Murder! [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray A - America - Kino Lorber
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (11th August 2019).
The Film

The still of a quiet night in the provinces is shattered by a scream and then the commotion of drunken theater director Gordon Druce (Murder, My Sweet's Miles Mander) trying to gain entrance into the rooming house where his actress wife Edna was dining with rival actress Diana Baring (Underground's Norah Baring). He, the police, Diana's landlady (Gaslight's Marie Wright), actor/stage manager Ted Markham (The Man Who Haunted Himself's Edward Chapman) and his actress wife Doucie (The Skin Game's Phyllis Konstam) burst in to discover a shocky Diana sitting over the body of Edna whose head has been bashed in with a fireplace poker. While some, but not all of them, would like to believe Diana incapable of murdering Edna, there is little evidence to suggest anyone else could have done it. The investigation reveals that the two had been arguing over a man whose identity remains unknown to Markham, Doucie, and fellow players Ion Stewart (Blackmail's Donald Calthrop) and Handel Fane (Dead of Night's Esme Percy). At the trial, all Diana can claim is that she does not remember and must have been out of her head, but her seemingly cool manner and her withholding the name of the man she and the victim were arguing about largely prejudice the jury against her. Dissenting opinions among the group are quickly quashed by others – including that of a posh housewife who demonstrates her intellectual superiority by expanding upon the psychological explanation offered – with the holdout being respected actor Sir John Menier (Trouble in Paradise's Herbert Marshall) who has doubts about the case as well as some feeling for Diana who had auditioned for him once, but he caves to pressure and changes his vote. It is only afterward upon hearing the radio announcement of the verdict that Sir John's doubts about the details of the case and the realization that he is in love with Diana drive him to mount his own investigation into the case. He summons Markham who comes under the impression he will be hired to work for his theatre company but finds himself hired to guide Sir John through the case during which Sir John attributes importance to details dismissed by the investigation – including who drunk the now empty bottle of brandy at the murder scene as neither Diana nor the victim did, a broken wash basin in the theater dressing room, and a police officer that Doucie saw the night of the murder who went in the opposite of all of the commotion – and Markham largely humors him until he is given a blood-stained cigarette case left behind at the theater by a member of the company. Sir John visits Diana in prison and tries to determine the identity of the man she and Edna were fighting over, believing Diana to have been in love with the other man, but discovers that she has other reasons for protecting the man and how her own belief that he could not have committed the crime may lead to her appointment with the gallows. Sir John resolves to draw out the killer with an ingenious plan, but he the killer also knows his Shakespeare...

The third sound film of director Alfred Hitchcock, an adaptation of the novel "Enter Sir John" by playwright Clemence Dane (A Bill of Divorcement) and novelist Helen Simpson – who would also write the dialogue for Hitchcock's subsequent Sabotage and author the source novel for Under CapricornMurder! is perhaps the most conventional of Hitchcock's mysteries in its locked room murder setup and the race against time to save a wrongfully-convicted suspect from the gallows, with the romantic subplot seeming as obligatory in 1931 as it always has. What keeps the film interesting is the manner of Sir John's investigatory approach. Having philosophized that he has as an actor applied "the technique of life to the problems of my art" that he as a juror then attempted to apply "the technique of my art to a problem of real life" and found it wanting, he must sum up a scenario from the clues that leads to solution in which Diana is innocent; and his attempt to expose the killer is a variation on Hamlet's "the play's the thing," which at first seems to fail but it does indeed catch the conscience of the killer in a expressionist sequence of delirium that recalls in setting and execution Ewald André Dupont's Varieté. The revelation of the killer's "half-caste" status seems less of a shock than the association of "black blood" with homosexuality or bisexuality – based solely on the effeminate air of the character – and/or criminality which may be in keeping with pop psychology of the time (at the very least, Sir John refers to him after reading his confession as a "poor devil"). The romantic subplot is resolved in the American and German versions of the film but best left ambiguous with Hitchcock's final shot which blurs the lines between theater and reality. Hitchcock's playfulness is evident in a handful of sequences from his skewering of the juror "types" – earlier seen looking back and forth between the barristers and the judge in a manner that anticipates the tennis game spectators in Strangers on a Train – to Markham's exaggerated impression of the opulence of Sir John's living quarters or livening up exposition with a panning camera following Diana's landlady and gossipy Doucie back and forth between kitchen and dining room preparing tea for the witnesses to the crime scene. His cynical views on the machine of the legal system are mirrored in the finale in which the public really does witness an execution of a sorts and reacts with true horror at the fate the jurors earlier in the film ascribed less importance than in getting back to their own personal lives. Produced in the days before post-dubbing, Murder! was also shot in a German-language version of the film titled Mary directed by Hitchcock with Alfred Abel (Metropolis) as Sir John, Olga Tschechowa (Moulin Rouge) as "Mary" Baring, and Paul Graetz (Alias Bulldog Drummond) as the Markham character (looking more the wearer of false teeth than Chapman). Running twenty minutes shorter than the British version, Mary may seem a more refined version of the film even if Abel is more bombastic than Marshall, with overall better pacing even if much of the same camera movements and setups are retained. Unfortunately, the ending drops Hitchock's final shot in the British version in favor of a more conventional one (a version of which is also appended to the American version between the confession and Hitchcock's intended final shot). Hitchcock perhaps never entertained a remake of the film in English because he would continue to refine his techniques started here in his subsequent films, although he did "return to the stage" with his later thriller Stage Fright.

Video

Released theatrically through British International Pictures' American arm in a version running roughly ten minutes shorter than the British version, Murder! became difficult to see outside of the public domain VHS and DVD market and was thought to be in the public domain; however, the rights were with the British company Lumiere Pictures – who distributed the film on VHS in the U.K. in the eighties – which owned the Associated British Picture Corporation library which had formerly been British International Pictures. This library was eventually acquired by Studio Canal and the film started appearing on DVD in Europe with special editions of slightly differing content in the U.K. through Optimum Releasing in a nine-disc boxed set of early works, France through Studio Canal (a three film, two-disc set with Blackmail and The Skin Game), and Germany through Kinowelt – which also included the German version and a new German dub track for the British version – as well as a Studio Canal-licensed edition in the U.S. as part of a three-disc, six-film boxed set from LionsGate. It should be noted, according to Brenton Film's informative article about the film's release history that the transfer on the European releases added new foley effects to the film while the transfer on the American edition was unaltered. Kino Lorber's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.37:1 pillarboxed fullscreen transfer is probably the best we can expect for a film of this age. The image is relatively clean with the usual faint scratches and bits of dirt, definition being more apparent in close-ups while long shots evince more detail in areas where facial features easily blended into the highlights on the older transfers.

Presented in an upscale from the German standard definition PAL master is the German version Mary (82:07) in its entirety looking understandably softer and more worn – it previous inclusion only on the German DVD suggests that the German version is not owned by Studio Canal and that the British Film Institute either may not have been interested in restoring it as a companion piece back in 2012 or the materials may be even more limited – but upscales to 1080p24 (the PAL DVD ran 78:57) as well as any other black and white film of this vintage, although perhaps looking a bit more PD than studio master.

Audio

The sole feature audio option for the British version is a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track that has been cleaned as part of the restoration but is nevertheless subject to the limitations of early motion picture sound recording discussed elsewhere on the disc, particularly noticeable during the scene of Sir John's monologue underscored by music which seems unevenly mixed but of course was recorded on the set with both a phonograph record of his monologue and the orchestra behind the set playing simultaneously. Optional English SDH subtitles are included. While the film is an upscale, the German version Mary has a lossless German DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track that is relatively clean although also subject to the same recording techniques of the period (that Sir John's monologue sounds a bit more evenly mixed with the music is purely a matter of chance). Optional English subtitles are included for the German version.

Extras

The British version of the film is accompanied by a new audio commentary by film historian Nick Pinkerton who suggests that Dane's vocation as a playwright may have been why the film has been attributed by many others an adaptation of a stage play version of "Enter Sir John" that does not exist, discusses the Dane and Simpson collaboration as well as Simpson's interesting but tragic biography. He discusses the atypical choice of a whodunit by Hitchcock as part of the general raiding the stage for properties and talent for the sound era, the ways in which Hitchcock was one of the filmmakers who did not see sound as a burden and carried over the visual dynamism of silent films to the sound era while also creatively employing sound beyond dialogue and musical accompaniment. He also discusses the story and the novelty of Sir John's "theatrical" investigation, the controversy of the killer's "half caste" status, and the German version of the film. The alternate ending (10:06) is what was seen in America with a bridging scene between the final death and the confessional letter, as well as a couple additional shots between that scene and the final shot (two of those shots, of course, spoil the intent of final camera move as seen in the British version). The theatrical trailer (1:12) is also included.

Ported over from the French and British DVDs is an introduction by critic Noël Simsolo (5:12), in French with English subtitles, that is makes some errors if we are to believe what has been written elsewhere and what is heard on the commentary track, stating that the book was indeed adapted as a play and that Hitchcock was asked to shoot the German version after the British version in Germany. Ported over from the German edition is an audio excerpt "Hitchcock/Truffaut: Icon Interviews" (14:19) in which Hitchcock expresses his dislike of whodunits which he likens to jigsaw puzzles or crosswords with the audience waiting for the solution. The disc also includes trailers for four Kino Lorber Hitchcock releases: Blackmail, The Paradine Case, Under Capricorn, and Lifeboat.

Overall

The third sound film of Alfred Hitchcock not only shows him creatively adapting to the challenges of the sound era but also developing techniques he would employ and refine throughout his subsequent filmography.

 


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