Hitchcock’s third talkie is a plodding affair, adapted from the detective novel Enter Sir John by Clemence Dane and Helen Simpson. A rare whodunit in his body of work, as he told Francois Truffaut “I generally avoid this genre because as a rule all the interest is concentrated in the ending… You simply wait to find out who committed the murder”. It’s certainly the case here, with anything of real substance or interest saved for the final twenty minutes or so, after the killer’s identity has been revealed. If anything, Murder! serves to prove Hitchcock’s statement that, “With the arrival of sound the motion picture, overnight, assumed a theatrical form”.
It starts well; a piercing scream scattering birds across the screen as the camera tracks across a series of windows, villagers comically peering out to catch a glimpse of the disturbance below. We don’t witness the murder itself, only a static tableau of its aftermath through which the camera pans, collecting evidence. A young actress stands accused, apparently having committed the crime in a state of trance, not dissimilar to that into which Anny Ondra fell in Blackmail the previous year. The facts of the case are discussed in the first of a series of lengthy dialogue scenes by a jury ready to send her to the gallows. One member, actor Sir John Menier, has second thoughts following the unanimous decision, setting out to investigate the case himself, assisted by members of the cast of the play in which both victim and accused were employed.
Despite some comic character beats and a neat sound experiment in soliloquising, it’s an overwritten affair, with little in the way of suspense until Sir John sets a trap to catch the killer, a riff on the Player’s scene from Hamlet. It’s a great scene for Esme Percy as the effete, cross-dressing circus performer Handel Fane, tricked into auditioning for the part of the killer in a play Sir John purports to have written about the case. Hitchcock focusses on gesture; the ashing of a cigarette, the offering of a pencil as stand in for the murder weapon, and Fane’s slow slink out of the room, fully aware the game’s up.
When Fane’s racial heritage is revealed by the accused woman during a prison interrogation (the mise-en-scene straight from Dreyer), it’s loaded with double-meaning, censorship preventing the overt mention of his sexuality as contained in the source material. As Hitchcock’s camera takes to the trapeze with the troubled killer, the film finally finds room to express itself with some bravura visual flourishes. It takes a while getting there, but Fane’s demise packs quite a punch.
Murder - 1930 - United Kingdom - 104 mins - Alfred Hitchcock