04 October 2008

Murder! (1930)

d. Alfred Hitchcock / UK / 104 mins.


Note: The following review contains what might be considered a spoiler. If you do not wish to know the identity of the guilty person from this who-did-it mystery, read no further. Although a specific name is not given, a general description is. (However, in all fairness, contemporary audiences can probably solve the crime halfway through the film.)

Alfred Hitchcock is better known for other pre-1934 British productions – The Lodger, his first film to encompasses his favorite themes; and Blackmail, the first talking film from the United Kingdom – but before his career took off, I think he directed one other film that successfully blends entertainment and cinematic wizardry. Murder!, from 1930, was his third film in sound, and like The Lodger and Blackmail before it, continues on the familiar path of the wrongfully accused and the quest to prove innocence.

The film is the first of many times Hitchcock would turn to the stage and theater for a setting. Norah Baring stars as Diana, an actress who remembers nothing when she is discovered over the murdered body of another actress from the same troupe. She is convicted and sentenced to death, but one juror from her trial – a distinguished actor, Sir John Menier (Herbert Marshall) – becomes convinced of her innocence and seeks to discover the actual murderer.

Hitchcock simultaneously filmed Murder! with an alternative version in German (called Mary, it is widely unavailable for American audiences). He did not speak German himself, but that doesn't appear to have too much of a hindrance. He also continued his trend to spearheading significant technical innovations. The staging is of particular note, with Hitchcock's camera sliding back and forth to follow action as it moves "on-stage" and "off-stage" during the theatrical productions. Additionally, many film historians and critics believe this film was the first to incorporate an interior monologue told through voice-over. As Sir John stands at his sink and shaves, he listens to the radio and ponders the details of the case, the sound from the radio suddenly blurring with the sounds of his thoughts. (Incidentally, because Hitchcock was not able to dub in the radio music later, he placed an entire orchestra behind the bathroom wall to perform; a phonograph of Marshall talking substituted as his interior monologue.)

At times Murder! feels quite sophisticated for a film from 1930 (at least in terms of where America was; Britain has typically been one step ahead socially). There are discussions of gender equality during the murder trial, and men and women serve on the jury together. The actual murderer is a transvestite – which, coincidentally, is not the last time we'd see a psychopathic crossdresser guilty of homicide in a Hitchcock film. (He murders the actress to reveal a personal secret, which, in the source material, was his homosexuality; the film instead opts to play it safe by making his secret his bi-racial lineage, but contemporary critics have noted Hitchcock nevertheless seems to imply the homosexuality.)

It is not a perfect film, and nowhere near the masterpieces Hitchcock later produced, but it is surprising slice of early entertainment from a director who had not yet hit his full stride but was occasionally blessed with sparks of ingenuity.

3 comments:

the editor., 05 October, 2008  

Hi! T.S.,
I was wondering why did Hitchcock film an alternative version? and after a "little" research the answer: to increase ticket sales in Europe.
T.S. Once again! a very nice and detailed review of one of Hitch's early work.
I watch the film Murder today...and you are right!... he continues his "wrongfully" accused trying to prove their innocence theme.
Later works, were Hitch would focus on this same theme: North by Northwest, The Wrong Man, and Saboteur.

Sam Juliano,  10 October, 2008  

Yep, the camera work here was innovative and the film was a moderate success. I knew of the alternate version, but I know many others don't. Nice point, Dark City Dame on how this one foreshadowed those masterworks that would follow.

As always, T.S. has written a high-quality treatment here. He deserves a commission from The Hitchcock Foundation.

darkcitydame4e 10 October, 2008  

Hi! S.J.,
S.J.said,"I knew of the alternate version, but I know many others don't."

I am truly not "surprised"
by your quote S.J.,...Why?
because I visit your blog everyday and see you on the move...this theatre, that theatre, and you seem to know a "lot" about films.

Take care!
dcd ;)

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