Posted by Greg Ferrara on April 18, 2012
[Spoilers Abound - All twists explicitly revealed for purpose of discussing the subtext of the film]
Alfred Hitchcock’s Murder! (1930) is an odd piece of mystery movie-making but fascinating nonetheless, more for its implications than the film itself. When I started watching it, I was interested in seeing an early Hitchcock I’d not heard much about, one based on a stage play, always a red flag in film watching. Many stage plays suffer on film as little more than static setups of monologues with little cinematic innovation. Hitchcock has the same problem but in a different way. That is to say, he takes shots surrounding the lengthy dialogue scenes and invests them with enough ingenuity and style that the dialogue scenes seem even more lifeless as a result. Since there are more dialogue scenes than innovative padding, the result is a movie perhaps more uneven than it should be. Still, Hitchcock makes the movie worth watching and the actors, especially lead Herbert Marshall as Sir John, the actor/producer who solves the mystery, do a fine job. But by the time the movie was over, I wasn’t thinking of those things so much as social attitudes of the time and how strongly they shaped the plot.
As I said, what interested me going into the film is not what interested me coming out. What captured my attention instead was the nature of the crime and the murderer himself. The movie begins with a murder, offscreen, and a gathering of suspects involved. It seems there is a theatre troupe in town and it appears that one actress, Diana Baring (Norah Baring), has killed another, Edna Druce. However, Diana remembers nothing and the mystery is underway. Baring is tried and sentenced to be hanged but one of the jury members, Sir John (Herbert Marshall), takes it upon himself to investigate further after the guilty verdict is handed down. What he discovers is that Diana was framed by another actor, Handel Fane (Esme Percy), a female-impersonator with a horrible secret. Fane killed Druce because she was about to reveal the secret. In the novel and play that the movie was based on, the secret is that he’s gay. In the movie, the secret is that he’s a half-caste. That would be someone of mixed race or as Sir John exclaims upon hearing it, “Black blood!” It was at this point that my fascination abruptly shifted.
Once again, I found myself interested in how movies are such superb windows into the morals and attitudes of their time. It’s one reason, for me, that a work of art (in this case, cinema) exists uniquely of its time. You can remake Psycho frame for frame, as Gus Van Sant did in 1998, but it’s not the same because the original was made in 1960 and works as a commentary on its characters of that time. Even if you made Psycho frame for frame and set it in 1960, you still have a commentary on one time from another time. The original works because of when and how it was done, not simply because of the physical mechanics at work, although they certainly play a large part.
And so, in Murder!, we again have a movie that works for the time and of the time. To put it in more plot-specific terms, the real murderer, Handel Fane, dresses in drag as his stage specialty and this, combined with the half-caste origins of his birth, make him, for people at the time, an easy-to-believe murderer. After all, to most people then (and, sadly, to some people now), homosexuals were strange, creepy people, hiding in the shadows. Throw in what for the time would be the volatile mixture of black blood and for audiences in 1930, it paints a villain easy to understand.
But here’s what really got my attention, and it happens when Hitchcock takes a left turn before the ending: He and actor Esme Percy make Handel Fane a sympathetic character. They do so in a spectacular set piece that signals as much about where Hitchcock was going as a director as it does his feelings towards the “villain” of the piece. First, though, a look at the mechanics of the film.
Hitchcock co-wrote the screenplay with Walter Mycroft and fleshed out the narrative elements of the novel and play with terrific uses of early sound technology in cinema. At the beginning of the film, a scream is heard, sending a bird fluttering off into the night while a cat skulks away, just as we can presume the murderer did. Then the camera tracks along the window sills of the village residents, all sticking their head out, one by one, wondering what the noise was. In another scene, Sir John stands in front of his mirror shaving while listening to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. As he works through the case in his mind, he doesn’t speak it aloud as would normally be the convention on the stage but rather thinks it as we hear it in voiceover.
There are other scenes that play off as too stylized for their own good but given that it was 1930 and sound was still so very new, it is certainly understandable that Hitchcock would be willing to try anything. One such scene occurs in the jury deliberation room as Sir John keeps asking questions, like “Who drank the brandy?” (the accused, Diana Baring, doesn’t drink and an empty bottle of brandy was found at the crime scene), the impatient jurors, hoping for a quick guilty verdict, give answers in the cadence of a song. The first will start a sentence, the second will finish it and a third man says, each time, “That’s right!” at which point all eleven ask in unison, “Any answer for that, Sir John?” until the fourth time when they all repeat, “Any answer – Any answer – Any answer for that, Sir John?” It’s so musically stylized but so oddball that it seems kind of fun no matter which way you look at it.
The climax, where Fane, knowing he has been found out, plans to kill himself, is setup and played out so meticulously that anyone familiar with Hitchcock (which should be, I assume, anyone coming to this site) will immediately recognize the hand of the master. Murder! is, in fact, a test run for many of Hitch’s later devices and as such, a fascinating glimpse into the early trials and errors of a cinematic legend.
But back to the plot device itself, that is, the social nature of the crime. When the secret is revealed by Diana Baring during a jail visit by Sir John, he is taken aback and states, “Black blood!” At this point, he sets out to catch the conscience of a king by making the play the thing. He makes up a play scenario based on the murder and invites Handel Fane to audition for it. Once there, he outlines the murder scene as it really happened, leading up to the revelation that the murderer (in the pseudo play) is a half-caste. Fane is clearly unsettled by all of this and leaves. Sir John and his associates follow him to the circus where he is performing a trapeze act and wait for the opportunity to wring a confession out of him. But something happens. Fane is overcome by guilt and, after writing a full confession by means of describing the murder scene in the form of a play scene, he climbs the trapeze pole, performs briefly and publicly hangs himself.
This is extraordinary. The villain of the piece disposes of himself after feeling remorse. There is no struggle between Fane and Sir John, no guns, no knives, no nothing. And the look on Fane’s face as he envisions Diana facing execution for something he did clearly indicates how awful he feels. It’s the angles that Hitchcock uses, focusing right in on his face, the extended takes of Fane trembling and looking away that clearly indicates where Hitch’s sympathy lies. Does this mean Hitchcock found the idea of shame associated with mixed-race to be absurd and thus sided with Fane? Who knows for sure. What I do know is that you can treat the idea of being of mixed-race, or homosexuality, as being that which makes you a murderer as I think many dramatists and playwrights of the time would have, or you can treat it as something that would drive an innocent man to the crime through fear of public persecution. Hitchcock seems to have made his choice and erred on the side of Fane and fear of public persecution. In doing so, the plot point becomes a moot point. His biracial background simply becomes another MacGuffin, something to get things moving along. The character of Fane is doing something for fear of being publicly ostracized and persecuted. That means you could make a movie today about someone suffering from the same prejudicial attitudes at the same time and not have to change a thing. Since the fear of bigoted persecution is, in fact, a very real fear then and now (but especially then), Hitchcock made the right choice. Had he made Fane a murderer due to his biracial nature instead of fear of persecution, the movie would be dead. Murdered.
In many ways, Murder! is one of the more curious Hitchcock films. It shows Hitch getting his feet wet, testing out new ideas with sound and new ideas with editing and music but also, curious for having a villain who’s no real villain at all, despite having killed someone. Hitchcock would return here again, most famously with Psycho, where the villain of that piece was also presented in the final frames in a sympathetic light, completed subverted by the domineering mother. Here, Fane is subverted by a prejudiced and bigoted society, only it was at a time when many people couldn’t see the prejudice. Maybe (probably?) Hitchcock couldn’t either in 1930 but the movie works anyway because he led Fane into the right motivation, if only by dumb luck.
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