RT Obscura, the exclusive column by renowned critic Kim Newman, sees the writer plumbing the depths of the RT archive in search of some forgotten gems. In his tenth column, Kim unearths a rarely seen Hitchcock movie from the early days of the talkies.
Made in 1930, Alfred Hitchcock‘s second sound thriller isn’t seen as a cornerstone work like his first, Blackmail (or the silent The Lodger); indeed, Murder! hasn’t been widely seen at all in recent years. I suspect a single dated aspect has kept it off television schedules for a few decades: the self-hating murderer’s motive is to prevent a malicious gossip from telling another woman that he’s a half-caste (“ah-ha, he has black blood“, elucidates an amateur detective ominously when this comes out). As it turns out, mixed race would seem to be the least remarkable thing about him (and the girl knows anyway). Handel Fane (Esme Percy), a drag trapeze artiste given to fits of homicidal fury, is coded as screamingly gay but is supposed to be obsessively in love with heroine Diana Baring (Nora Baring) — though he still keeps quiet when she’s condemned to hang for the crime he committed.
Ostensibly, it’s a mystery story. Sir John Menier (Herbert Marshall), a theatrical knight doing his jury service at Diana’s trial, is pressured by the rest of the jury to convict the accused (whom he knows slightly, which he really ought to have declared pre-trial). Unsatisfied with the verdict and naturally falling in love with the girl in the condemned cell, Sir John becomes a sleuth, taking detective hints from the Mouse Trap scenes in Hamlet (!), and sets about snaring Fane, the only suspect who is given any character. Hitchcock always professed to be impatient with whodunits and skips through the mystery angle (ie: no superfluous suspects or red herrings) to get to the technical challenges and peculiar perverse quirks which interest him.
In many ways, it’s an advance from Blackmail in its innovative use of the then-new sound medium and certain sequences are as striking and strange as the justly-famous ‘knife’ routine in the earlier film. We open with a long pan across a row of windows, with heads poked out as the title cry goes up, and sundry busybodies craning to get on the scene of the crime (typical Hitch is the shapely silhouette of a woman undressing) as an aural montage one-ups the purely visual business which introduces The Lodger.
In the jury room, we get more Hitchcockian satire of the small-minded ditherers and resentful time-servers in the room — a middle-aged man who initially votes to acquit because he fancies the accused and a daffy spinster who veers from believing the girl innocent on the grounds that she was in a fugue state when she killed to writing her off as a homicidal maniac — then becomes bizarrely stylised as Sir John, introduced dead last as the sole Twelve Angry Men-style hold-out, presents arguments only to be battered by a literal chorus chanting ‘what’s your answer to that, Sir John?’ in unison as they pose oppressively around him. Then, we hear the verdict and sentence off-screen as the camera stays in the jury room while a functionary ignores the momentous matters and tidies away the teacups and papers left behind after the debate.
Later, while shaving and listening to Tristan and Isolde on the wireless, Sir John has an interior monologue about the case (voiceover was a daring new idea in 1930) which blends with the Wagner (performed by an offset orchestra) to become a singspiel aria that leads to a character turning point. Hitchcock regretted the loss of some of the purely visual aspects of silent cinema, and is as concerned with inventive pictures as sound effects. In the strange climax, the camera is fixed up on a trapeze with the guilt-ridden killer, the background blurring behind him as he swings through the air. Then, flash-images of the innocent heroine appear to him and he chooses to hang himself in the Big Top as the climax of his act (Hitch cuts in a reaction shot from a horrified clown).
The plot is derived from Enter Sir John, a novel by Clemence Dane and Helen Simpson, and is astonishingly wayward, though it keeps pressing buttons that must have excited the young auteur: murder in a theatrical setting (we stay in the wings, Noises Off-fashion, as policemen interview a clutch of witnesses who keep having to dash or stagger onstage to do their bits), an innocent accused who is also a slender female in bondage, odd bits of class consciousness centering on the titled hero, audiences flocking to lurid spectacles, a killer with a broken mind who dresses up as a woman (and also, almost as significantly, a police constable).
It even has an array of eccentric supporting actors (Miles Mander, Una O’Connor, Donald Calthrop). What it lacks is unity — there’s a disconnect between the investigator and the crook, who are doubled by virtue of their profession and love for the same woman, but don’t function as alter egos in the way the antagonists of, say, Strangers on a Train or Notorious do. Hitchcock also has less interest in the plight of an unjustly accused person who is in custody rather than on the run.
Sir John acquires a pair of assistants, in the vaudevillian Markhams (Phyllis Konstam, Edward Chapman), but the team generates little heat and the investigation scheme, calling Fane in to audition for a play Sir John has written about the case in which the murder is reconstructed, is almost as lunatic as the one in Hamlet.
It’s as if the film were see-sawing between the minor and the experimental. After the suicide, it simply gives up: the plot resolution comes patly when Sir John reads aloud Fane’s final note-cum-confession, though it seems odd that the culprit should be so playful (and ambiguous) in a document which ought at least in part be designed to exonerate the heroine (he couches his confession as an acceptance of the part in Sir John’s play).
After this, the film slightly redeems itself with a clever final shot in which the lovers clinch — not in real life (thugh they do in an alternate ending) but on stage as they co-star in a play.
It’s often said that The Man Who Knew Too Much was the only film Hitchcock made twice: actually, he remade Murder! instantly as Mary, a much-shorter German version shot on the same sets, with Alfred Abel replacing Marshall, Olga Tschechowa as the renamed heroine and Ekkegard Arendt as the killer.