Hitchcock’s Murder! is generally treated as one of his lesser films, and for good reason: there are large swaths that feel like a filmed play, in which characters sit around and talk to each other, sometimes very slowly. The staginess of the scenes contribute to the film’s overall emphasis on performativity and perspective: it brings home to the audience that they’re watching a film, based on a play, that is itself a play about playacting, in which characters explicitly discuss the narrative as a play. This doesn’t entirely excuse the boredom that catches hold during the second act, as a fairly static camera watches Herbert Marshall eat soup. But it does draw those instances into relief. It’s almost as though Hitchcock is having us all on, deliberately testing his audience’s willingness to continue watching filmed play about people who cannot stop acting like their life is a theatrical construction.
The contrast between these scenes and the first and third acts is quite marked, because those sequences betray the fluid camera and influence of a director who often remarked on his love of cinema based solely on the image. The film opens with the murder (!), which occurs off-screen as a woman screams and wakes up an entire street. The camera dollies down the street as people throw open their windows and poke their heads out, until it stop on Ted (Edward Chapman) and Doucie (Phyllis Konstam), a couple who turn out to be the stage manager of a traveling theater production and his actress wife.
The murder itself is set for the stage: Diana Baring (Norah Baring) sits nearly comatose over the dead body of her fellow actress, Edna Druce, while Edna’s husband, Gordon (Miles Mander), drunkenly bemoans his wife’s death. No one is quite sure what occurred, but no one came in or out of the room but Diana and Edna. Diana’s only defense is that she can’t remember what happened. The focus then shifts to Sir John Menier (Herbert Marshall), a renowned actor and the sole member of the jury who believes in Diana’s innocence. Though she’s condemned to death, Sir John decides to investigate what really happened that night, with the help of Ted and Doucie, and set Diana free.
When Murder! succeeds, it’s fascinating. Early sequences develop the relationship between stage and reality. The film introduces possible suspects in the theatrical troupe as they step on and off the stage, switching costumes, changing their voices, and detailing their relationships to the dead woman and to Diana. A later, extensive jury room sequence further develops the performativity ofreal life, as characters embody thematic concepts and comedic archetypes, reminding the audience that often stereotypes have a basis in reality and that the way people relate socially is, in itself, a performance.
Much of Murder!’s plot is based on viewpoint and interpretation—Sir John attempts to reconstruct the murder with the view that Diana Baring did not commit it, but even the earliest scenes have different characters imposing their views of how it must have happened. Truth, performance, and point of view are intertwined. Diana and Edna were quarreling over a man and Diana refuses to say who, so the interpretation is that it must have been Edna’s husband. Diana herself spends most of the film offscreen, an object of interpretation and projection rarely allowed to speak for herself. One of the few sequences that centralizes her perspective does it quite literally, the camera eye taking her point of view as Sir John interrogates her. But she still refuses to speak—as with Blackmail’s use of woman as object, imposed on by male will and male desire, Murder! underscores Diana’s objectification in silence as part of her desire to protect a person whom, she believes, had nothing to do with the killing, but who has a secret with which she was entrusted. The secret she conceals is not her own, but someone else’s, and she’s unwilling to part with it even to save her own life.
The Kino Blu-ray of Murder! has more than just the film, however. It also includes Mary, a 1931 German adaptation of Murder!, also directed by Hitchcock (making it one of Hitchcock’s few non-English language films). Mary deserves its own review, so I shan’t broach it here, but it’s a fascinating work for anyone interested in Hitchcock’s early films and the way he chooses to approach the same story in a different milieu.
Despite the static nature of its middle act and its undoubted “lesser film” status, Murder! has so much to recommend itself that it’s hard to write it off. Shot by Jack E. Cox, who also filmed The Lady Vanishes, with a screenplay by Alma Reville (Hitchcock’s wife and continuity editor, who influenced his work right from the start), it’s a fascinating entry in the director’s early oeuvre. Kino presents it in a beautiful restoration, full of special features, including an alternate ending and commentary by film critic Nick Pinkerton. It’s a gorgeous version of the film and makes a great argument for giving Murder! a chance.