[This post is a contribution to the third annual For the Love of Film blogathon and fundraiser, which will be running from May 13-18. This year, hosts Marilyn Ferdinand, Farran Smith Nehme and Roderick Heath have dedicated the week to Alfred Hitchcock, whose early (non-directorial) work "The White Shadow" will be the beneficiary of any money earned during the event. Be sure to donate!]
Murder! was Alfred Hitchcock's third sound film, and it bears plentiful evidence of the young director experimenting with form and style, livening up what's otherwise a routine and glacially paced murder mystery. The theater actress Diana Baring (Norah Baring) is found one night sitting beside the corpse of one of her fellow actresses, swearing that she doesn't remember killing the girl. Nevertheless, it seems to be an open-and-shut case, and she's promptly convicted and placed on death row. Only after the trial is over does one of the jurors, Sir John Menier (Herbert Marshall), have second thoughts about letting himself get talked into going along with the guilty verdict. He begins investigating the case himself, hoping to uncover evidence of Diana's innocence. The film's plot is simple and schematic, and the pace is almost painfully plodding, with one inert scene after another walking Sir John closer to the solution. The performances are mostly not bad, but it's Hitchcock's budding visual imagination and subtle sense of humor that really elevates this pedestrian material.
The film opens in a quaint, patently artificial village that looks like it belongs in a German Expressionist silent: an appropriate place for a murder. In the opening scenes, Hitchcock cleverly builds tension sonically, starting with a scream that wakes up the neighborhood, sends birds fluttering away, and sets the dogs to howling. The soundtrack becomes noisy and cluttered: barking, people chattering, the banging noises of the police knocking on the door of the house that's causing all this disturbance. Hitchcock defuses the suspense slightly with the humor of one couple who stick their heads out their window, the wooden frame continually sliding down on their necks, but they're so intent on seeing what's happening that they let it push them down into the flower bed, craning their necks to see. At the site of all the clamor, Hitchcock further elongates the tension by focusing on the reactions of the people at the scene, shooting the backs of the heads of the people crowding around the door.
By this point, it's obvious that there's been a murder, but rather than just unveiling the body, Hitchcock employs a precise, elegant, slow camera move that retains the influence of the silent cinema in its ability to trace a whole narrative in the angle of the camera' arc. The camera moves from Diana's haunted, staring profile, down her arm, to the splatter of blood on the hem of her dress and her hand dangling just above the floor, then moving perpendicularly along the floor, parallel to a fire poker, the murder weapon, which lays pointing directly at the head of the dead woman who now, finally, appears within the frame.
Diana doesn't appear much in the film, but she still instantly makes an impression with her intense stare and shell-shocked demeanor. She barely even says much, mostly just staring blankly off into the distance, haunted by the secrets she's hiding and won't reveal even to save her own life or help her case. Her expressive silent movie actress face carries a lot of weight for what is otherwise an underwritten character; she serves as the trigger for the plot but is only vaguely defined even though the whole story revolves around her. Her most compelling moment is a wordless montage in which Hitchcock alternates overhead shots of her pacing around her cell with a foreboding image of the shadow of a noose reflected on a wall, creeping slowly up the wall as the sun changes position, a cleverly grim way of suggesting the passage of time.
Hitchcock also has some fun with a quirky little scene in which two gossipy women prepare tea while talking about the murder. This long scene plays out in a single shot that repeatedly tracks back and forth between two adjacent rooms as one of the women putters around, preparing the tea and laying out cups. Each time she walks from one room to the next, the camera tracks with her, and her friend scurries after her, sitting down, then almost immediately getting up again to return to the other room. The back-and-forth tracking of the camera brings out the deadpan comedy of this otherwise mundane scene, building an entirely cinematic and formal humor that's distinct from the banal content of the scene.
Hitchcock puts a little verve into moments like that whenever he can, because he doesn't have a whole lot to work with here. Once the trial is over and Sir John begins his investigation, the film is dominated by a series of stagey dialogues with witnesses and suspects, and there's not much Hitchcock can do to make these lifelessly written scenes pop. There are hints, here and there, of a buried homosexual subtext that was more explicit in the Clemence Dane novel the film is based on, but here it's mostly replaced by an undercooked racial theme. The film's theater milieu is full of crossdressing actors, and gradually the investigation begins to focus on the trapeze artist Handel Fane (Esme Percy), who dresses up as a glamorous woman and flies through the air, wowing the crowds with his grace. Fane's feminine artistry plays into the shocking circus climax, which Hitchcock stages by putting the focus on the horrified reactions of the crowd, just as he had during the opening scenes.
He then follows this, almost perfunctorily, with a letter that explains the film's whole plot, because after a climax like that, there's not much to do but quickly wrap things up and call it a day. As Sir John reads this letter, the shadows of the circus crowd flit by on the wall behind him, giving the scene a weird, disconnected feeling, as though the hero has quietly tucked himself off in a corner, isolated from the chaos, to resolve the plot. It's fitting, too, that the film then ends with a curtain coming down on a theater's stage, a last playful touch that accentuates the artificiality of these dramatics.