A German language version of Murder!, shot at the same time and using the same sets,Mary is certainly the lesser of the two adaptations of Clemence Dane and Helen Simpson’s detective novel. Being some 12 minutes shorter than the English version,Mary may possess a tighter narrative, proving more efficient in bringing across the basic expositional tenets of the story, and one could put forward a convincing argument for it being the more technically proficient, but the overall impression is one of Hitchcock simply going through the motions of a film he’d already completed.
Until the final act, Murder! was something of a stagy affair, the greatest pleasures in its dialogue driven screenplay laying in the social and class comedy that derived from the relationship between amateur sleuth Sir John (Herbert Marshall) and his theatrical accomplices, the Markhams. Hitchcock jettisons any such character beats for Mary, blaming his lack of ear for the nuances of the language. As he told Truffaut, “Before the shooting, when I went to Berlin to talk over the script, they proposed many changes that I turned down. As it happens, I was wrong. I refused them because I was satisfied with the English version… Many touches that were quite funny in the English version were not at all as amusing in the German one, as, for instance, the ironic asides on the loss of dignity or on snobbishness. The lead German actor was ill at ease, and I came to realise that I simply didn’t know enough about the German idiom.”
But it’s not only the lack of humour that marks out Mary as the lesser of the two films. Gone are the (admittedly broad) theatrics and role playing games, as well as the references to Hamlet in the trap set for killer Handel Fane. Ekkehard Arendt, here playing Fane is no match for Esme Percy’s performance in Murder!, with all the English version’s ambiguities as to his sexuality and racial heritage entirely removed to the film’s detriment. The aforementioned Hamlet scene is here bereft of all the tension imbued by Percy’s performance, even if the final circus set piece as he takes to the trapeze is similarly taut in its execution.
With Hitchcock still finding his feet with the rapidly evolving sound technology, both films remain very much representative of a cross-over period of his career. Mary has interest as a curiosity, but doesn’t sufficiently diverge from Murder! to show Hitchcock making the most of an opportunity at a second run through of the same material. It’s something of a humour vacuum, with the few Hitchcockian touches present in the English version either absent or awkwardly replicated, and will likely remain one just for completists.
Mary - 1931 - Germany - 78 mins - Alfred Hitchcock