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.

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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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THE SKIN GAME (1931): “What’s gentility worth if it can’t stand fire?”

THE SKIN GAME (1931) – British International Pictures – Rating: ★★1/2

Black and White – 83 minutes – 1.33:1 aspect ratio

Principal cast:  Edmund Gwenn (Mr. Hornblower), C.V. France (Squire John Hillcrest), Helen Haye (Mrs. Amy Hillcrest), Jill Esmond (Jill Hillcrest), Phyllis Konstam (Chloe Hornblower), John Longden (Charles Hornblower), Frank Lawton (Rolf Hornblower), Edward Chapman (Dawker).

Directed and adapted by Alfred Hitchcock

Scenario by Alma Reville, based on the play by John Galsworthy

Photographed by Jack Cox

Edited by Rene Marrison and A.R. Gobbett

In late 1930, Alfred Hitchcock was celebrating the release of Murder!  While only a modest financial success, it did receive good notices in the press.  More importantly to Hitchcock, he had enjoyed considerable creative freedom making the movie, which meant he was able to imbue it with his personal style; his fingerprint is on virtually every frame.  His next announced film was ThSkin Game.  

This film may have been Hitchcock’s choice, but more likely it was thrust upon him by British International Pictures, who considered adaptations of stage plays a safe bet.   Whether Hitchcock chose it or not, he was an admirer of the author, John Galsworthy, and had even seen the original London stage production in 1920.   When Galsworthy sold the rights to his play to British International Pictures he had absolute control over the final screenplay;  not one word of his dialogue could be changed without his permission.  This meant that Alfred Hitchcock would have to use visual means to express his creativity, to leave his imprint on the film.

The film begins with a nice montage of images and sounds;  bleating sheep, a barking dog, a shouting man, a honking horn.skin8  This is only the fourth movie Hitchcock made with sound, so he was just beginning to experiment with the many ways he could mix sound with visuals. skin9

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Shortly after this opening montage we learn that this movie concerns two families.  The first is the Hillcrist family, who are landed gentry, having resided on the same land for many generations.  They represent gentility and tradition.  The other family are the Hornblowers, newly arrived in the area.  They are nouveaux riches, and represent progress.  The Hillcrists have sold a parcel of land to Mr. Hornblower, with the verbal understanding that the tenants who live on the property would be allowed to stay.  Now, however, an older couple who live in a cottage on the property inform the Hillcrists that they have been told to vacate.  This sets up a confrontation between the Hillcrists and Mr. Hornblower.

Mr. Hownblower is played to perfection by Edmund Gwenn, who had originated the role on the London stage a decade earlier.  He arrives at the Hillcrest estate.  Squire Hillcrest (played by C.V. France) and his wife Amy (Helen Haye) ask Hornblower to reconsider evicting the tenants.  He refuses to change his position;  in addition he mentions that he is going to try to buy another parcel of land adjacent to the Hillcrist estate, and build a factory there, which will blight the view the Hillcrists have enjoyed for a long time.  The majority of this sequence is filmed in one take.  For about four-and-a-half minutes the camera follows Edmund Gwenn as he addresses Squire Hillcrist, then Mrs. Hillcrist.  Hitchcock also makes good use of off-camera dialogue here, another technique new to the sound era.

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The centerpiece of the movie is an auction sequence, at which the parcel of land is to be sold.  Hillcrist and Hornblower attempt to outbid and outwit one another over several tense minutes.   Hitchcock makes the most of his talent in this sequence.  He begins with an establishing shot on a poster, then pulls back and tracks through a narrow street scene, including pedestrians and all manner of transportation.   It is done deftly, in one take.  When the auction begins, much of it is shot from the point of view of the auctioneer, as he gazes out at the potential bidders.  Rather than cut back and forth from Mr. Hornblower to Mr. Hillcrist’s agent, Dawker, as they try to outbid each other, Hitchcock employs a whip pan.  The camera pans back and forth in a blur, from one man to the other.  This camerawork is expertly done by Jack Cox, who was the cameraman on eleven Hitchcock movies.

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In the above series of images you can get a sense of how Hitchcock and Cox employed the whip pan, to great effect.

In the end Mr. Hornblower uses both his clever business tactics and his seemingly endless reserves of money to win the land.   Mrs. Hillcrist however hints to Mr. Hornblower that if he does not relent he will regret it.  It turns out that Mrs. Hillcrist has acquired some rather salacious information about Mr. Hornblower’s daughter-in-law, the wife of Hornblower’s elder son.   She threatens to expose this information unless Mr. Hornblower sells his newly-acquired land and leaves at once.   While the story is all John Galsworthy’s, the theme is one that Hitchcock would often employ; that of a woman having the strength and determination to solve a problem, where the man has failed.  There is a resolution of sorts, although the ending  can be seen as tragic.

The film has a reputation as being a minor work in Hitchcock’s British period, and that may be true, but fans and scholars of Hitchcock will enjoy watching a film in which the young director employs several visual techniques to tell the story without compromising the author’s text.

Performance:  Edmund Gwenn gives a marvelous performance.  Of course, having originated the role on the stage, he was very familiar with it.  Hitchcock became rather fond of Gwenn; he would use him in three later films.  Helen Haye is good as Mrs. Hillcrist.  The other performances are adequate, but nobody else really stands out.  Jill Esmond, who plays the Hillcrist’s daughter, has a friendship with the Hornblower’s youngest son Rolf, played by Frank Lawton.  There is a hint of a possible romance in the text, but their performances don’t bring much to the roles.  Phyllis Konstam, as Chloe Hornblower, has perhaps the most difficult part to play, and she definitely generates sympathy.

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Source material:  As I previously mentioned, the playwright John Galsworthy had final say over the screenplay, so the movie does not differ in any significant way from the play.  A couple of scenes were moved around, but the dialogue is all retained intact from the play.   The only significant difference is that in the play, it is made quite clear at the end that Chloe will survive.  In the movie that is left uncertain at best.

Recurring players:  Edmund Gwenn would later appear in Waltzes from Vienna, Foreign Correspondent, and The Trouble With Harry.  Helen Haye and Ivor Barnard would later turn up in The 39 Steps.  Phyllis Konstam had earlier appeared in Champagne, Blackmail and Murder!  John Longden had appeared in Blackmail and Juno and the Paycock, and would later appear in Young and Innocent and Jamaica Inn.  Edward Chapman had been in Juno and the Paycock and Murder!   R.E. Jeffrey was also in Murder!

Where’s Hitch?  Alas, there is no Hitchcock cameo in this movie.   He has at least three confirmed cameo appearances in earlier films, but it was not yet a tradition in 1931.

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What Hitch said:   When Hitchcock mentioned the film in an article published in Film Weekly in 1936, he spoke with some fondness of the movie, saying:  “The Skin Game was one of the most successful of the pictures I made during this time.  It gave both Edmund Gwenn and Phyllis Konstam very good parts.  I can remember very distinctly Miss Konstam’s woebegone expression when I told her that we should have to have a tenth take on a scene in which she had to be rescued from a lily pond.”    When Hitchcock sat down with Truffaut over thirty years later, he was much more dismissive, saying only “I didn’t make it by choice, and there isn’t much to be said about it.”

Definitive edition:  Beware the many public domain or bootlegged copies of this movie floating around.  The only decent quality version currently available in the United States, is to be found on the three-DVD box set released by Lionsgate.  The print is far from pristine;  the image is not always clear, and the audio is worse.  This is a movie that needs to be restored.   There are no extra features included with this movie, although the box set does include a far-too-brief featurette about Hitchcock’s early British period.