorable movies in the genre since the rules of the game were laid down decades ago. would like to share some of the most famous examples with you, but you’ll have to share the link with as many people as possible or we just may have to expose just how many times you’ve page-viewed info on THAT ONE MOVIE (you know what it is) that will make you the laughing stock of all your friends…

Noir Classics: Blackmail in Black and White

With films like Blood Simple, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and The Man Who Wasn’t There, the Coen brothers pay homage to, satirize and pastiche the traditions of the great noir films, and blackmail has been a particularly juicy device.

One of the first great noirs to employ it is The Letter (1940), directed by William Wyler (from the Somerset Maugham play) and starring Bette Davis as a woman who shoots and kills a man, purportedly in self defense, who finds herself blackmailed over a letter that indicates she may have had more than a passing acquaintance with her victim – the tense film garnered seven Academy Award nominations.

In This Gun for Hire (1942) Alan Ladd plays a cold-hearted hit man, who nevertheless loves kittens, hired to kill a chemist blackmailing an industrialist who’s been selling poison gas to America’s wartime enemies, but Ladd is double-crossed by his client. In Murder My Sweet (1944), an adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s novel “Farewell My Lovely,” private detective Phillip Marlowe (Dick Powell) is drawn into a Byzantine plot involving a blackmailing psychic advisor who moonlights as a jewel thief.

Director Fritz Lang, who German expressionistic visuals helped define the noir look, crafted The Woman in the Window (1944), in which college professor Edward G. Robinson falls for the portrait of beautiful Joan Bennett, then encounters her in real life – her boyfriend suspects they’re having an affair and Robinson kills him in self-defense, only to be caught up in a blackmail scheme that threatens to undo his previously staid life.

Detour (1945) is a low-budget noir cult classic in which a piano player (Tom Neil) hitchhiking to California discovers his driver dead in his sleep, panics and dumps the body, then finds himself blackmailed by a femme fatale who insists he assume the dead man’s identity to collect an inheritance. In Black Angel (1946), from the novel by pulp noir master Cornell Woolrich, a musician is wrongly convicted of killing the nightclub singer who’s been blackmailing him, and his desperate wife teams with an alcoholic songwriter – the victim’s estranged husband – to prove his innocence.

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) is a cornucopia of extortion: after killing her wealthy but abusive and domineering aunt, Barbara Stanwyck is blackmailed into marrying the only witness to the murder (Kirk Douglas, in his film debut); when her first love returns to town years later as an aimless drifter whom the loveless couple fears has emerged to blackmail them, spinning into a morass of desperation and paranoia.

A landmark film by any standard, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) probes the depths of lust and corruption when two scheming adulterous lovers (John Garfield and Lana Turner) plot to eliminate her husband, and as the sordid story unfolds they find themselves targeted for blackmail by a sleazy cop (Alan Reed, later the voice of Fred Flintstone!).

Also towering in the annals of film history is The Big Sleep (1946, photo above right), another of Chandler’s Marlowe stories in which the private eye becomes iconic in the form of Humphrey Bogart. The plot – which becomes so complex as to become indecipherable, but the film’s so richly entertaining it doesn’t matter – involves the blackmailing of Lauren Bacall’s saucy young high-society sister over some compromising photos, though the real steaminess comes from the Bogie-Bacall chemistry.

Not quite a noir – featuring a femme fatale and a bushel of blackmail, but no weapons or dead bodies – and entirely a masterpiece of behind-the-scenes showbiz skullduggery, All About Eve (1950) features a relentless fame-chasing understudy (Anne Baxter) deftly manipulating her way to taking over the career (and husband) of a famed stage star (Bette Davis). Baxter attempts to blackmail Davis’ best friend (Celeste Holm), who regrets covertly engineering the ingenue’s debut to teach the star a lesson, into persuading Holm’s playwright husband into casting her as the lead in his latest play. In a later plot to steal Holm’s husband, Baxter’s starlet’s romantic plans are put in check by her seeming ally – and a far more skilled schemer – the acid-tongued drama critic (George Sanders), who holds the secrets of her scandalous past and blackmails her into becoming his personal property.

Coercion by Hitchcock

Typically possessed of certain noir characteristics, the films of Alfred Hitchcock are practically a genre unto themselves, and it’s no surprise that the Master of Suspense savored the dramatic possibilities of extortion on several occasions – his first sound film in England in 1929 was titled Blackmail, after all.

Nowhere does Hitch have more gleefully malicious fun than in Strangers on a Train (1951, photo left) – with a screenplay credited to Chandler, from Patricia Highsmith’s novel – where during a chance meeting aboard a railway the charming sociopath Bruno (Robert Walker) playfully offers to swap murders with tennis player Guy (Farley Granger) to rid themselves of the troubling people in their lives – Bruno’s stern father and Guy’s cheating wife. When Bruno actually carries out his end of the “bargain,” he begins forcing his way into Guy’s life to coerce him into fulfilling their homicidal exchange.

Hitchcock revisited a blackmailing theme in I Confess (1953): not only is Catholic priest Montgomery Clift unable to prove his own innocence under suspicion of murder because the secret sanctity of the actual killer’s confessional admission prevents him from revealing the truth, the priest’s pre-ordainment, now-married sweetheart has also been blackmailed when it appears they shared a passionate night together.

And the director’s Marnie (1964) also concerns extortion on a couple of different levels: when the titular character (Tippi Hedren), a compulsive thief, is discovered by one of her victims (Sean Connery), who blackmails her into marrying him. Behind the scenes, Hedren claims she grew so uncomfortable with what she believes was Hitchcock’s personal obsession with her that she asked to be released from her contract with him, prompting him to threaten to ruin her Hollywood career if she walked out on him.

Extortion in the Post-Modern Era

With so many modern filmmakers emerging as avowed students of the cinematic noir standard, themes of blackmail have continued to resurface again and again in several notable films in recent decades inspired by the early, atmospheric thrillers.

Some neo-noirs are set firmly in the era that spawned the genre: Director Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) recreates the era impeccably for audiences with a modern sensibility – lead character Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), a low-rent private eye catching philandering spouses in the act, is entwined in a world of extortion, blackmail and murder. Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential (1997) is equally adept at evoking pulp Los Angeles, with crime noir author James Ellroy’s intricate, intersecting plotlines, one of which includes a scheme by a high-class pimp/pornographer to blackmail prominent clients with photos of them in compromising positions with call girls surgically enhanced to resemble Hollywood stars.

Blackmail even invades the world of Toontown in Robert Zemeckis’ Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), in which cartoon star Roger’s sexpot wife Jessica is blackmailed over photos showing her playing pattycake – literally – with the creator of all those Acme gadgets.

Other films put the noir sensibility in a modern context, blackmail and all. Director David Lynch layers on a surrealist touch in Blue Velvet (1986), in which a violent, sadomasochistic Dennis Hopper blackmails Isabella Rossellini into fulfilling his perverse sexual desires after kidnapping her family. In Woody Allen’s psychological Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) an ophthalmologist (Martin Landau) is blackmailed by his mistress (Anjelica Huston), who threatens to expose their affair when he refuses to leaves his wife, prompting him to arrange for a hit man to eliminate the threat.

Dangerous Liaisons (1988) is director Stephen Frears’ adaptation of the classic novel by 18th Century French author Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, a potboiler bubbling over with blackmail plots enacted by and against the womanizing Valmont (John Malkovich). Robert Altman’s The Player (1992) grafts a classic noir plotline into the wheeling and dealing world of Hollywood when a studio producer (Tim Robbins) who, in career panic and paranoia, commits murder and becomes the target of an enterprising blackmailer with his own showbiz aspirations. And in Notes on a Scandal (2006), after an affair with an underage student, schoolteacher Cate Blanchett finds herself on the receiving end of emotional blackmail from her colleague Judi Dench, who wants something extra for keeping the secret.

And we can’t resist coming full circle to the Coens’ own The Big Lebowski (1998, photo above right), which was oh-so-very-loosely inspired the challengingly plotted The Big Sleep, and similarly employs a whiff of an extortion scheme that, while not being especially novel or even integral to plot, is part of a bigger picture that succeeds as masterfully as a quirky character comedy as its ancestor does as a noir thriller. The Dude abides, and with the coming of Burn After Reading, so does blackmail.

Check out the Guide to Blackmail and submit your blackmail story for a chance to win a Blu-ray Disc player and $100 Best Buy gift card here!