A Hitch in Time: Blackmail (1991)

Dave celebrates the partnership of director Ruben Preuss and screenwriter Miguel Tejada-Flores with a look at one of their finest collaborations.

The collaborative genius of Alfred Hitchcock and John Michael Hayes yielded a quartet of unforgettable movies: Rear Window (1954), To Catch a Thief (1955), The Trouble with Harry (1955), and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). Although the B-movie universe has its fair share of regular director/writer team-ups — think Jim Wynorski and R.J. Robertson, or David DeCoteau and Matthew Jason Walsh — the only partnership rooted in the same terrain as Hitch and Hayes is Ruben Preuss and Miguel Tejada-Flores.

Initially working together on Deceptions (1990) — a red herring-laced twist-a-thon — it was Write to Kill (1991) — a delicious potboiler that found poor Scott Valentine being framed for murder — where the duo peaked. BLACKMAIL sits comfortably between the two — and in a neat bit of symmetry, it has its origins in a story pulled from Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.

Included in the March 1990 edition of the mag, Passing for Love was penned by Dr. William B. Crenshaw, a professor of English at Erskine College. In a development worthy of its own movie, the notoriously Christian educational establishment decided they’d had enough of Crenshaw in 2020 after a thirty-five year tenure, when they fired him for urging students to quit and to stop donating to God-bothering educators. Perhaps if the higher-ups at Erskine had bothered to watch Blackmail upon its USA Network premiere in 1991, then the themes of greed, infidelity, and duplicity might have enabled them to skirt the costly wrongful dismissal lawsuit that Crenshaw fired at them given how the film is chock full of similarly secular shenanigans.

Said activities all revolve around Lucinda Sullivan (Susan Blakely): the wife of a wealthy businessman (John Saxon) whose money doesn’t quell her desire for sex. Lucinda is having a fling with the good-looking Scott Mayfield (Dale Midkiff) — but two months into their liaison, the arrival of voyeuristic photographs suggests that somebody is onto them. Thankfully for Lucinda, her hubby’s healthy bank balance means that any shakedown attempt can be paid without too much suspicion. Alas, resolving the extortion is fraught with surprises…

Crenshaw knows the drill with a taut thriller like this. Bestowed two awards by the Mystery Writers of America — one for Poor Dumb Mouths in ’85, and then another for Flicks four years later — Blackmail is a tightly-wound number adapted with panache by Tejada-Flores. An affair, a ransom, and a double-cross all take place in the first third, and you can’t help but wonder what the venerable scripter has got left in the tank. Well, the answer is plenty. Preuss keeps things moving at a fair clip, and the deftly orchestrated twists hit their marks until Blackmail‘s final frame.

Props to Blakely and Midkiff. Both are excellent — but the real star is Mac Davis as the questionably named Norm Swallow. The Texas-born Davis achieved iconic status in the ‘60s for his part in the creation of some of Elvis Presley’s greatest songs, like In the Ghetto and A Little Less Conversation. His sporadic acting career began in the late ‘70s — though with a lead role in box office bomb The Sting II (1983), it was nearly over before it began. Good for us, then, that Davis persevered. Without his bolo tie, polyester suit and crocodile boots, Blackmail mightn’t have made quite the impression that it does.

USA ● 1991 ● Thriller, TVM ● 90mins

Susan Blakely, John Saxon, Dale Midkiff, Mac Davis ● Dir. Ruben Preuss ● Wri. Miguel Tejada-Flores, based upon the short story Passing for Love by William B. Crenshaw

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