Director’s Spotlight: Alfred Hitchcock’s Murder! (1930)

Alfred Hitchcock’s Murder! (1930)Synopsis:

A stage actress, Diana Baring (Norah Baring, A Cottage on Dartmoor), is charged with murdering a fellow thespian. The jury finds her guilty and she gets the death penalty. Even though he voted to convict Baring, a juror, Sir John Menier (Herbert Marshall, The Letter), begins to have serious doubts about the woman’s guilt. Sir John, who is also an actor, embarks on a quest to find the truth.

Reaction & Thoughts:

Murder! is what the Master of Suspense referred to as a “Hitchcock original,” which is how he described the projects he carefully prepared to reflect his worldviews.

Working from the novel, Enter Sir John, by Clemence Dane and Helen Simpson, Hitchcock returns to familiar territory after the uncharacteristically talky political drama, Juno and the Paycock. Although a thriller laced with endless Hitchcockian touches, Murder! is constructed as a whodunit, a genre that the director didn’t particularly enjoy doing. That being said, this is one of Hitchcock’s more complex if less celebrated works — it has layer upon layer of fascinating ideas.

The screenplay was written by Hitchcock himself, with the help of his wife Alma Reville and scenarist Walter Mycroft. The murder-mystery, taken directly from the novel, is pretty good, but the quirkiness of the characters and the plot’s oddities are all Hitch’s — from the very beginning you can tell that the director had a lot of enthusiasm for the material. Murder! is inventive and very entertaining.

Hitchcock had a well-documented fascination with the world of pretending. Interestingly, he never went for the film-within-film gimmick. Hitchcock much preferred to use the theater to illustrate the idea of art-imitates-life and vice versa. Although he would later do another film that revolves around the theater, the 1950 British movie Stage Fright (ironically, his only other whodunit), Murder! remains his boldest attempt to explore the connection between the world of make-believe and the real-world. The thesis of the film is clearly stated: there is truth in art while life is filled with lies. The movie also explores “identity,” a well-known Hitchcock motif.

I really loved how Hitchcock blurs the line between fact and fiction (e.g leading actress Diana Baring shares her last name with the character she is playing). I can’t really go into details without given away some of the film’s secrets, but rest assured that you will find stimulating the director’s curious idea that reality is more deceiving than fantasy. This attitude challenges somewhat the goal of movements like Neorealism, French New Wave and Dogme 95, all of which tried to prove that art must get rig of its “gimmicks” in order to be honest — here’s a great topic for discussion!

Anyhow, technically, Murder! looks antiquated nowadays. But the movie attempted to break every rule of the early sound era. Hitchcock never allowed technical problems to restrict his imagination. The limitations of the then new sound equipment presented Hitchcock with a series of obstacles. He wasn’t afraid of the challenge, though — he comes up with ingenious solutions to the problems. For example, Hitchcock finds a way to achieve the then impossible voice-over narration — I’m not going to spoil this “trick” either.

Marshall is wonderful here — it’s one of his best roles. Plus I’m always amazed by the actor’s grace, elegance. Marshall had lost a leg during the war, but you really can’t tell just by looking at him. Marshall has a slight limp that’s almost undetectable — that’s great acting in itself!

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

Murder! was Hitchcock’s third all-talkie, after Blackmail and Juno and the Paycock. Sure, it is creaky in places, but there is so much here for sharp viewers. It’s a really nifty thriller that deserves more attention. P.S. Hitchcock directed a German language version of Murder!, titled Mary (1931). He used the same sets, with German actors. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen the German movie.  B&W, 90 minutes, Not Rated.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Murder! (1930)

Hitch’s cameo

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