Sunday, February 9, 2014

Murder! (1930)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock                                  Writers: Alfred Hitchcock & Walter Mycroft
Music Dir: John Reynders                                  Cinematography: Jack E. Cox
Starring: Herbert Marshall, Norah Baring, Phyllis Konstam and Edward Chapman

It’s the original 12 Angry Men . . . except that there are three women on the jury, and all of the jurors are extremely civilized. But the later film that most closely resembles Alfred Hitchcock’s Murder! is Suspect from 1987, where a jury member conducts his own investigation when he believes the wrong person is on trial. In this film things are a bit more difficult as the trial is over and the sentence has already been pronounced. This is one of Hitchcock’s earliest sound films and was Herbert Marshall’s very first sound film, and its success assured long and fruitful careers for both of them. This is also the beginning of one of Hitch’s favorite ideas in his films, the blurred lines between playing a part, pretending, and reality. And there are some fine connections in the beginning of the film that give hints to the murderer, but subtle enough that they make a nice reveal.

The story begins with screams in the middle of the night. A touring troupe of actors staying in a small English village is the center of a murder. One of the actresses is dead on the floor while another, Norah Baring, is sitting nearby, the bloody fireplace poker at her feet, claiming she can remember nothing about the murder. At the trial all of the jurors come around to a guilty verdict except one, Herbert Marshall. Unfortunately he can’t put his finger on the exact reason he believes she didn’t do it, and so he eventually gives in to the will of the majority, and Baring is sentenced to death. But Marshall can’t let it go and, even after the trial is over, begins his own investigation. He is a famous actor in London, and since the murder involves actors he finds it relatively easy to get them to talk to him, especially when the questions come with the tacit possibility of working for him.

Hitchcock’s trademark humor is in evidence even at this early stage in his career. On the jury it’s the women who appear to be in command of the situation and not the other way around, especially Violet Fairbrother who happens to be an expert in psychology. Hitch even indulges in a rare sight gag, when Edward Chapman walks into Marshall’s office and we see his feet nearly sinking into the plush carpet. The play that the actors are in at the beginning of the film is called “Nothing But the Truth” and is a subtle condemnation of a legal system that purports to seek the truth but is often satisfied with coincidence. Hitchcock’s cameo appears about midway through the film when Marshall, along with Chapman and Phyllis Konstam are talking in front of the house where the murder took place. Una O’Connor also puts in a brief appearance as a landlady.

There are plenty of nice directorial touches to the film, and the connections to silent era filmmaking are strong. The use of shadows is particularly good, the bars of the prison being cast over a table, and the gibbet slowly climbing the wall. But Hitch also uses framing devices, the one where Norah Baring’s face is framed in the door of her cell being particularly good. The opening credits begin with the first movement of Beethoven’s fifth, and later is the famous scene were Wagner is supposedly playing over the radio while Marshall and his secretary are speaking. The music almost drowns out the voices, but the reason why is simple. With no way to dub music in post-production, Hitchcock had to have the musicians on the soundstage and there was no way to adjust the microphones. Murder!, despite its creakiness, is a nice little mystery, and recommended for fans of Marshall as well as the director.

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