Tuesday, February 8, 2011

At the Cinema: Hitch's MURDER!

Coming the year after BLACKMAIL, MURDER! is Hitchcock in experimental mode. He indulges in several visual tricks that are reminiscent of Bunuel. The story and action aren't as satisfactory, though, and one gets the impression that now that he'd more or less mastered sound, he didn't have to communicate as much through action and instead could play around with the visual aspects of the film.

Diana Baring, an actress in a traveling troupe, is arrested for the bludgeoning death of a fellow actress. She's quickly tried and convicted, although a member of the jury, Sir John Menier (Herbert Marshall), harbors doubts and, as we later learn, once met the defendant and harbors feelings for her. (Naturally, that should have prevented him from being on the jury, but oh well.) There is a great scene as the rest of the jury pressures him to convict; it's actually closer to musical theater.

And, in fact, theater plays a huge role in this. Not only is there backstage intrigue and dressing room evidence, but visual tricks, such as a curtain raising only to reveal Diana sitting in her cell, not to mention the final visual of a closing curtain.

Sir John, tormented by his doubts, hires a member of the troupe who, with his wife, witnessed an odd scene at the initial discovery, and with their help tracks down clues that lead to the identity of the real murderer.

The visual tricks get a little weird at times. When a man walks into Sir John's apartment, intimidated by everything he sees, we're shown his feet sinking into the carpet, as if they put the rug over a mattress. There's also occasional cuts, like at one point when Sir John wonders about going to an inn to spend the night, and there's a quick cut to a nicely laid table.

But there's also bits where Hitch seems unsure of himself. There's a lot of awkward pauses and scenes that go on for waaaaay too long. There is a great bit where Sir John stands by a theater talking to a compatriot, and in the background is a poster for a play called "Nothing But the Truth." One significant bit is when Sir John is shaving and you hear his thoughts in voice-over format; nothing new to us today, but that was actually a radical notion and the first time that sort of narrative device was ever used.

Spoilers in this paragraph....the worst part of the film is how very badly dated it is, because the murder was motivated by the murderer seeking to prevent a woman from telling the truth about him, that he's mixed race. (Or, as they put it in the film, a "half-caste.") And just to make him even more unsavory, we're shown how he performs a circus act in drag. It's a sort of thing I'm not crazy about, when a villain is shown or hinted to be gay or bi for no other reason than to make them seem even more twisted and disgusting. Ick.

MURDER! isn't one of Hitch's best, but it's interesting as a stepping-stone in the development of his style.

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