Murder! (1930, Alfred Hitchcock)


By the middle of 1930, Alfred Hitchcock had directed eleven features, only two of which (The Lodger and Blackmail) were thrillers. Murder! squeaks by in some filmographies as the third, but there’s simply no way that the director would have adopted this project in his Hollywood or later British period; not a suspense story per se at all, it’s merely a conventional mystery with an unnerving, sickly tense atmosphere. The resolution isn’t terribly surprising, nor is the methodical way in which the tale proceeds, but the sense of atmosphere and detail, as well as the barrier it’s concerned with erasing between life and the stage, are the reasons it becomes one of the most fascinating of the director’s pre-1934 films.

The window dressing that wholly comprises the appeal of Murder! is of primary importance because the story itself is really nothing special at all, familiar enough to be run down in seconds: an actress in a theater company is accused of killing one of her costars, but a fellow actor on the jury believes she’s innocent and sets out to prove — with the help of other actors! — that another actor committed the crime. Taken broadly, the film has little of the shadowy starkness of The Lodger and Blackmail and is much more of a piece with the sharply observed, impressionistic domestic dramas Hitchcock was shooting in this period, especially The Skin Game and Rich and Strange. It’s unique if not exactly unheard of to see Hitchcock dabbling in a wholly separate genre, in this case the whodunit, instead of integrating the elements he liked from such a format into his thrillers, as he’d learn to do beginning with The Man who Knew Too Much four years from this. A Hitchcock buff may be disappointed by the somewhat awkward pacing, the dated plot elements, the lack of real drama in the investigation and the final revelations — but repeat viewings will iron this out as the modest genius of nearly every scene becomes clear. Meanwhile, mystery fans and those drawn to early sound cinema are likely to be delighted by J.J. Cox’s gorgeously menacing photography, the layers of detail both comic and perceptive, and the still-engaging sense of invention that runs through the course of the picture.

During the first act, the pace is astounding; by twenty-five minutes into Murder!, the eponymous event has occurred, an investigation has taken place followed by a trial, and a jury has been deliberating upon whether the alleged murderer (one Diana Baring, impressively portrayed by the cold-eyed but convincingly innocent Norah Baring) should be convicted. Up to this point, Hitchcock has been operating with strict realism, the sense of grittiness and class-consciousness more heightened than usual even for his work. We glimpse the rotten living conditions of the company of actors in their flats as the film opens (Ted Markham, later to assist in Sir John’s investigation along with his wife Doucie, has to recover his dentures before he can speak his first line), and later watch as the judicial system makes a mockery of actual justice, the camera lingering harshly in the manner of Dreyer on a diverse group of faces failing to process any meaningful opposition to the guilty verdict.

It’s after nearly a half hour that we first meet the hero of the picture, Sir John, surely the longest it takes for a Hitchcock film to introduce its protagonist (unless Norman Bates qualifies). John’s a widely-respected stage actor, and he’s played as such with mildly hammy conviction by Herbert Marshall; as soon as he appears onscreen, everything circles around him as though he’s constantly in a play, and his attitude reflects this premise. He speaks solely in monologues, expounding as if he expects notices to come the next morning even when he’s in the midst of a private conversation — or a jury deliberation. The stark directness of everything prior falls away when the other jurors challenge Sir John’s assertion that something’s not right here; in formation akin to a musical, they shout protests in unison and close with the extemporaneous chant “Any answer! Any answer! Any answer for that, Sir John?” Just prior to this in the narrative, when we saw the other performers in the company being interrogated, we witnessed how absurd the formation of a dramatic performance looks from another angle, as the players burst in and out of character and wander in and out haphazardly. That deconstructive perspective is made all the more telling when Murder! itself becomes a piece of theater, as it comes to revolve around the extravagant perpetual performance of Sir John himself.

Marshall’s an ideal stuffed shirt for the central role; even if his stylized pomposity can be irritating at times, it’s a kick to watch him intimidate the less successful Markhams, the couple he talks into tagging along with him to discover the truth behind the murder case, who are filled out with devilish wit and observation by character actors Phyllis Konstam and Edward Chapman. The two best performances of the film, though, are by Esme Percy (known for Pygmalion and Dead of Night in later years) as the androgynous Fane; and Baring, whose intensely sad embodiment of Hitchcock’s two favorite themes (the Wrong Man and the Woman Alone) leaves a considerable impression. As would be the case in so many great turns for actors in Hitchcock productions, it’s all in the eyes — Baring has few scenes, few lines, but it’s her face that lingers more than any other in Murder!.

Whatever kind of story he was saddled with, Alfred Hitchcock always made the best of it; from this generically rendered Agatha Christie-like story structure he finds places to insert his wildest ideas — by giving it his full energy, he’s able to make the quality of the photography, direction, and even something as simple as the blocking (watch the hilarious and surprisingly naturalistic early scene of Doucie following her landlord between two rooms gossiping all the while) the reason to remember the feature. There’s nothing at all typical about his treatment, for instance, of the discovery of the scene of the crime; after all the busyness and befuddlement of the first moments, when the body is seen with Diana standing over it, suddenly everything is silent — a silence that fills the senses. Such starkness is common through the film, including the documentary-like whip pans around the jury table, the lingering on those faces, and the supremely unexpected and brilliant playing of the verdict scene with sound only, heard from outside the courtroom.

This is only Hitchcock’s third sound film; the first, Blackmail, had begun production as a silent, and the second, Juno and the Paycock, was a filmed play. As a result, this is in many ways his first pure approach at using sound as an element in his pure cinema, and he goes to town with it: underlining the confusion in one scene with incessant bad piano playing, with crying children in another. And while some of the director’s ambitious experiments are still holdovers from the silent age (the sight gag of Ted sinking into a lush carpet as he approaches the intimidating Sir John; the gorgeously edited effect of the gallows’ shadow to emphasize the approach of the date of execution), his biggest stunt now inevitably seems quaint, but is still a treat to behold. For what some consider the first “inner monologue” voiceover in film, Herbert Marshall is situated in front of a mirror shaving as we hear him wrestling with his growing doubts, along with an extract of Tristan and Isolde emanating from a nearby radio. In fact, sound editing in post was not yet possible, so that’s a recording of Marshall’s voice and the sound of an actual thirty-piece orchestra behind the mirror!

The bravura finale, though, renders such technical point-scoring almost moot. The Lodger is probably a better movie than Murder!, and Blackmail — his first masterpiece — certainly is, but neither contains a scene quite as striking as the circus sequence, wherein Fane, after a performance in his secondary career as a trapeze artist, hangs himself in front of throngs of people. Not only is it a masterfully realized scene, all of the suspense and terror played through reaction shots and the sights and sounds of the circus and accompanying cacophony, it additionally reveals the true thesis of Murder! — that reality and fantasy, the world and the stage, have no sharply defined line. The discomforting truth is that the audience falling over one another to escape the horrific scene of Fane’s suicide has become part of his own performance art, much as Fane himself became a figure in Sir John’s Hamlet-inspired play, the play of his own life and investigation, itself fed by his own ego as a performer and stage hero. And as little as Murder! finally feels like a piece of Hitchcock’s traditionally subjective cinema when it drifts away from Diana’s claustrophobic world (the scene in which Sir John interrogates her is genuinely chilling in its exaggerated shadows, oppressive figures, and eerie distances), in the moments when he manages miraculous POV and reverse-POV shots of Fane on the trapeze contemplating the falling apart of his life and the final destructive act he’s about to commit, we feel every bit of his churning stomach somewhere in us — really something for a simple murder mystery.

Not merely the highlight of Murder!, the circus is a crown in Hitchcock’s British career — and it offsets nearly all of the flaws in this movie, which are actually constructive in the sense that they render it a handy time capsule of pre-war Britain. The “half-caste” euphemism is the excuse given for the Druce murder, the notion that Fane would kill before he’d have it revealed that someone knew he was either biracial or, as most allege, homosexual, despite the fact that (unbeknownst to him) Diana knew it all along. The sense of scandal here is hard for us to imagine, but it does coalesce nicely with the uncompromising view of a long-gone working class England. It’s so natural and real it seems to come to life, like no time has passed and not even a world war stands between us and the world of the film. Only Hitchcock could wring so much out of this tale, more than he could even have realized then.

[Hitchcock shot Murder! simultaneously with a German language version of the same story called Mary, with different actors in the major parts. Thought to be a lost film until about ten years ago, Mary is one of the more difficult peripheral items to track down in the Hitchcock filmography. When I manage to see it, I’ll add some relevant thoughts here.]

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