The Hitchcock Conversations is an ongoing project between me and James W. Powell, in which we study Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography in chronological order. I’ll be publishing one conversation per week.
(By necessity, spoilers ahead!)
Synopsis: The police find the actress, Diana Baring, near the body of her friend. All the circumstantial proofs seems to point to her and, at the end of the trial, she is condemned. Sir John Menier, a jury member, suspects Diana’s boyfriend, who works as an acrobat wearing a dress.
Jason: Well, I didn’t think a whole lot of Murder! It’s a strange little film that doesn’t really feel like a Hitchcock movie. It feels really “stagy,” and I know that’s the point, but it feels fragmented and poorly told. I mean, look at the structure of it: It goes from the crime, to backstage at the play, to the court scene, to the jury chambers, and then the movie finally begins, with Sir John (Herbert Marshall) investigating a murder for which he’s already condemned Diana Baring (Norah Baring) to die. The movie doesn’t have a point of view until halfway through. And it doesn’t have a consistent tone. What’s with that clunky jury-deliberation scene, where it ends up as a kind of musical sequence, with the jurors asking in unison, “Any answer to that, Sir John?” The film is also filled with weird fade-outs and tricks that feel unsure of themselves.
James: I agree with all of your points. Murder! seems like a step back for Hitchcock. Almost as if, had I not known the order in which the films were directed, I might think this was his freshman effort. I thought the story was there, or could be there, but it wasn’t the Hitchcock we know and love. It probably looked good on paper, or maybe on stage, but it didn’t work on film. I really thought the deliberation scene was going to be a good one, but it took a turn for the worse. And yes, it certainly felt like several different films, not just one.
Jason: And what about that strange carpet effect, when that actor is going to meet Sir John? He walks on the carpet and sinks into it. Was that supposed to convey nervousness? Didn’t work. Oh, and the montage of the gallows and the lightning rod and the prison, speeding up as the gallows shadow looms . . . overdone.
James: I want to know just what the hell that carpet thing meant, too. I thought it was all about the actor not having sure feet because he was going to meet his idol. But c’mon, that was weak even for 1930.
Jason: Really a disappointing film, and you’d think Hitch would do great with a whodunit-type mystery. (I wonder if he has any more of these types of “figure-out-the-killer”-type movies coming up.) And what I mentioned before are generally small things, but even the big aspects of the film didn’t click with me. The whole interview sequence, where Sir John corners Handel Fane (Esme Percy) with a script based on the murder, felt too easy. Okay, I understand Hitch’s comment on the “power of the stage,” but this was just clunky. The guy is obviously guilty. We needed to know this Handel Fane better before this sequence, and it needed to be more subtle. Fane’s suicide feels overwrought and predictable, and his confession note, spelling out the reason for doing what he did, is like . . . yawn.
James: I thought the note was silly. I wanted Sir John to figure it all out, not have it told to him in some Scooby Doo type of scene. I also wonder if viewers back then were looking for clues to “who done it.” When we meet all the actors, it’s somewhat obvious that the man dressed as a woman might be in on it, or that the man dressed as a cop might have been there. I just wonder if that sort of sophistication was prevalent back then. I’m leaning toward yes. But we’re so together on this one. I mean, there was a lack of real suspense. There was very little drama. Why? Because I didn’t know any of the characters. Who’s Fane? Who’s Baring? The only person we get to know at all is Sir John, and he’s never in any danger.
Jason: The whole thing about Fane being a “half-caste,” which must have been somehow connected to his transvestism and maybe even homosexuality (despite being involved with Diana Baring), felt like a too-easy way to make him a “bad guy.” Hitch is usually more subtle than that. What does “half-caste” mean in this movie, anyway?
James: I thought originally that he was half black and half white. I could’ve sworn I heard that in the dialog at some point. But that doesn’t make sense whatsoever. Either way, I don’t really see why he needed to kill over it. Unless it would’ve somehow hurt his career, but we don’t know that because we don’t know the guy. You’re right though, the interview/rehearsal was just plain dry and not done correctly at all.
Jason: I don’t remember the mention of a racial aspect in the film, but that’s what first came to mind. He looked totally white-bread to me. I think the reason Fane killed the actress, though, is because she was going to tell Baring the secret of Fane’s transvestism. I think that came up in the note. Or at least that’s the feeling I got. Either way, it’s primitive psychology that’s both annoying and fascinating (just to see how people, including Hitch, thought back then). But it’s kind of disturbing that the idea of a racially questionable character was automatically the bad guy. It makes me think back on those racially charged moments in The Ring, and the use of the word “nigger.” So this is the second time that the specter of racism comes up in Hitch.
James: Again, we agree.
Jason: I did find a few things interesting, though. The whole idea of a transvestite must have been pretty bold for the time. (Too bad Hitch felt the need to hold Fane in contempt and obviously cast him as the prime suspect.) I also liked the beginning of this film, when we see the silent reactions to the murder, from face to face, panning down to the murder weapon and the body. There were several moments that were well done and reminded me that this was, indeed, a Hitch film. The first was at the very start, when the woman is struggling into clothes underneath her nightgown, and we get close-ups of her legs. What purpose do you think that had, except to titillate? And although it was awkward, I found it interesting when Sir John goes into his voice-over, thinking about why he doomed Baring. Apparently, it was an early sound experiment, and in fact it was a first in the talkies. Hitch used a tape recorder off-camera, and just had Herbert Marshall act to the words. Also, there was a 30-piece orchestra off-camera, because music couldn’t be dubbed in later. There’s a very nice moment later when Sir John goes to Baring’s apartment and picks up the framed photo of himself, understanding that she was a fan of his work, and yet he’s condemned her to die. Nice touch. I also liked the love scene at the end, where the real world fades into a stage production. That was a great touch and deserved a better movie.
James: I also caught the undergarments scene. That Hitch . . . he loves undies. I thought the scene of the crime was cool. The way we followed one element to the other until we see the dead girl. Nicely done. One thing I did comment on last night was that the background noise wasn’t muted. Several times, I could barely make out the dialog because of the background noise.
Jason: Yes, I caught the same audio problems. Recording levels were off-kilter all the way through. At several points, sound from a radio overpowered the dialog, the score overpowered dialog, and there were many moments that went out of sync.
James: I really enjoyed the scene in which the girl follows the old woman from room to room in their discussion. Not sure what did it for me, but the movement worked for the scene (just after the murder, when the woman is making tea).
Jason: That scene struck me too. I think just because of the length of it. I’ve always appreciated long takes. And it also conveyed that staginess I mentioned. It felt like you were watching a play, moving your gaze as the characters walked through the set. I’m sure that was intentional. Another technique I liked was the shadow work in the prison when Sir John first interviews Diana Baring. It’s intercut with the repeated shot of the woman guard as she paces outside the door. I also liked the framing of the two characters across that long table. But then she says something to the effect that she plugged her ears for some reason, and therefore couldn’t hear the window entrance of the killer. Come on! Took me right out of the solution to the case.
James: I too noticed the shadow work of the prison and I’m sure it symbolized something, but I’d need to see it again to figure out what. Man, that whole plugging-of-the-ear thing. Get real. I laughed at that real good.
Jason: And did you find it interesting that the lead character was named Diana Baring? That’s the same last name as the actress (Norah Baring). That kinda works with the play-within-a-play idea, which is mirrored by the ending.
James: I didn’t notice the last name. That’s interesting though, especially if she was a prominent actress back in the day. You know, now that I think about it, another thing that didn’t work for me, and this sounds odd, is that the main female was a brunette. I can’t say that was a big deal or that I paid a lot of attention to it really, but I did notice that she didn’t fit the mold of the other Hitch actresses.
Jason: That’s something I didn’t even think about, but it’s an interesting point. It’s yet another thing that made Murder! feel different from the usual Hitch fare.
Jason: One thing we haven’t talked about is how the film actually has a few ideas that Hitch will explore throughout his career. The first is the idea of the innocent person accused, as you brought up before. You can see another possible theme in the way the accused seems to have a flaw in her mind. A couple of times (I think in the court scenes), we hear that she “was someone else” when the murder occurred.
James: I didn’t think the “innocent man accused” thing works in this one because she isn’t the one doing the solving. The reason it works in all of his other films is that you know from the beginning that he’s innocent and that he has to prove it. Here, she doesn’t even know for sure.
Jason: Good point. But still, this may be an early exploration of the same general idea. I also thought it was interesting that Hitch simultaneously shot a German version of the film, called Mary.
James: I didn’t know that about the German version. Just recorded different, or with different actors?
Jason: It was a totally different cast and was released a year later. It’s almost a forgotten film. Oh, one more thing I mentioned: brandy. I’m noticing that brandy is being mentioned in a lot of Hitch movies—all of them so far, I think. I’m gonna keep an ear out for it.
James: I read somewhere once that every one of his films has brandy in it. Did you spot Hitch?
Jason: I didn’t catch Hitch. Did you?
James: Hitch walks by with a woman just as Sir John exits the scene of the crime as he’s investigating it.
I agree that this one is a mess. I can only guess Hitch was let down by the technology of early sound film. Some interesting ideas, but all half-baked. The racist element of half-caste does seem to be a censorship way of alluding to his transvestism. Says something about the times that the censors have absolutely no problem with a woman’s reason for not even considering marriage is that the man is half-black. Hitch seems to have no interest in the protagonists, and, as usual, ends up feeling the most sympathy for the “wrong one,” Handel Fane. I do enjoy the expressionist qualities of the trapeze suicide and the way that we keep seeing the convicted woman’s face haunting him, and those pearls around here neck turning into a death grin.