Hitchcock reviews Dial H for Hitchcock. Film reviews by Terrence Brady

In 1930, Hitchcock produced one of his first "true" talkies -- Murder! (Indeed, 1929’s Blackmail was Hitch’s first talkie but it initially began production as a silent.) Watching Murder! for the first time, one might wonder if it would have been more successful without the dialogue.

Sir John Menier (Herbert Marshall) is a renowned stage actor who is a juror on a murder case. The accused is a young actress, Diana Baring (Norah Baring) who was found dazed near the recently deceased with an incriminating fire poker and blood stained dress. The jury feels this is an open and shut case but Sir John experiences doubts.

He enlists the assistance of Ted and Doucie Markham (played by Edward Chapman and Phyllis Konstam), a husband/wife team who manage a local theater. Sir John believes Doucie's eyewitness account would prove that Diana was not alone on the fateful night. Diana, now imprisoned, is visited by Sir John but she will not disclose the identity of this individual whom she appears to be protecting. Sir John must revert to his acting faculties to apprehend the alleged perpetrator but his chances are dashed when the true murderer condemns himself to an equally unfortunate end.

The first thing one might notice when watching this film is the speed at which it labors forward. The camera work is lethargic as it moves from one cast member to another, stands fixed on one for great lengths, or moves in/out of conversations. Some scenes are dialogued riddled while others are completely mute. In fact, the overall mood of Murder! strikes one more like a stage play than a cinematic event. Quite possibly the most disappointing aspect of the film was the denouement in which Sir John reads the "suicide note" to Ted that reveals all. Granted, the technology of sound was new at the time but that is hardly an excuse to spell out the ending in a tidy monologue.

Not to point out just the bad, there were positive uses of this new "talk film" technology as well. Hitch experimented with a stream of consciousness monologue as well as having an orchestra (behind the set) playing simultaneously as Sir John listens to "the broadcast" on a radio. Throughout Murder! one will begin to see the many traits of a Hitchcock film. From the opening scene, in which the camera [for no reason other than to be a voyeur] is fixed on Doucie as she dresses to the subtle humor sprinkled throughout. Some of the humorous moments are the "tea" conversation between the landlady and Doucie, the Markham’s window that doesn’t stay up, and the whimsical "12 Angry Men" jury.

Turning to the accused, another Hitchcock staple is the defendant’s case relies on the argument that she had a hidden flaw of the mind; she was someone else (mentally) when the murder happened. [A motif Hitch would reuse in later films.] If one looks deep enough one might find some social commentary as well. The villain is an accomplished trapeze artist who is revealed to be "half-caste" (part Negro). If Hitch wasn’t implying that an individual of African descent wasn’t a skillful circus act, he certainly hit the audience over the head with his new take on the concept of a "public lynching."

RATING: 4.5 (of 10) Murder! has its flaws but underneath it’s surface lies many of the themes we’ll see in his later works. Modeled after Carl Dreyer’s 1928 Joan Of Arc.

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