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 Junohe 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 answer to 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.

Later, 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 (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 a boarding house surrounded by children and a kitten.  

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 also could 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 Maryin 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 Blackmailand would later have a more prominent role as Chloe, the troubled sister-in-law in The Skin GameEdward 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 Paycockand 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, Blackmailand 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, Sabotageand 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 Murderit was an interesting film and was quite successful in London.  But it was too sophisticated for the provinces.”

Definitive edition:  The 2019 Kino Lorber blu ray release is the best version currently available.   The picture quality is the best it has ever been, and probably ever will be.  There is some background hiss on the audio track which may require you to turn up the volume a bit more than normal, but considering this movie is 90 years old as of this writing, the sound quality not bad at all.  The blu ray contains an exceedingly dry audio commentary track by Nick Pinkerton. There is some valuable information to be had, but Mr. Pinkerton also mispronounces several proper names and words.  I have a hard time believing the utterances of someone who can’t even speak properly.   Also included is a 14-minute audio excerpt from the Hitchcock/Truffaut interview sessions, a 5-minute video introduction from Noel Simsolo (in French with English subtitles),  the complete German language version of the film, and a 10-minute alternate ending.  This alternate ending is really just a couple of small scenes that were inserted into the ending to spell things out a little more clearly for an American audience.

A brief note on aspect ratio:   During the early days of sound films (approximately 1928-1932) many films were shot in a ratio of 1.19:1 (referred to as the Movietone ratio).  This involved overlaying an optical audio track over the film track.  The result was a film that was much closer to square than we are accustomed to seeing.  However, films from this era are very rarely released in this format for home viewing.   They are either “stretched” so the existing 1.19:1 ratio fills a 1.37:1 area, or the framing is opened up on the sides.  This particular version of Murder! chose the latter option, opening up the framing, which results in film equipment being visible in a couple of scenes.

FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (1940): “The female of the speeches is deadlier than the male.”

FOforeigntopREIGN CORRESPONDENT (1940) – Walter Wanger        Productions – Rating:  ★★★★

B&W – 120 minutes – 1.37:1 aspect ratio

Principal cast:  Joel McCrea (Johnny Jones/Huntley Haverstock), Laraine Day (Carol Fisher), Herbert Marshall (Stephen Fisher), George Sanders (scott ffolliott), Albert Bassermann (Van Meer), Robert Benchley (Stebbins), Edmund Gwenn (Rowley).

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Produced by Walter Wanger

Cinematography by Rudolph Mate

Film Editing by Dorothy Spencer

Screenplay by Charles Bennett and Joan Harrison; additional dialogue James Hilton and Robert Benchley

Music by Alfred Newman

In the spring of 1939 Alfred Hitchcock left England for America, having signed an exclusive contract with producer David O. Selznick.   Hitchcock knew he was going to be under Selznick’s thumb for a time, but he also knew that the loan-out clause in his contract would be mutually beneficial to himself and Selznick.  Hitchcock’s services as director could be “loaned” to other film studios and producers, which would allow him to choose films that he wanted to make.  At the same time, while Selznick directly paid Hitchcock’s salary of $2,500 a week, he charged other studios a loan-out fee of $7,500 a week, meaning that Selznick pocketed a cool five grand a week when Hitch was making movies for someone else. Thus began a pattern in Alfred Hitchcock’s early American period, where he made a film that he had to make, in order to make a film that he wanted to make.  His first American film for Selznick productions, the film he had to make, was Rebecca.  Upon completion of that movie, he was loaned to producer Walter Wanger, to make the film he wanted to make:  Foreign Correspondent.

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The stars of “Foreign Correspondent”: the incomparable George Sanders, the underrated Joel McCrea, and the lovely Laraine Day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In many ways, Foreign Correspondent is the first American Hitchcock film.   Certainly it was preceded by Rebecca, which is a very well-made movie.  But Rebecca is as much Selznick’s picture as it is Hitchcock’s;  it lacks many of the elements of suspense and humor which fans of Hitch’s British films had come to expect.  Foreign Correspondent picks up right where The Lady Vanishes left off, full of spies and political intrigue.   In The Lady Vanishes (1938) the enemy was only alluded to, but in Foreign Correspondent he is given a name.  The movie is set in ’39, by which time the Nazis were on the march.  Joel McCrea plays a crime reporter for a New York newspaper who is sent to Europe to get the “real story”.  McCrea somewhat flippantly asks his boss if he should interview Hitler! Once McCrea gets to Europe he is introduced to several key players in the European peace movement, including the charming Albert Basserman as the elderly Van Meer, who may hold the key to European peace.  Also involved are Stephen Fisher and his daughter Carol, played by Herbert Marshall and Laraine Day, and a couple of other reporters, played by George Sanders and Robert Benchley.  The story structure is Hitchcock’s favorite; a spy story with several set pieces, moving from locale to locale (e.g. The 39 Steps, Saboteur, North by Northwest).  The MacGuffin is the clause to a peace treaty which has been memorized by Van Meer.  A group of spies that is secretly fomenting war in Europe fake Van Meer’s assassination, then secret him away to try and get him to disclose the secret clause.  All the while Joel McCrea is searching for Van Meer, leaping from one adventure to another. 0227      

Signature set pieces:   The first breathtaking sequence in the film    takes  place at Van Meer’s assassination, set in Amsterdam.  Hitchcock  shot the  sequence on the back lot at Fox.  The establishing shot  is  phenomenal;  there are trolleys, cars, bicycles, horses, dozens of pedestrians, all in a pouring rain.   This is the kind of shot that Hitchcock had wanted to make for years;  now that he was in America he finally had the budget to do it.  And he certainly got his money’s worth.  The sequence finishes with the assassin fleeing into a crowd of umbrella-holding spectators, and Hitchcock’s signature overhead shot of the umbrellas being jostled as the assassin runs through.

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A sea of umbrellas hides an assassin in one of Hitchcock’s signature shots.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Joel McCrea and company chase the assassin into the windmill strewn countryside, and the exterior and interior shots of the windmills are magnificent.  The exterior shots combined a painted background with live foreground action and hold up very well today.  The interior is beautifully designed and lit, with a look redolent of the German Expressionists that influenced Hitchcock early in his career.

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The windmill interior highlights the Oscar-nominated art direction and cinematography.

After many further adventures, the film culminates in a sequence involving a plane over the ocean, a sequence that Hitchcock was clearly very proud of, for he spoke of it with great pride over thiry years later, sounding like a doting father. The sequence involves a full scale model of a plane, rear projection, and thousands of gallons of water.  It is arguably one of the greatest technical feats captured on film at that time.  Even more impressive is the fact that it is just as exciting to watch 75 years later.

Performance:  Hitchcock originally wanted Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck for the leads, and thirty years later when he talked to Truffaut, Hitch was still disappointed that he didn’t get them.  He didn’t entirely disparage Joel McCrea’s performance, but he had little positive to say.  He called him the “next best thing” to Gary Cooper, and said  McCrea “was too easygoing.”  Hitch said of McCrea and Laraine Day that “I would have liked to have bigger star names.”  Hitchcock loved having big stars in his movies; that’s one of the reasons he came to America in the first place.  In this case though, I think the leads as cast are fantastic.  Joel McCrea is pitch perfect in the role of the roving reporter who becomes involved in political intrigue.  His easygoing nature is essential at the beginning of the film; by the end his experiences have toughened him, and prepared him for the inevitable conflict to come.  McCrea and Day play off of each other very well.  George Sanders is excellent, as always, as reporter Scott ffolliott.  Herbert Marshall’s charming villain Fisher is essentially a prototype for the James Mason character in North by Northwest.  Albert Basserman brought genuine humanity to his character, Van Meer.  And let’s not forget Edmund Gwynn, one of Hitchcock’s favorite actors, who plays a small but juicy role as an assassin.  All in all, a superb cast, with no missteps.

Recurring players:  Herbert Marshall had earlier appeared in Murder!  George Sanders had just appeared in Rebecca.   Edmund Gwynn was also in The Skin Game, Waltzes from Vienna, and The Trouble with Harry.  Frances Carson would have brief roles in Saboteur and Shadow of a Doubt.  Ian Wolfe played a very similar role in Saboteur.   Charles Halton and Emory Parnell would have small parts in Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Saboteur.  Gerturde Hoffman, Donald Stuart and Hilda Plowright would appear in Suspicion.  Gino Corrado also had a bit part in Rebecca.  Elspeth Dudgeon would appear in The Paradine Case.  Herbert Evans would have a bit part in Strangers on a Train.  Sam Harris had several other uncredited roles for Hitch in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Saboteur, The Paradine Case and Dial M For Murder.  Colin Kenny would appear in The Paradine Case and North by Northwest.  Eily Malyon would appear briefly in Shadow of a Doubt.  Henry Norton and George Offerman, Jr. also had bit parts in Saboteur.  Ronald R. Rondell was in Rebecca and Mr. and Mrs. Smith.  Loulette Sablon would appear in To Catch a Thief.  And William Yetter, Sr.  would show up in Torn Curtain.

Where’s Hitch?  This Hitchcock cameo is easy to spot, as Hitchcock, holding a newspaper, passes Joel McCrea on the street at about the 12:40 mark.

Academy Awards:  Foreign Correspondent received 6 Oscar nominations:  Best Picture, Supporting Actor (Albert Basserman), Cinematography,  Art Direction, Original Screenplay, Special Effects.  It lost in all categories.  (Hitchcock’s Rebecca  won Best Picture this same year.)

0688 Screenplay:  Producer Walter Wanger owned the rights to a book  called Personal History by Vincent Sheehan, which was the starting point for this screenplay.  By the time the screenplay was finished, it bore no resemblance to the book at all, so the book was not listed in the film’s credits.   Hitchcock regulars Charles Bennett and Joan Harrison were the principal writers, but Robert Benchley (who also acts in the film) added some of his incomparable wit,  just as his Algonquin cohort Dorothy Parker would later add her unique wit to the screenplay for Hitch’s Saboteur.  Benchley contributed what has to be one of the wittiest lines in any Hitchcock film.  At a peace conference, Stephen Fisher has just finished giving a speech;  he then introduces his daughter, who begins to talk.  A man leans over to Joel McCrea and says “The female of the speeches is deadlier than the male”, a clever play on the word species, and trademark Benchley.  Another Hitchcock regular,  Ben Hecht, wrote the speech that ends the movie, a moment of pure propaganda.

Hitchcock and propaganda:  Alfred Hitchcock was unfairly criticized in his home country of England when World War II broke out.   He was accused of fleeing the impending conflict, which was an unfair accusation.  He made his deal to come to the States long before Great Britain entered the conflict.  And during the war, Hitchcock made several contributions to the war effort.  Foreign Correspondent, in addition to being a very entertaining movie, also has elements of propaganda, designed to arouse the sympathies of the American people.   Joel McCrea’s final speech begins “Hello, America”  and after describing the bombs falling on London, McCrea encourages America to keep it’s lights burning.  The movie then dissolves to patriotic images of US flag and eagle, while the final line of “The Star-Spangled Banner” is sung in the background.   Not very subtle, but certainly effective.  One can only imagine the effect this would have had on a theater-going audience in 1940.

What Hitch said:  Hitchcock was prticularly proud of the final airplane sequence in this film, something he described numerous times over the years.  Beyond that, he didn’t have much to say, telling Truffaut “there were lots of ideas in that picture.”

Definitive edition:  The 2014 Criterion blu-ray release of Foreign Correspondent is superb.  Certainly the film has never looked this good on home video before. Not even close.  Most of the special effects shots hold up extremely well, which is a testament to the filmmakers.   There are also some great extra features, including short documentaries on  propaganda, and on the special effects.  Also included are a radio adaptation of the movie, starring Joseph Cotten, and the complete Dick Cavett Show episode from 1972 that featured Alfred Hitchcock.  While the Criterion blu-ray is by far the definitive edition, it is worth pointing out that the 2004 Warner Bros. DVD release does have a nice documentary, which includes interview footage with Laraine Day, Patricia Hitchcock O’Connell, and Robert Osborne among others. 0937