Murder! (1930)

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An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A woman is convicted of killing a colleague, but after the trial a member of the jury begins to doubt her guilt…

There’s a brilliant opening shot to this enjoyable crime thriller. The camera tracks along the windows of a row of houses as, in sequence, people are awoken by some nearby loud banging. And that sets the tone. As the story develops – young touring actress Diana (Norah Baring) is found in a daze next to the dead body of her colleague Edna; she says she has no memory of what happened; she’s arrested and charged with murder – Hitchcock has tremendous fun in the filmmaking playpen.

Visually, the movie never stops impressing and there’s a real sophistication to the framing and camera moves. An early example sees two women discuss the murder while walking back and forth between two connected rooms, the camera swinging back and forth (seemingly through a wall) as if it’s anxious not to miss a moment of the conversation. Later, there’s a terrific scene at the local theatre as the police question actors who constantly have to break off because they’re needed on stage – it’s dynamic, well-staged stuff that tells the story and has fun at the same time. Hitch is also experimenting with the then-new technology of sound: in her jail cell, actress Diana imagines her play going on without her; later, a character’s internal monologue is set to music, while another scene is played over the constant noise of a crying baby.

Diana’s court case comes 14 minutes into the story… and we’re into the jury room for deliberations after 17. The movie then becomes a kind of Twelve Angry Men precursor. The foreman leads his colleagues into discussion, and initially there are three not guiltys. The most assertive advocate is Sir John Menier (Herbert Marshall), a famous actor-manager, and the sequence of him being questioned by the others is a marvel: the timing of the dialogue builds like music, with the lugubrious Kenneth Kove playing a nervous juror who repeats the same line as if it were a chorus.

Ultimately, though, Diana is found guilty and will be hanged. The sentence weighs heavy on Sir John’s shoulders, who then begins his own investigation into the murder. After his stint as Juror 8, he now becomes Sherlock Holmes. Eventually, he fathoms what really happened and corners the actual killer in a trap inspired by the Mousetrap scene from Hamlet. It’s entertaining stuff, though Diana is played so clipped, stoically and melodramatically (and is so rarely seen on screen) that at times you do wonder why Sir John is bothering.

Seven men walking past the house out of 10

Note: While shooting Murder!, Hitchcock was simultaneously filming another version of the same script on the same sets. This second production was Mary (1931), a German-language equivalent (no dubbing for foreign territories in those days of course). It featured a mostly new cast, though Miles Mander played the role of Gordon in both films.

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