Release Date(s)1930 (August 13, 2019)
Studio(s)British International Pictures (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: C+
- Video Grade: B
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: A
Murder!, Alfred Hitchcock’s third sound feature, is a whodunit that foreshadows some of the director’s trademark touches. When actress Diana Baring (Norah Baring) is discovered over the recently murdered body of her rival, she sits in shock, claims to have amnesia, and remembers nothing about the murder. Various characters piece together what must have happened. She’s arrested and brought to trial, and the jury finds her guilty. Alone among the jurors, Sir John Menier (Herbert Marshall) is unconvinced but, browbeaten by the others, relents. The verdict of guilty is announced in court as the camera holds on the empty jury room.
Sir John, an actor who is also Diana’s former manager, resolves to conduct his own investigation in the hope of exonerating Diana with new evidence and saving her from the gallows. He exercises his actor’s ability to adopt clever disguises when necessary to further his investigation.
Those familiar with Hitchcock’s American films will find Murder! rough around the edges. The opening is a grabber – a middle-of-the-night scream is heard as the camera tracks past windows to see occupants opening shades and curtains to see what’s happened. When the camera shifts to the scene of the crime, carefully arranged actors look at the dead body. Hitchcock moves from a person staring to a bloody fireplace poker to the silent Diana, all in a single shot. Such fluid camera movement would become one of the director’s most notable cinematic tools. A scene in which two busybodies make tea and gossip has them moving from one room to the next and back again as the camera moves with them in one uninterrupted shot. The jury deliberation scene, on the other hand, is filmed mostly in medium shots with little camera movement, giving it a decidedly theatrical look. Unfortunately, much of the film is shot unimaginatively, with just a few exceptions.
In contrast, Hitchcock’s use of sound is quite impressive for such an early picture. A lot of the investigation takes place backstage during a performance, so we hear the police interviewing actors as they enter and exit their scenes. In the background, we hear the muffled voices of the actors delivering their dialogue and the sound of the unseen audience. Another scene is amazing considering how difficult it was to achieve. As Sir John shaves, we see him and his reflection in the mirror as he contemplates Diana’s case. In the background, we hear the prelude to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde and Sir John’s inner thoughts. To accomplish this feat, a live orchestra played off screen and a pre-recording of Herbert Marshall’s dialogue was played back as his character reacted to his own thoughts and the music. This marked the first internal monologue in sound motion pictures.
Inspired by Hamlet, the movie features a play-within-the-play touch. Sir John is assisted by a pair of associates (Edward Chapman, Phyllis Konstam), who help him stage an elaborate re-enactment of the crime in the hope of uncovering the real murderer. The film might also be one of the first to feature a gay character (Esme Percy).
The basic plot, of course, is one Hitchcock would return to often – an innocent person caught up in a dangerous situation. In Hitchcock’s American films, such as Strangers on a Train and North by Northwest, the protagonist is instrumental in extricating himself from peril. The difference here is that Sir John is the character attempting to discover the identity of the real killer. Diana, in jail, can’t do much to help. The film’s finale, under the circus big top, is a welcome departure from the staginess of most of the film and presents a very cinematic climax.
There are attempts at humor, which don’t come off that well, unlike the macabre humor that would distinguish many of Hitchcock’s later movies. To Hitchcock completists, the film is transitional, a stepping stone from his silent period to greater British achievements like The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), Young and Innocent (1937), and The Lady Vanishes (1938). This plodding murder mystery is hardly worthy of its exclamation point.
The Unrated Blu-ray release, featuring 1080p resolution, is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The print is not up to Kino’s usual standard, though it is from materials held at the British Film Institute. There are visible scratches periodically, but these are not enough to ruin enjoyment. Better source material would likely have produced a more pristine print. Lighting is flat throughout and a far cry from Hitchcock’s chiaroscuro in his black and white films Saboteur, Psycho, and Shadow of a Doubt.
Audio is English 2.0 DTS-High Definition Master Audio. All dialogue is sharp and easy to understand. This is crucial in a mystery when clues are being pieced together through investigation and various individuals contribute information. Marshall, a stage actor, has a mellifluous, expressive voice and imparts great feeling to his line readings. The blend of Tristan & Isolde with Sir John’s inner thoughts at a key point in the film dramatically enhances the scene. Because of its complexity, this technique would soon be abandoned, with music recorded apart from the actual filming. Optional English subtitles are provided for the hard of hearing.
Bonus materials on the Region A Special Edition release include an audio commentary; an excerpt of an interview of Hitchcock by Francois Truffaut; Mary, the 1931 German version of Murder!, also directed by Hitchcock; a special introduction; an alternate ending; and several trailers.
Audio Commentary – Film critic Nick Pinkerton discusses Murder!, Hitchcock’s twelfth film and his third talkie. The director regarded sound as a boon to filmmaking. In the movie’s opening, sound elements place the scene on edge. He creates a feeling of confusion and panic through off-screen sound. At the scene of the crime, though actors remain still, the camera moves through the scene revealing key elements (bloody poker, corpse, dazed woman). Career overviews are provided for the British cast. Several actors worked with Hitchcock on his previous films. Much exposition about the murder is brought out by two women as they prepare tea. The murder occurs in an acting troupe. Police interviews are conducted backstage during a performance as actors make their entrances and exits. Hitchcock notes about Murder!, “It was the first important ‘whodunit’ picture I made.” He didn’t like the form because all interest is focused on the ending, when the culprit is revealed. He preferred to distribute points of interest throughout the body of the film. Hitchcock shot a German version, titled Mary, released a year after Murder! It was shot on the same sets with a German cast, headed by Alfred Abel as Sir John, simultaneously with the English language version. Hitchcock had worked in Germany and had a rough knowledge of the language, “just enough to get by.” However, he wasn’t familiar with German idiomatic expressions. Things that are funny in the English version, such as the reduction of dignity, didn’t translate well. Abel demanded changes, so the German and English versions are not identical.
Introduction by Noel Simsolo – This brief overview is presented in French, with English subtitles. With the success of The Lodger and Blackmail, Hitchcock realized he was most at home in the thriller genre. It was also his most popular kind of film. Murder! is an adaptation of the play Enter Sir John by Clarence Dane and Helen Simpson. As a jury member, Sir John contributes to Diana Baring’s guilty conviction, but subsequently has nagging doubts about her guilt. He launches his own investigation to exonerate the woman with whom he’s fallen in love. Herbert Marshall, a veteran stage actor, had made only three films prior to Murder! He lost a leg in World War I and acted with an artificial one. Initially, Hitchcock, wanting to create spontaneity, asked the actors, most from the British stage, to improvise, but this approach didn’t work. The scene in which Sir John is shaving is singled out. A live orchestra played a selection from Tristan and Isolde while a pre-recording of Marshall’s voice is heard as Sir John reflects on the case. This was the first use in sound films of the interior monologue, and involved great expense. Simsolo refers to Murder! as one of the greatest British film noirs before the genre was established.
Mary (1931) – This is the German version of Murder!, filmed simultaneously with the English version by director Alfred Hitchcock. It bears slight changes from the English version.
Hitchcock/Truffaut audio interview – French director Francois Truffaut questions Hitchcock about the making of Murder! A translator is heard in the background. “I don’t approve of whodunits,” comments Hitchcock. For the first time, he used a voice over a face as a stream of consciousness and tried to stylize the jury with the hammering away at Sir John. He used the “play within a play,” inspired by Hamlet, to discover the murderer’s identity. Murder! was Hitchcock’s first experience shooting two versions of the same film in two different languages. He knew the German language roughly and had a German advisor on set, but recalls “I did not have the ear for the German language. I was completely out of control.” The reduction of dignity as a source of humor was unknown to the Germans.
Trailers – Five trailers of films directed by Alfred Hitchcock are included:
1. Murder! (1930)
2. Blackmail (1929)
3. The Paradine Case (1947)
4. Under Capricorn (1949)
5. Lifeboat (1944)
– Dennis Seuling