Monday, June 17, 2013

Murder! (1930)

With 1927’s The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog Alfred Hitchcock established himself as a force to be reckoned with behind the camera. While The Lodger may have only been Hitchcock’s third film (it would have been his fifth had his first 2 been completed) the amount of skill on display in that film not to mention the innovative camera techniques and the inclusion of influences from the German expressionist movement mistaking the film for the work of a veteran filmmaker wouldn’t be without warrant, especially considering the time period in which it was released. Its also the film that Hitchcock often referred to as his real “first” film as it was the first of his films to deal with various themes he would go on to perfect and become synonymous with. Hitchcock returned to the crime thriller in 1929 with Blackmail which featured Hitchcock continuing to explore and expand upon his favorite motives. Blackmail also happened to be his first talking film (or “talkie“), while the films technical aspects may be considered primitive by today’s standards, for 1929 the film was revolutionary. Enter Murder! (get it?), Hitchcock’s third talking film in 1930. Murder! is defiantly one of Hitchcock’s variations on a theme occupying an interesting place in Hitchcock’s body of work, making great use of his favorite devices while at the same time bringing new things to the table.

Actress Diana Baring is found standing over the murdered body of Edna Druce, another actress traveling with Diana as a member of a touring troupe. Diana has no memory of what happened and is arrested, tried, found guilty and sentenced to hang. One member of the jury, Sir John Menier, who also happens to be an actor isn’t so sure, and almost immediately after delivering a verdict of guilty along with his fellow jurors begins to have second thoughts. His belief in Diana’s innocence is so strong he becomes determined to prove it himself. Enlisting the help of the stage manager of Diana’s troupe and his wife, the three set out to get to the bottom of the case in the hopes of clearing Diana’s name in time to save her from the gallows.

Technically Murder! could be classified as a whodunit but its not exactly your traditional whodunit the way Hitchcock presents the story to us. As is the case with most Hitchcock, the proceedings become increasingly more intriguing as the film moves forward as we learn more about the characters and their motivations become more and more clear. The mystery element is strong and you’ll find yourself doing just as much guess work as Sir John all throughout the film. One thing that immediately stands out about  Murder! is the films cleverness, which goes back to the film not really being a typical whodunit. One of the more brilliantly clever aspects of the film is the way Hitchcock employs the theatre and acting within the story, with the character of Sir John being an actor using his craft in his quest to save Diana leads to some pretty unique detective techniques. Murder! may have only been Hitchcock’s third film to deal with these type of subjects but even at this stage in his career nobody could stage and execute a suspense sequence like Hitchcock and one certain “audition” sequence in this film stands out as being an absolute nail biter and what makes it even more effective its perfect placement in the film timing wise. Hitchcock’s ability to find black humor in the most dire of situations is evident here as well, with the jury deliberation scene being particularly hilarious by way of the jurors ganging up on Sir John and one overtly jittery juror.

Murder! happens to hold a very important place in film history as it was the first film to feature an interior monologue actually being heard on screen, which was done by having actor Herbert Marshall pre-record his lines and the recording was then played during the scene where we here Sir John’s inner thoughts, while an orchestra played nearby supplying the music on Sir John’s radio. A far cry from just doing a voice over in a studio during post but just another example of Hitchcock being ahead of the rest. Like a lot of Hitchcock’s early British films Murder! was public domain for many years and has seen quite a few VHS and DVD releases. Interesting to note that the original version of the film ran at about 104 minutes while most of the home video releases have a run time of 92 minutes. The 104 minute version was finally restored and released in a box set along with 4 other early Hitchcock films in 2007, although according to one review on Amazon an important scene happens to be missing from the print! The film isn’t a difficult or expensive find and while most prints aren’t exactly pristine they’re hardly unwatchable so its really a matter of preference which copy to pick up, but its an important film to pick up and to witness Hitchcock further perfect his already near perfect craft.

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