Hello again you wonderful people, and welcome back to Weekly Hitch – a blog sort of thing, in which I watch every Hitchcock movie and then try to work out what makes them good, or bad, or ugly.
This week Hitchcock returns to suspense and thrills with one of his very few actual “who-done-its” – the pleasant, but uneven 1930 film, Murder!
Murder is the name of the movie this week, and it’s also basically what the whole thing is about – but as with all good murder mysteries, the question is as much “why” as it is “who” – and Hitchcock answers both questions impressively in this very early British talkie.
The film begins on a quiet street in London, a quiet which is shattered by a scream and a crime! A little boarding house in which some travelling actors have been staying is found to contain the dead body of an actress from a play, and also another actress from the same production – who appears to have bashed the other’s head in with a fireplace poker.
Actress Diana Baring (played, curiously enough by Norah Baring) is nearly catatonic in the wake of whatever happened, but the facts seem to be these; Diana and the victim – an actress named Edna Druce – had once been enemies, but Edna came over to talk and patch things up. Next thing you know there are raised voices and a scream. The neighbours see a policeman in the area, and then another shows up and Diana is found next to the dead body and an empty flask of brandy (Hitchcock loved mixing brandy and death it seems).
Next, Hitchcock takes us to the theatre where the troupe (including Diana and the victim) are players for the month. A police officer meets with the stage manager Ted Markham (played by Edward Chapman) and his wife (Phyllis Konstam) – who introduce a few of the cast, including the lead actor Handell Fane (Esme Percy), who plays cross-dressing roles quite often. I’ll note that the cross-dressing isn’t all that unusual since the play seems to be a classic British farce, in which these things happened – but the script also draws attention to his effeminate ways.
After the police investigation we then arrive at the trial, and then the case is put to the jury. After some prevarication (a lot of talk of psychology and possible split-personality and duality) and uncertainty on the part of one particular juror, a verdict comes in; Guilty! (Hitch does a really great thing of having the verdict in the courtroom announced while just showing a man cleaning up in the jury room – sophisticated stuff there)
But, it is the uncertain juror who becomes our protagonist, as he – the apparently famous actor, Sir John Menier (played by the equally famous actor of the day, Herbert Marshall) – decides to undertake his own investigation to try and find out if Diana Baring was truly guilty or innocent and so relieve his conscience.
Sir John recruits both the stage manager and his wife (both playing humorously low-class folk in Sir John’s upper-crust world) with the promise of a job, and sets out to investigate the other players in the drama.
All together, Sir John and the Markhams head to the scene of the crime and through use of deductive reasoning Sir John begins to focus in on one possible suspect – the transvestite-ish actor Handell Fane – who was in love with the convicted murderer.
Sir John then heads to the prison to see if he can get Diana Baring to tell him what she argued with the victim about. Hitchcock interestingly photographs much of the scene straight-on from each character’s point of view – making the interview both unsettling and curiously poignant. But in the end, all Baring will tell him is that the dead woman was saying terrible things about the man Diana loved, and she refused to listen – because it was a horrible secret… that the man is half-caste! (which I think means that he’s half-black)
Deciding to use a clever ploy right out of Hamlet, Sir John and the Markhams invite Fane, who is now back at his old job as a transvestite trapeze artist (yes, really), to audition for a new play – which, they hope, will trick Fane into confessing to the murder of Edna Duce. But Fane (reminding me very much of Peter Lorre), evades the mousetrap – though is left worried that his half-caste secret and his act of murder has been uncovered!
Then, at the circus (Hitch loved the fairground it seems) Sir John and Markham confront Fane once again just before he goes on. Fane evades them, but then, during his performance – in a rather shocking and really well edited sequence – Fane makes a noose from the trapeze rope and hangs himself. His suicide note clears Diana Baring of the murder
Hitch ends with Sir John and Diana together, in what is then revealed to be a play – acting on a stage. (Rather reminiscent of Ivor Novello in Downhill.)
Well then, now that that’s out of the way we can talk about the movie itself, shall we? Yes we shall, because this is my blog and I want to . Totalitarianism!
Hitchcock’s return to death and suspense, his third such film so far, is a pretty ambitious undertaking – and while a lot of great moments and pieces are there, I have to say – it’s not quite successful. Not entirely.
Murder! has all the ingredients of what would come to be known as a classic Hitchcock film – but the mixing, the chemistry, and the timing is all wrong. And I think timing is the key word there, because honestly – it all feels a bit rushed.
The movie has a woman wrongly accused, there’s a somewhat of a race against time (she is due to be hanged after all), a sexually ambiguous villain, a dapper man on the case, there’s class struggles and comedy (Sir John amusingly having to put up with the children of a landlady at one point is quite funny), there are so many great Hitchcock elements – but they just never really gel.
The investigation by Sir John and the Markhams feels to, simplistic, to easily won – and the villain, so transparent and not so much defeated as just worn down. Even in spite of many great scenes, like Sir John debating with his inner monologue (a heck of an early sound-effect for 1930) or the emotional meeting between Sir John and Diana Baring, or the Greek-chorus feel of the jury as they force Sir John to vote against his conscience… these are all great moments, but the cohesiveness of a driven and thematically solid film is just never quite there.
It probably doesn’t help, of course, that we don’t meet the film’s protagonist until 27 minutes into the thing, or that (because she’s playing a woman in a daze) the wrongly accused Diana Baring is completely bland and unsympathetic. Honestly, everything about the film just feels like Hitch was hurrying to put the elements in place, but never thinking about what they were for. He knew the recipe, but didn’t have the technique – and that’s an odd thing for me to say about Hitchcock, because technique was his great strength.
That all said, the film’s climax, Fane’s suicide off the trapeze, is really worth the price of admission – so, I guess there’s always a little redemption in everything. On we go!
Adapted from a novel and play called Enter Sir John, Murder! was written by Hitchcock along with Walter Mycroft – who was essentially head of production for BIP at this point, and with additional writing credited to Alma Reville (aka Mrs. Hitchcock).
Production on the film provided a few new challenges for Hitch – who was still mastering the inclusion of sound in his films. At one point, while Sir John is listening to the radio and shaving, a voice-over can be heard of his thoughts on the murder. This effect, still hard to achieve with the old photo phone sound recording system required Hitch to first record the voice over, and then have it played back live on set while an orchestra also played music as if from the radio AND the actor performed as if thinking it all – quite a complicated set up for such a small moment.
Another curious innovation for the film were occasional attempts at improvisation by Hitch’s actors. Certain accounts tell that the screenplay for Murder! wasn’t finished by the time they started filming, a common problem then as it is now, and so Hitchcock spent a week letting his actors improvise their dialogue – telling them the story of the scene and then having them make up their words. This seems to have resulted in some rather fumbling and stilted performances in part, especially during the jury scenes and some of the more basic sleuthing sequences. Hitchcock did not consider improv to be something worth trying again.
But other elements of production harkened back to silent Hitchcock – especially the dramatic trapeze suicide of Fane at the end, which is an almost textbook example of what Hitch would call “pure cinema.”
In the end, however, the most interesting and odd production challenge for Murder! turned out to be nothing to do with the difficulties in filming the story, but actually lay in the fact that Hitch had to film the entire movie TWICE: once in English and then again with an all new cast and in German.
That’s right – as part of John Maxwell’s business strategy for British International, certain productions were made twice over using the same sets and crew, but with different actors for the German market. For Hitchcock, who spoke only a little German, the process of filming what would become a movie called Mary was a lesson in humility.
In his interview with Francois Truffaut, Hitch confesses that his lack of German language skills – not knowing the idioms or how to communicate his intent easily – left him relying too much on his actors and their egos when it came to performance. In effect, the process of filming in German took an element of control out of his hands, and if there’s one thing we’ve learned about Hitchcock so far, it’s that he liked having control.
I watched the German version of Murder! as well for this post (technically making this my 11th AND 12th film viewing, oh, plus the silent version of Blackmail, so 12th and 13th, anyway…) and it’s weirdly just the same movie, pretty much shot for shot – but with Germans, which is a bit unsettling, because they have a lot more moustaches.
Murder! was released to very good reviews in London that year, though Hitchcock considered it “too sophisticated for the provinces,” which might indicate that it was less well-received outside of the city. But, in general, the movie was successful enough to keep Hitchcock’s name at the top of list for great British directors.
It feels odd to feel so bland about an early Hitchcock thriller, but Murder! really does seem like an odd duck in the pantheon of Hitchcock suspense films, and I’m not sure where that puts it in terms of legacy.
Firstly, it’s a mystery – not a thriller. For reference, in a mystery we’re trying to find out who did it, and in a thriller we either already know who did it, or we don’t care. The 39 Steps is a thriller, because the main character knows it was a man missing part of his pinky, but also he doesn’t care – he just wants to clear his name. But Murder! on the other hand is all about the finding out who – and it’s a bit tedious.
Hitch himself would say that the trouble with a who-done-it is that the whole movie is focussed on the last scene (and Hitch does an amazing job with his last scenes in this one), and that’s very much not what future Hitchcock movies will be about.
That all said, however, there is still something to be gleaned from watching the this movie – and still so much of Hitchcock in it.
First off – the whole theatre/actor situation harkens toward later films like Stage Fright and, to a certain extent, Rear Window. Hitch seems to love the duality that actors have to present, and he uses that split personality to great effect here, by having Sir John be both juror and detective, and the villain be both actor and killer (and man and woman) – it’s something that should show up often in Hitchcock’s films, this idea of one person being two, in Vertigo and Psych and Spellbound and probably many others.
Then there’s the obvious and surprisingly blatant homosexual undertones in Murder! and its killer, the transvestite, Fane. While being “half-caste” might be the spoken secret that Fane was willing to kill for, I think it’s pretty clear that his real one was homosexuality. Hitch was never one to shy away from implied same-sex love in his movies, Strangers On A Train and Rope are two prime examples, but also he wasn’t at all judgemental or prejudice against gay men (Hitch and Ivor Novello got on very well). But, in making the killer of Murder! a transvestite who acts in a rather effeminate way, Hitch was putting a finger on Fane – not as being evil, but as someone with a secret that society would not abide. Fane seems to kill to protect that secret – which is understandable, almost – and yet, it’s tragic in the end, because not only does he die – but the secret was already known by Diana Baring, and she simply didn’t care.
Other elements of future Hitchcock include the discussions of psychology, sexuality entwined with death (yet again), the incompetence of police, someone wrongly accused… pretty much all the greatest hits. But again, I’m just left with the sense that Hitch was stretched too far by having to make both an English AND a German version of the film, like he was hurriedly rounding the bases, and not really paying much attention to how well he hit the ball. (That’s a baseball metaphor, I think)
So, in closing on this one, I have to say that I’m glad Hitch didn’t film too many straight-up mysteries, and while Murder! has some great scenes and moments, it just wasn’t as well thought out or cohesive as his other pictures.
He can do better, and he will… but not for a few years.
Be sure to come back next week, when I’ll be watching Hitchcock’s 1931 drama, The Skin Game.