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:
“Time, in this case, may I remind you, is life.”
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 well-received novel Enter Sir John by Clemence Dane and Helen Simpson, Hitchcock returns to familiar territory after the uncharacteristically talky social drama, Juno and the Paycock. Although this is 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.
Hitchcock wrote the screenplay 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 Hitchcock’s — from the very beginning you can tell that the director had a lot of enthusiasm for the material. Murder! is clever, inventive and very entertaining.
Hitchcock had a well-documented fascination with the art of pretending. Hitchcock enjoyed using 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, Stage Fright (1950) (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.
Hitchcock blurs the line between fact and fiction (leading actress Diana Baring shares her last name with the character she is playing). I can’t really go into details without giving 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 and Dogme 95, all of which tried to prove that art must get rid of its “gimmicks” in order to be honest.
Murder! is also technically innovative. The limitations of the then new sound equipment presented Hitchcock with a series of obstacles. Hitchcock never allowed technical problems to restrict his imagination — he came 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.
The always great Herbert Marshall is wonderful here — it’s one of his best film roles. I’m always amazed by the actor’s grace and 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.