Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Produced by John Maxwell (uncredited, 6-11)
Written by Alfred Hitchcock, Walter Mycroft, Alma Reville (11)
Based on the novel Enter Sir John (1928) by Clemence Dane, Helen Simpson
Cinematography by Jack E. Cox (here as J.J. Cox)
Edited by Rene Marrison (under the supervision of Emile de Ruelle (11)
Music by John Reynders
British International Pictures
Distributed by Wardour Films
(1:41) Kino Lorber DVD (library)
Same credits with the following exceptions:
Written by Alma Reville, Herbert Juttke, Georg C. Klaren
Distributed by Sud-Film (Germany)
(1:22) In German with English subtitles
Hitchcock’s previous film, Juno and the Paycock (1930), was produced as an adaptation of a popular play, yet Murder!, based on a novel rather than a play, takes place in the world of theatre. Young actress Diana Baring (Norah Baring), accused of the murder of one of her friends, goes to trial only to be found guilty and sentenced to death. Yet one juror, Sir John Menier (Herbert Marshall, in his first speaking role) believes she is innocent and launches his own investigation. With the aid of Ted Markham (Edward Chapman), the manager of Diana’s theatre troupe, and his wife Doucie (Phyllis Konstam), Sir John begins to believe the case may be connected to a local circus performer.
Hitchcock has gone on record saying that he generally avoids whodunits “because as a rule all of the interest is concentrated in the ending.” (Hitchcock/Truffaut, p. 74) To avoid the drudgery of the whodunit, Hitchcock shakes things up a bit by adding a stream-of-consciousness voiceover monologue, something well-practiced in theatre, but somewhat new to film (or at least sound film) in 1930. Hitchcock also experimented with his actors improvising dialogue in certain scenes, but did not achieve the spontaneity he had hoped for. Yet the film’s ending (which I will not disclose) also shook things up a bit.
Other innovations include filming two women moving from one room to another without cuts, the superimposing of characters into scenes, an almost ghostly presence of a previously seen character, and repetition of sound (which we heard somewhat in Blackmail - It seems that Hitchcock was very excited about these particular experiments, elements which we would see him utilize and refine for during the rest of his career. Although we can see the beginnings of the director’s development, Hitchcock himself holds a different view:
I played about with “technique” in those early days. I tried crazy tricks with violent cuts, dissolves, and wipes with everything in the room spinning round and standing on its head. People used to call it “the Hitchcock touch,” but it never occurred to me that I was merely wasting footage with camera tricks and not getting on with the film.
(Hitchcock on Hitchcock Volume 1: Selected Writings and Interviews, Sidney Gottlieb, ed. p. 247)
Part of Hitchcock’s disappointment with some of his early work comes from his inability (at least to his way of thinking) to intelligently render a visual representation of what appears on the printed page, whether the original source is a novel, story, or play. He challenged himself to create pictures that would include a satisfying dramatic whole, yet provide finer, more subtle details that a smaller segment of the audience would enjoy. We certainly see this in much later works such as Rear Window, Vertigo, Psycho, and many others, little touches here and there that provide depth and layers to his pictures.
Hitchcock’s use of a jury scene rather than a trial scene was refreshing for its time. This may have been at least part of the inspiration for 12 Angry Men (1957), in which we see a group of men attempting to convince, cajole, or verbally assault a dissenting juror (Herbert Marshall in this case; Henry Fonda in the 1957 film) into submission. When Sir John’s dissenting voice enters, he becomes the focal point of the film, not the accused murderer.
Also at this time, Hitchcock became aware that he could not only compete with American films, but perhaps even best them. The director considered many American films as highly polished, yet “highly-polished banality.” It is unclear exactly how many people (at least before David O. Selznick) in America were taking notice of Hitchcock’s work at this point, but it wouldn’t be long before he would gain international attention.
Something else new to Hitchcock was his decision to make Murder! a bilingual film, shooting English and German versions simultaneously. Hitchcock knew enough about the German language to get by, but often misunderstood German idioms. “You’ve got to live twenty years in a country before you can express its idiom.” (Hitchcock on Hitchcock Volume 1, p. 194)
Fans of early horror cinema will know that Dracula (1931) was shot in two versions utilizing the same sets: the English-speaking cast and crew shooting during the day, the Spanish actors during the night. Since dubbing became much easier just a few years later, the labor-intensive practice of shooting two versions soon ended.
In brief, Mary is 20 minutes shorter than Murder! So what’s left out? The jury sequence, primarily, is significantly shorter, as is the scene with Sir John in the boarding house with the children and the kitten. The resolution of the mystery itself is also a bit different, but I can’t go into that without spoilers, so I’ll leave that for you to discover. Mary is certainly darker in tone than Murder!, yet its performances are lacking compared to the actors in the English version, especially the wonderful performance of Herbert Marshall.
While Murder! is well-regarded by critics and fans, it is not considered a great film, but it’s certainly a good one. It will take me four more Hitchcock films before I reach another I have previously seen, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), so some of the things I will be looking for in those four films involves the amount of experimentation Hitchcock engages in as well as how he works with original source material. I hope you will continue to join me on this journey.
Both Murder! and Mary are included on a Blu-ray recently released from Kino Lorber.