Murder! (1930)

The second I discovered that this was a murder mystery involving the lives of theatre performers, I braced myself. More than once I’ve chronicled the setbacks made to early cinema by attempting to pull theatrical sensibilities into film. However, my concerns here are mostly all for naught. The use of a moving camera, editing and close-ups demonstrate that Alfred Hitchcock and crew are interested in making a film that just so happens to involve the theatrical world.

Both the victim and the accused were the leading ladies of a play. The accused, Diana Baring (Norah Baring), is found at the site with a poker in her hand and the victim’s blood all over her. She’s confused, doesn’t seem to remember a thing and is acting a bit odd, perhaps a side effect of the empty flask on the table. When it comes to her trial, one man on the jury is convinced she’s not the murder, another actor of the theatre: Sir John Menier (Herbert Marshall).

The most interesting stint of the film is the jury scene. Everyone gathers around and debates the facts of the case, going over the details and also questioning what their role and responsibility is as a jury. In many ways, it’s a forerunner to 12 Angry Men, except there are a few women, because apparently even in 1930, the Brits weren’t as sexist as the Americans in the ‘50s.

In fact, the female presence in the film is interest. Not only are there several of them in the jury, the defense lawyer is a woman and both the victim and the accused are women as well. In the later section of the film, the picture shifts to far more male-centric interests, even a trapeze artist late in the film is a man passing off as a woman.

Speaking of cross-dressing trapeze artists, the film goes for some comedy along with a couple of the theatrical sequences and it’s a bit of a miss. There’s on scene in which a detective attempts to question various actors backstage as they jump in and out of a comedic performance they are doing. The sequence is a funny idea, but it doesn’t have the tempo to make the comedic timing work.

Likewise, later in the film, when the story builds to a climax, an attempt for suspense is made that also fails to hit on the right timing. Part of it is a result of the scene deflating itself a bit too early, but another part is that the editing isn’t quite right. Editing is a powerful tool at ratcheting up the suspense and neither Rene Marrison nor Alfred Hitchcock had quite figured out how to use it effectively.

Murder! is more interesting on paper than in execution. While the film demonstrates an understanding of the medium’s potential, it lacks the expressiveness and sense of timing to make these scenes truly sparkle. It’s enough to be a passable murder mystery, but it lacks the thrills and the gags that it desperately tries to achieve.

© 2013 James Blake Ewing