MURDER! (1930): “This is not a play, this is life.”

MURDER! – 1930 – British International Pictures – ★★★

B&W – 108 minutes – 1.33:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Principal cast:  Herbert Marshall (Sir John Menier), Norah Baring (Diana Baring), Phyllis Konstam (Doucie Markham), Edward Chapman (Ted Markham), Esme Percy (Handel Fane). 

Screenplay by Alfred Hitchcock and Walter C. Mycroft, scenario by Alma Reville, based on the novel Enter Sir John by Clemence Dane and Helen Simpson

Cinematography by Jack Cox

Edited by Rene Marrison

A “real” Hitchcock picture:   Alfred Hitchcock came to this project riding a high.  His last two films, Blackmail (Britain’s first sound picture) and Juno and the Paycock had both been  hits.  But Hitch felt a little guilty about taking any credit for the success of Juno; he had essentially filmed a stage play as written, and believed all the acclaim belonged to playwright Sean O’Casey.   He was eager to make another picture that dealt with subject matter he could put his own personal stamp on, as he had with Blackmail.

Murder! was an ideal story for Hitchcock to adapt, and he was brimming over with ideas.  The story is set in the world of the theater, and begins with the murder of an actress in a travelling theater troupe.  Diana Baring, another actress from the company, is found standing near the body, with the supposed murder weapon near at hand.  She claims to have no memory of what happened, and is quickly charged with the murder.   The trial is glossed over, with a greater emphasis on the jury room.  One member of the jury is Sir John Menier, a leading actor of the British stage.  He is the lone hold out in favor of acquittal for a time, but the other jury members sway him to change his vote.

With a guilty verdict cast, and an execution date set, Sir John still doubts her guilt, and sets out to solve the murder and free Diana before her date with the hangman.   He elicits the help of Ted Markham, the stage manager of Diana’s theater troupe, along with Ted’s wife Doucie.  Ultimately their investigation leads them to a circus tent, where a strangely dressed trapeze artist may hold the answers a murder.

Innovations in sound and vision:   Hitchcock opens this movie with a nice visual shot.  We see a quiet row of houses at nighttime.  Someone is making a row outside a door.  Hitchcock tracks along a series of upper story windows, as the occupants open the windows to see what the fuss is about.  His camera finally stops on the window of the Markhams.

Later the Markhams go downstairs and head down the street, only to find the scene of the murder.  Doucie Markham accompanies the landlady into the kitchen.  Less than two years after the introduction of sound in British pictures, Hitchcock leads the vanguard in new and interesting ways to use it.  He has these two ladies begin their conversation in the kitchen, then move to the dining room, then back again to kitchen and dining room, without cutting.  It is filmed adeptly and adds a slightly lighter tone to a film that has just introduced a murder.

When Hitchcock cuts to Diana Baring in prison, his German expressionist influences show.  She is often shown with the shadows of bars across her or behind her.  The female guard can always be seen passing back and forth through the window in the door.  And, as the day of the hanging draws closer, Hitchcock shows the shadow of the scaffold growing taller and taller, a nice touch worthy of the great silent films.

Hitchcock used sound to greater effect in the jury scene.  After a few moments of deliberation, the verdict is eleven for guilty and one (Sir John) for not guilty.  The other jury members surround Sir John, repeating key phrases to him over and over, which finally sways him to their side. 

Here is Hitchcock describing the writing of this scene, which does not exist in the book (from an August 1930 article in Cassell’s Magazine):

Trial scene?  No!  Emphatically no!  The public is weary of the trial scene and my opinion is that you cannot get it over on the screen really successfully.  It is liable to fall terribly flat.  Besides, here Sir John was the central character and here is his entrance – Enter, Sir John.  It is, in a sense the crux of the story.

A jury scene, then, it had to be.  And while Mrs. Hitchcock was curled up in an armchair, nibbling the end of a pencil and gazing into space, I toyed with the gramophone, which, like my thinking apparatus at that moment, wouldn’t go.  Suddenly the “juice” arrived and the gramophone burst into song.  Almost simultaneously my thinking apparatus started into life.

“Got it,” I exclaimed.  “We’ll have all the jury repeating single phrases.  We’ll make em ding dong, ding dong, ding dong into Sir John’s ears till he’s bewildered.  We’ll numb him with monotony and stun him with crescendo.  That’ll make him give in and everybody can see him crumbling.

There are many subtle comic touches in the film which play on British class distinctions.  Such as when Sir John is dining with the Markhams, and Mrs. Markham begins to eat her soup with the wrong spoon.  So Sir John follows her lead, not wishing to embarrass her.  And the very charming scene where Sir John wakes up in the boarding house surrounded by children, and a kitten, just managing to hide his discomfort.  

As with so many Hitchcock movies, this one features a fall from a height near the ending.  In this case a rather grisly one, as the murderer slips a noose around his neck and jumps in front of the circus crowd.

Shakespearean influence:  There is a Shakespearean undercurrent in the movie, just as there was in the book.  In the novel, every chapter began with a quotation from a Shakespeare play.   To quote Hitchcock:

There were also several references to Hamlet because we had a play within a play.  The presumptive murderer was asked to read the manuscript of a play, and since the script described the killing, this was a way of tricking him. They watched the man while he was reading out loud to see whether he would show some sign of guilt, just like the king in Hamlet.

Perhaps the most impressive scene in the film is one that may be described as the first soliloquy captured on film.  There is long scene in which Herbert Marshall as Sir John stands in front of his bathroom mirror.  The radio is playing, and we hear his interior monologue as he questions the guilt of Diana Baring.   Says Hitchcock:

We had to reveal his inner thoughts, and since I hate to introduce a useless character in a story, I used a stream-of-consciousness monologue.  At the time, this was regarded as an extraordinary novelty, although it had been done for ages in the theater, beginning with Shakespeare.

The problem was that sound dubbing did not exist in 1930.  So Hitchcock had Herbert Marshall record his monologue ahead of time, and had it played live on the set from a phonograph as Marshall stood in front of the mirror reacting to his own words.  As if that wasn’t challenge enough, Marshall also had his radio on. (Interestingly enough, playing the Prelude from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, which would later influence Bernard Herrmann when he scored Vertigo).  Since the music could also not be overdubbed later, Hitchcock had a thirty-piece orchestra hiding behind the bathroom wall, playing the music live, which had to sync with the phonograph recording of Marshall’s monologue and Marshall’s live acting in front of the mirror.  The fact that it all comes off seamlessly is a testament to the sequence’s success.

Just as the movie (and the novel) reference The Mousetrap, Hamlet’s play-within-a-play, this movie ends with its own such moment.  First we see Sir John and Diana entering a room.   Then the camera pulls back, revealing that they are acting on stage together.  Hitchcock was borrowing from himself here, as he had done something similar in one of his early silent films, Downhill.

Performance:  It is very interesting to see a movie just one year into the sound era that is so dialogue driven.  Considering how new the format was, the performances are very good.  Herbert Marshall as Sir John really has to carry the film, and he does so, creating a character that is both sympathetic and charming.  Both Phyllis Konstam and Edward Chapman as the Markham’s are very good as well.  Slightly less satisfying is Norah Baring as the suspected murderess, and Handel Fane as the actual murderer.   Their performances are adequate, but pale when acting opposite Marshall.

Source material:   The novel Enter Sir John was the debut novel of Clemence Dane and Helen Simpson.  It is a fairly engaging read, and holds up well if one is a fan of mysteries.  The story is dialogue driven, with elements of humor throughout.   Hitchcock and Walter Mycroft did make several changes in the film adaptation.  In the novel Sir John watches the trial from the gallery.  It was Hitchcock’s idea to make him a member of the jury, which works quite well for the story.  The first quarter of the book focuses on the trial; Hitchcock chose instead to skip the trial and focus on the jury deliberation.  Many of the comedic touches from the book were kept for the film, such as Sir John reluctantly spending the night in the boarder’s house, and dealing with all the children and the cat in the morning.

The ending is rather different as well.  While both book and movie have Handell Fane being invited to Sir John’s to read for a part, which is borrowed from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in the novel Fane makes a dramatic escape from a window.  He is later caught on the street, only to escape the police station before ultimately being caught.  In the movie he is caught at a circus where he is a trapeze artist.  The idea of Fane being a cross-dressing performer was not in the book, existing only in the film.

Hitchcock’s German movie?  In the very early days of sound pictures, there were several attempts at shooting two versions of the same film on the same sets, but with different actors and in different languages. (Universal did this with Dracula in 1931, shooting a Spanish-language version with Spanish-speaking actors at night, while Bela Lugosi and company shot in the day).  This idea did not last too long, but Murder! was one such film.   Hitchcock shot another version, titled Mary, in German (which I will review in another entry).  Here is Hitchcock:

I had worked in Germany and had a rough knowledge of the language – just enough to get by…as soon as we started to shoot, I realized that I had no ear for the German language.  Many touches that were quite funny in the English version were not at all amusing in the German one…The German actor was ill at ease, and I came to realize that I simply didn’t know enough about the German idiom.

Recurring players:  Herbert Marshall would play the villain in Foreign Correspondent a decade later.  Phyllis Konstam had small uncredited roles in Champagne and Blackmail, and would later have a more prominent role as Chloe, the troubled sister-in-law in The Skin Game.  Edward Chapman also had prominent roles in Juno and the Paycock and The Skin Game.   Miles Mander had appeared in Hitchcock’s directorial debut The Pleasure Garden, as well as the German language version of this film, Mary.  Esme V. Chaplin (prosecuting counsel) also appeared in Mary.  Donald Calthrop was also in Blackmail, Juno and the Paycock, and Number Seventeen.  S.J. Warmington (Bennett) would later appear in The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps and Sabotage.   Hannah Jones (Mrs. Didsome) was also in Downhill, Champagne, Blackmail, and Rich and Strange.  R.E. Jeffrey (jury foreman) was later in The Skin Game.  Kenneth Kove (jury member) would have a small role (meek man) in Stage Fright twenty years later.  Violet Farebrother (jury member) was also in Downhill and Easy Virtue.  William Fazan (jury member) also had uncredited roles in Young and Innocent and Jamaica Inn.   Gus McNaughton (Tom Trewitt) would later appear as the pipe smoking man on the train in The 39 Steps.  And Clare Greet (jury member) was also in The Ring, The Manxman, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Sabotage, and Jamaica Inn.

Where’s Hitch?  Hitchcock’s cameo comes at about the 1:02:45 mark.  As the film’s stars stand talking outside a closed door, Hitchcock walks by left to right, with a female companion on his left arm.

hitchcockcameo

What Hitch said:  Hitchcock often spoke fondly of this movie.  I’ve already quoted him extensively, so we will end with his concluding remark to Truffaut:  “Anyway, to get back to Murder, it was an interesting film and was quite successful in London.  But it was too sophisticated for the provinces.”

Definitive edition:  As with many of Hitchcock’s early British films, there are several releases of this film, of varying quality.  The best to be released by far is on the 2007 Lionsgate Alfred Hitchcock DVD box set.  That being said, this is still a problematic print, but probably as good as a nearly ninety-year-old film is going to look.  The disc does include a 15-minute featurette on Hitchcock’s early British period.

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wemisse

Avid movie lover, reader, and writer.

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