Alfred Hitchcock movies very often have great titles, and this is a really good one: simple, direct and enticing – and with an exclamation mark!*. ‘Murder!’ is a really good little thriller with the director once again flexing his considerable imagination after the misfire of ‘Juno and the Paycock’. The film gives him the freedom to really go to town with a whole variety of innovations – some of them successful, some of them weird: but all of them to be absolutely admired.
The narrative concerns an actress, Diana Baring (played by Norah Baring), wrongly accused and convicted of murder. One of the jurors – the theatrical impresario/famed actor Sir John Menier (Herbert Marshall) – then has second thoughts and follows up with his own investigation. Will he uncover the truth before she goes to the gallows?
The movie is brim full of interesting moments, they almost eclipse the story and certainly at times distract you from the action. The opening blood-curdling scream, signifying the titular murder, sets a fast pace. A neighbour cannot be understood until he puts his false teeth in, suddenly becoming intelligible as he and his wife get dressed to investigate (the arch-voyeur director lingering on the wife as she struggles into her clothes) – and elsewhere Hitchcock experiments with other playful sound games. When the police are interviewing actors backstage the scene has intricate timing: rapid overlapping of the cop’s questions, the actors coming and going from the stage delivering their lines, a guy grabbing coconuts to create horse sound effects…it’s like the director is demystifying the whole process and showing the mechanics of creating any performance. It’s brilliant.
As the jurors repair to their room for deliberation after the (very short) trial scene, it comes down to Sir John as the last defender of the accused Diana Baring. He is gradually ganged up on by the other jury members until they gather close around him and deliver their dialogue rapidly in an almost songlike manner:
Juror #1: ‘Says they were alone’
Juror #2: ‘Says they quarelled’
Juror #3: ‘Admits it’
Juror #4: ‘That’s right’
All of them in chorus: ‘Any answer to that Sir John?’
This happens a few times (each ending with the ‘any answer to that , Sir John?’ line) until the beleagured Sir John caves in, the camera slow zooming towards him as he defeatedly changes his verdict to guilty. The verdict is then heard offscreen as a cleaner tidies and dusts the room…
To further his investigation, Sir John arranges a meeting with a couple of Miss Baring’s fellow actors, Ted and Doucie Markham (played by Edward Chapman and Phyliss Konstam). When Ted enters the study Hitchcock uses a very odd device. To suggest Ted’s nervousness at meeting such a famous actor and personal hero, Hitchcock makes Sir John’s plush carpet ridiculously squishy – it looks like they’re walking on a carpet over a load of pillows (which may be how he achieved this effect).
It’s a very bold idea and undeniably a bit clunky but you have to admire his thinking and ingenuity**. Sir John also appears way away in the distance, suggesting Ted’s impression of the size of Sir John’s quarters (we had previously seen the Markhams’ humble abode – crammed into one little room with their daughter banging away on the piano as they talk).
Yes, it’s crude and weird but again you have to admire his ambition, his thought, his nerve, his creativity and plain old cojones to try all this stuff.
Herbert Marshall is a good actor and has just the right amount of gravitas in his role as Sir John (he’s great also in ‘Foreign Correspondent’ from 1940). He does a lovely bit of business when he sits with the Markhams for lunch and they pick up the incorrect spoon with which to drink their soup. So as not to upset him and put them to any shame, Sir John uses the same small spoon himself. It’s a lovely moment and one that expresses Sir John’s equanimity and lack of snobbery.
Boldly, Hitchcock plays around with improvisation in certain scenes, notably the conversation between Sir John and his butler where they jumble their lines and interrupt each other, then apologise and continue. It doesn’t always work but you have to admire him for giving it a go. He also plays with live sound in various places – when Sir John is shaving @ 33’00” Hitchcock has a radio announcer speaking live offscreen and then the butler comes in with a drink and they chat – the mix is slightly off and the dialogue slightly lost but again, what a bold thing to try out. We also hear Sir John’s inner thoughts about the trial and Baring’s innocence – fantastically inventive and clever ideas to tell a story, Marshall superb at conveying Sir John’s caring and sincerity.
The scene with Sir John visiting Baring in jail is heavily stylized – the film match cutting between them as they sit at opposite ends of a long wooden table, panning fast to Sir John as she lets slip that the potential guilty party is in fact a half caste: ‘black blood?’ says Sir John, shocked. When he leaves, the shadow of the gallows rises up Baring’s cell wall.
The true villain, Handel Fane (Esme Percy) is entrapped by Sir John by reading a newly written script – until they hit a blank page. Sir John asks him to carry on the story. Hitchcock cutting to a dramatic high shot – Fane has to leave the room as he knows he has been rumbled, and so he leaves, oh so slowly, like a death march…
The climax of the film has Fane, the cross-dressing precursor of ‘Psycho’s Norman Bates, swinging high on the trapeze before fashioning a noose and jumping to his death in front of the circus crowd.
It’s exciting, daring, shocking and fabulous. Fane has left Sir John with the now completed script which explains (very neatly, thank you) how he committed the murder and disguised his actions.
‘Murder!’ is a tremendous little film – it’s full of attempts at pushing style and technique and exploring new ways to present scenes to the audience. It’s a film that plays with identity and disguise and prefigures many of the director’s later obsessions. Hitchcock uses sound and perception to lead the characters in the wrong direction and a hero to step in and see that true justice is done. It doesn’t always succeed but as the saying goes ‘it’s better to miss Naples than hit Margate’.
*used in the days when exclamation marks weren’t de rigeur in every sentence of every email or text message (don’t get me started!)
**in the otherwise very enjoyable Paul Merton documentary ‘Paul Merton Looks at Alfred Hitchcock’, he describes this scene as ‘disastrous’. Not being funny, but it seemed pretty obvious to me what the director was trying to convey – it’s such an odd device that it has to have been thought through. Mr. Merton also points to the exit of Fane as taking ages, which it does, but again I would say this is perfectly intentional to suggest Fane attempting to keep his head in front of his inquisitors. Rather than dashing from the room in panic, he overdoes the coolness and takes his time in a very theatrical manner (as you would expect of an actor’s exit).
I watched the U.S. version, clocking in at 92 minutes. The U.K. one runs at 104 minutes and features a ‘howling baby’ scene which again experiments with sound, see various online chats in regards to this (IMDb as an example).