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Week 11: Murder! (1930)

murdertitle.jpg“People ought to be ashamed of themselves, kicking up all that racket at this time of night!”
“I assure you, Inspector, I’m not the other woman in this case.”
“I presume, sir, that an ugly woman would have very little chance at your hands.”
“She had a quick changeover from a barmaid to a Salvation Army lass, and it told on her. There’s no doubt it told on her.”
“That was me. Or was it I? Do you know, Markham? I never know.”
“Yes, that’s him alright. Dressed up as a woman, eh? Always was very good at that.”
“Now, my dear, you must save those tears. They’ll be very, very useful . . . in my new play.”

Murder!

Following his “photograph of a stage play,” Hitchcock’s next project seemed like a recipe for more of the same: another stage-to-screen adaptation. This one, however, was a murder mystery, originally adapted for the stage by Clemence Dane and Helen Simpson from their own novel of the same title: Enter Sir John. Hitchcock wrote the screenplay with Walter Mycroft (the brains behind Champagne), with Alma once again receiving credit for the scenario. The production was filmed simultaneously in German and English, with different casts performing on the same sets and Hitchcock directing both versions. Whether inspired by the film’s genre or simply determined to exercise some more obvious creative control, Hitch managed to enliven Murder! with stylistic touches to a far greater degree than his previous effort.

herbertmarshall.jpgDespite the title, the murder takes place off-screen just before the movie begins. Actress Edna Druce is found dead in a room with fellow performer Diana Baring (Norah Baring), who is sitting in a dazed state with a bloody poker on the floor next to her. Diana claims to have no memory of what transpired between her and Edna, and so she is quickly convicted of the murder and sentenced to death. However, one of the jurors, Sir John Menier (Herbert Marshall), finds that he is not at all convinced of her guilt. An actor himself, he sets out to apply the principles of his art to the investigation of this real-life mystery so that he may clear the lovely young woman’s name.

village.jpgThe film opens on a shot of a deserted village street in the dead of night, the peace of the scene already shattered by a loud scream and a persistent banging noise. A few birds fly out from under the eaves of one house, and a cat streaks away up the street as various windows begin to open and heads emerge. Two of the heads belong to Ted and Doucie Markham (played by Edward Chapman, from Juno and the Paycock, and Phyllis Konstam, respectively). Ted is the stage manager of the acting troupe and Doucie is one of the performers.

markhams.jpgAs the two wonder what is going on, Doucie spots a policeman, but when she points him out to Ted, he has disappeared. Soon, a different policeman appears, and a small crowd begins to gather around him in front of the house that produced the disturbance. Ted and Doucie struggle into their clothes as we hear snatches of conversation down below. That is, I say we see the couple getting dressed. In reality, we seedressing.jpg Ted’s shadow on the wall as he puts his clothes on, but the camera is focused entirely on Doucie (at the least the fourth time that Hitchcock had filmed a woman dressing or undressing before the camera). As with the dressing scene in The Pleasure Garden, Doucie’s frantic hopping and wriggling into her clothing seems largely intended for comic effect.

murder.jpgThe most immediately obvious way in which Hitchcock enlivens the long stretches of dialogue this time is by keeping the camera almost constantly in motion. The best examples of this are the three main stretches of expository set-up during the first third of the film. First, after the crowd of locals (led by the policeman) stumbles onto the scene of the murder, Diana’s landlady goes to make her some tea, accompanied by Doucie. The two discuss what they have just seen, establishing which characters are members of the acting troupe and noting that Diana is generally rather well-liked,follow.jpg but was known to be carrying on a long and bitter feud with the murdered woman. While they talk, the landlady walks back and forth between the kitchen and the breakfast room. There is a chair on the right side of each room, and Doucie follows behind, chattering constantly and settling into the chair for a few seconds each time before being forced to get up and move to the other room.

farce.jpgSecond, in the rather clever police inquiry scene, two detectives show up backstage during a performance. As they ask various actors questions, they are constantly interrupted by “Oh, there’s my cue,” as their subject drops into character and steps on-stage. In addition to the two Markhams, the officers talk with a man named Handel Fane (Esme Percy), whose specialty is acting indrag.jpg drag, and Ion Stewart (Donald Calthrop, the villain from Blackmail) who has the part of a policeman in the play. While the scene is quite humorous, it proves to be fairly linear in building an even stronger case against Diana. Little do the police (or the audience) realize, but a vital clue is played out before our very eyes in this scene (more on that later).

jury.jpgThird, there is Diana’s trial. We enter the scene just as the closing arguments are winding down, and the jury is sent off to begin their deliberations. Most of these jurors are very eccentric-looking characters, and the camera moves almost constantly between them. Although we are told very little about them, they represent easily-recognizable “types” thanks to elements such as dress, choice of smoking paraphernalia, build, facial expression, etc. The scene is intentionally quite humorous in places, before it gets down to the serious business of the final conviction.

barbarous.jpgThe deliberations are quite long (a full 15 minutes), and rather reminiscent of a reverse-version of 12 Angry Men. The foreman outlines the facts of the case and a vote is called for. Seven of the jurors vote guilty. Two abstain, one on the grounds that the whole idea of punishment (capital or otherwise) isthick.jpg “barbarous,” though he soon sullenly signs off on the guilty verdict. The other seems to be a bit “slow,” and was confused by the defense’s statement that the accused was “in a fit of daytime sleepwalking” when in fact the murder was committed at night. He, too, votes guilty.

psych.jpgThen there are the three “not guilty” votes. The first, a woman (Violet Farebrother, the horrid mother from Easy Virtue), is quite taken by the psychological angle of the defense. She seems to think it is quite clear that Diana should be found innocent by reason of temporary insanity ordashitall1.jpg “disassociation.” One of the other female jurors points out that, even if that were true, one would never know when Diana might kill again, which convinces the first woman to change her vote. The second not guilty vote comes from a rotund, cigar-smoking, walrus-moustached man who essentially thinks that Diana looks far too nice to have murdered anyone. He is easily convinced to change his vote, leaving one dissenter.

That dissenting voter (whom we now see for the first time) proves to be Sir John. He doesn’t believe that Diana has behaved in a way that a guilty woman would, and thinks the prosecution has failed to address the possibility that another person might have been able to commit the crime. Of course, this is merely instinctual on his part, and the other members of the jury gather tightly around him, slowly wearing him down. His protests become increasingly feeble until, finally, he agrees to the guilty verdict. Hitchcock employs a unique (and ultimately rather poor) sound technique here, as the other jurors build up a rhythmic battery of objections, finally chanting repeatedly in unison, “Any answer to that, Sir John?” The attempt is to expressionistically show how Sir John succumbs to the peer pressure of the group, but the chant is too jarringly unnatural to succeed.

sirjohn1.jpgsirjohn2.jpgsirjohn3.jpg

verdict.jpgThe jury moves back out into the courtroom to present the verdict, but the camera remains in the same room. Rather than show us the reaction of the court (and particularly of the accused), we watch as a janitor tidies up while we listen to the foreman and the judge talk in the next room. This visual disconnect from the proceedings emphasizes the emotional detachment of the majority of the jury, and of the entire process. Speaking of emotional distance, it is worth noting here that it will later be revealed that Sir John had some prior association with Diana Baring. I can’t say for certain, but it seems unlikely that British jury policy of the 1930s can be so far different from our own that this association would not have invalidated his sitting on the jury in the first place. Then again, he could easily have lied about it if asked, or simply not realized who she was until later. Chalk it up as a minor plot oddity.

diana.jpgHitchcock does one other interesting thing with the sound in Murder!, employed in both the next scene and a previous one. He employs the first known instance in film of a character’s internal monologue inserted as voice-over. First, after Diana is hauled away to prison, the scene cuts to people buying their tickets for the next day’s show, then to the curtain. As it rises, the scene transitions again and we find that the curtain has risen on Diana’s cell, where she sits calmly with a quiet smile on her face. As she stares off into space, we hear her imagining the performance going on at the theater.

shaving.jpgLater, in a more frequently-cited scene, Sir John is standing in his bathroom shaving and listening to music on the radio. As the notes wash over him, he remembers something that he hadn’t thought to bring up during the deliberations: Diana seemed quite sure that neither she nor Edna had touched a drop of the brandy that was on the table in the room. And yet, the container was empty. Who drank that brandy? We hear his voice as he considers all of this and what it means, and determines to get to the bottom of things himself. The piece coming over the radio is a well-known bit from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, and the monologue seems to have been written so that the more dramatic statements coincide with the dramatic swells of the music.

In setting up this sequence, Hitchcock opens with a shot of the building which Sir John lives in, then moves inside to the elevator, up to his outer door, into his lavish sitting room, and finally into the bathroom itself. In addition to establishing Sir John as a wealthy and influential character, the scene seems to be drawing us further and further into his private sanctum as a build-up to our entry all the way into his unspoken thoughts. The effect of the voice-over, in those days before post-production sound editing, was achieved by having a full orchestra playing the music that was supposed to be coming from the radio, while simultaneously playing a recording made by the actor as he modified his expression for the camera to coincide with what he is supposed to be “thinking.” The effect ends up coming off rather well.

washbasin.jpgTo aid in his investigation, he enlists two of the people who were closest to the events of the case: Ted and Doucie Markham. Together, the three knock about the scene of the crime and Sir John entertains further doubts: he learns of the mysterious disappearing policeman that Doucie saw and discovers that the landlady could have mistaken a man’s voice speaking in a falsetto for a woman’s voice (she claims she heard Edna and Diana quarreling). Most important of all, he finds a cigarette lighter that one of the actors has left behind in a dressing room with a broken wash basin. The basin is located just below the room’s lone window, and would make an ideal step up or down.

hitchcameo.jpgIt is around this point that Hitchcock makes his cameo appearance. As Sir John and the Markhams leave Diana’s landlady and go out into the street, he strolls by from left to right with a woman on his arm. One wonders whether this could have been Alma, however she is completely obscured by Hitchcock’s prodigious profile, and there is no record of her having appeared in front of the camera in any of his films.

prison1.jpgNext he goes to visit Diana in prison (in a visitiation cell which is deliciously stark) and attempts to question her further. She is very reluctant to discuss the case, and there is obviously some chemistry between them. It is also obvious that there is something she hasn’t told anyone. Her story ofprison2.jpg remembering nothing seems to be not quite true, and it seems that the murdered woman was trying to tell her something terrible about a fellow actor which she didn’t want to hear. Sir John can get no more out of her at this point, but he doesn’t need to. He feels sure that he needs to find the cross-dressing actor, Fane, who seems to have dropped out of sight since the trial.

What follows is a rather brilliant little montage showing the search for Fane. Showing is actually inaccurate, as the audience only hears Sir John and Markham discussing the ongoing search. What we see are a series of images which heighten the tension and raise the stakes at this late point in the film. First, a recurring shot of a shifting weather vane, representing the hunt in all directions. Second, an image of Diana pacing circles around her tiny cell, shot from the upper corner of the room. Finally, the shadow of a gallows cast on a brick wall which slowly grows upwards as the camera zooms very slowly in on the noose, showing how time is running out for Diana. The montage ends with a satisfied voice-over declaring, “Got him at last!” just as the camera reaches the noose.

gallows1.jpggallows2.jpggallows3.jpg

playacting.jpgIt turns out that Fane is working as a female trapeze artist in a traveling circus. Sir John has hatched an idea which he hopes will be able to entrap the murderer. Or, more accurately, he has stolen an ideaplayacting2.jpg from Hamlet. He will write out his idea of how the murder transpired in play form, then have Fane read the part of the murderer and watch how he reacts. The plan goes off without a hitch, and the results are most satisfactory. By the end of the reading, they know Fane is the murderer, and he knows they know. Nevertheless, he ducks out of Sir John’s office before they confront him. (After all, they really have no evidence at this point.)

fane.jpgMore importantly, allowing Fane to leave the office makes a much more dramatic Hitchcockian climax possible. Sir John and Markham show up in Fane’s dressing room before his performance that night and find him sealing an envelope and applying the finishing touches to his make-up. Any discussion will have to wait until after the act, though. As the other two watch from the wings, Fane enters the tent and climbs the ladder to begin his performance on the trapeze. As he goes into his high-altitude act he is obviously shaken.

guilt1.jpgSwinging back and forth on the trapeze, Diana’s face appears before him (much to his consternation). He is so off his game, in fact, that it seems he might be about to fall to his death. He makes it off the trapeze and stands looking out from the top of the ladder. Then he proceeds to pull a nearby rope over, knot the end into a noose, slip it over his neck and leap. The whole tent erupts in chaos, and Fane’s fellow performers take his body down and carry it back to his dressing room. There it is discovered that the envelope we saw him seal earlier is addressed to Sir John, and contains what amounts to a full confession.

 

guilt2.jpg guilt3.jpgguilt4.jpg

It seems that Diana was protecting him because they were in love, and his dirty secret was that he was a “half-caste” (a person of mixed race). On the whole, this seems a bit disingenuous considering the character’s propensity for posing as a woman. It comes as no surprise to learn that in the original novel, Fane’s secret was that he was homosexual. Up to now, Hitchcock had only toyed in the vaguest sense with any portrayals of transvestism or homosexuality, however these themes would show up much more prominently in some of his later films (though often kept in the closet, as it is here).

curtain.jpgAnother recurring Hitchcockian element, of course, is the wrongfully accused victim of justice run amok. In this case, the victim is a very passive female character who is forced to rely on a male proxy to do the investigative legwork (much like the Daisy and Alice characters in The Lodger and Blackmail). In any case, Diana is soon freed from prison into the waiting arms of Sir John, who promptly casts her as the female lead opposite himself in a new play. The final scene shows what is presumably the final scene of that play, as their characters embrace on the stage and the curtain comes down to applause from the audience before the final fade-out.

Murder! is not entirely successful in leaving the trappings of its origins on the stage behind. Quite the contrary, it cleverly brings certain theatrical elements into play to its advantage (toying with rising and falling curtains and so forth). This is, after all, a story that is closely concerned with not only the stage, but various elements of acting and theatricality in general. There is a well-developed thematic examination of life imitating art and, more importantly, vice-versa running just beneath the surface throughout the film.

Sir John methods as a detective are ostensibly informed by his experience as an actor on the stage, a fact which he references more than once. Nearly every character is “performing” in some sense. Sir John ensnares the real killer through the conventions of the stage performance. Earlier, Fane does a quick change out of a dress and into a policeman’s uniform before the clueless eyes of the police, mirroring the way he had imitated a woman’s voice to fool Diana’s landlady then slipped away in the confusion disguised as a policeman. Then, of course, there is the fact that the movie ends with the hero and heroine sharing the traditional passionate embrace, except that they are also acting for the audience in front of the stage, who are in turn only pretending to be an audience for our benefit. Hitchcock would go on to revisit some of these themes two decades later in Stage Fright.

In the meantime, Murder! manages to be a reasonably entertaining and engaging bit of Hitchcockian fluff. Ultimately, there is a great deal that is not adequately explained, and much of what is supposed to have transpired seems suspect if exposed to intense scrutiny. However, many methods and techniques the director would employ to much greater effect later on are clearly recognizable here. This would mark yet one more highly successful foray by Hitchcock into the territory of crime and suspense. One critic remarked, “[Alfred Hitchcock] has produced a picture of which any country might be proud, and has shown that when so minded we can make films superior in intelligence and style to any submitted to us by America or Germany.” One can only wonder how it had already taken so long for the studio powers to recognize that, in this genre, the still-young director’s true talent could be expected to deliver on a consistent basis.

Next Week: Hitchcock photographs more theater

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~ by Jared on March 12, 2008.

One Response to “Week 11: Murder! (1930)”

  1. […] any rate, I’ll be reading this series regularly. The analysis of Hitchcock’s terrifying MURDER! is exceptionally good, though I wish that more was said about the beautifully handled introducting […]

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