October 25, 2018
Murder – 1930, UK
You’ll forgive me if I sound like a broken record for a moment, but I’d seen this film before. Not this exact film, mind you, but in the course of my movie-watching years, I’ve seen so many films with similar scenarios that déjà vu often hits me early into a movie – as it did with this one – and sometimes I have to stop and make sure that I haven’t already reviewed it. That’s what I did with this one, and the fact that I hadn’t was less a blessing than a curse, for it meant that I had to finish the film.
To put readers out of their misery, I’ll let you in on the standard formula that Hitchcock employs for his 1930 misfire Murder. It is such a common trope that I have no doubt you will recognize it instantly. In films of this sort a common man finds himself either wrongfully accused of a crime and on the run, or one whose been unjustly convicted and for whom time is of the essence. In either scenario, the protagonist is often just another regular guy whom fate has seen fit to push into action. Hitchcock himself made several of these films, for example, The Lodger, Young and Innocent, and Saboteur.
Now the key to making the formula a success is to make it believable that the film’s John Q Public can do the things he is later shown to be capable of. In other words, any sudden deductive capabilities must be entirely in keeping with the kind of person he was before he got into trouble, and any newfound physical skills must be explained by the character rather impressive physical shape. Sadly, it is here where so many films – Murder among them – fail dismally.
Murder starts out like so many of Hitchcock’s films made both before and after it – with, as the title infers, a murder. A young actress named Diana Baring (Nora Baring) is found sitting stunned next to the still warm body of her roommate, a fellow actress whom we hear it gossiped had her eyes on the same guy as Diana. There’s no evidence of anyone else being in the room, and Baring admits that she likely was the culprit. There’s just one thing: She has no memory of the crime. She does however state one thing emphatically: She was not the one who drank a cup of brandy. This odd tidbit of information actually proves to be rather significant.
Enter Sir John Menier (Herbert Marshall), quite a famous actor in Britain and one of the only jurors with doubts as to Diana’s guilt. He just can’t see how someone like her could ever commit murder. It’s more of an emotional argument than a practical one, and eventually he relents and casts a vote of guilty, thus ensuring that Diana is sentences to death. So, because Diana is in jail, it falls to the film’s writers to appoint someone as her knight in shining armor, and this honor is predictably given to Sir John himself.
In other words, a character that has spent a lifetime on the stage entertaining audiences is now expected to be viewed as a Sherlock Holmes type, someone able to get clues in mere seconds without anyone questioning his methods or inference skills. In one scene, he even gets new information from Diana herself, a feat accomplished so easily that it’s a wonder that no one else – not even her own lawyer – was able to get it out of her first. The scenario is ludicrous, and a later scene in which Sir John borrows a strategy from Shakespeare is one of the least subtle ones I’ve ever seen. Hitchcock never allows viewers even a moment to entertain the notion that Sir John is on the wrong trail. Instead, everywhere he goes, he finds a clue or breaks down a piece of evidence. If he were a baseball player, he’d be batting a thousand.
It is telling that the best scene in the film occurs early and that the reason for its indelibility is its very unlikelihood. In the scene, a police detective questions the cast and crew of the acting troupe that the deceased and the accused are part of, and each line of questioning is interrupted by onstage action or a costume change. Did I mention that everyone is so polite? Whenever one can’t fully answer a question, he or she says something akin to Sorry to interrupt you, Inspector, but that’s my cue. I chuckled at the absurdity of it all, for after all a scene does not have to be realistic to be humorous. It was all downhill from there.
And that includes Sir John’s prime suspect. It won’t give too much away to say that he is sadly another example of stereotypes and an –ism being used to make someone appear to be devious and cold-blooded. Now, to be fair, there is historical precedent for this, for people in his situation were indeed heavily discriminated against when the film was made, a fact that gives his fear of discovery more authenticity than it would have had the film been made decades later. However, this does not erase the unease with which the revelation and the foreshadowing that precedes it provokes. In fact, the film, despite a few sympathetic lines here and there, seems to be making the case that people in his situation were rightly discriminated against – just look at all of his peculiarities! Why, they simply must make him more likely to murder!
The film is based on a play called Enter Sir John, and its theatrical roots show, especially early one during a scene in which the jurors meet to go over the evidence in order to render a verdict. The group is made up of eccentrics designed to provide character actors with something to sink their teeth into, yet because it has this as its intent, it loses credibility early on. Their peculiarities exist just for their own sake, and it takes away from what should be a tense scene. This is compounded when all of the jurors begin chanting in unison, “Any answer to that, Sir John?” On stage I can see this working; on the silver screen, it strains a scene’s credibility.
Late in the film, a key character commits suicide in front of a live audience consisting of mostly families. It’s telling that my thoughts turned to how they must be feeling at that moment, rather than what the action meant for the film’s main characters. I mean, what a horrible way to end your Sunday afternoon excursion. But I suppose we shouldn’t feel too badly for them. According to the stage manager, the cure to their trauma and panic is simple – just let the band play. It’s the perfect example of the film’s utter disdain for the real world. (on DVD and Blu-ray)
1 and a half stars