(SPOILERS) To say the motivation for the titular (and exclamatory!) act in Hitchcock’s third film comes out of nowhere is an understatement. Or rather, the stated motivation. The subtext makes sense, but you have to be sufficiently informed to be able to read it as subtext. Without that, the explanation, which is transposed from the crime fiction Enter Sir John by Clemence Dane and Helen Simpson, is so distracting that my first response to Murder! was to wonder if I had missed something.
The amateur detective protagonist Sir John (played by Herbert Marshall, who became a successful movie actor despite losing a leg in WWI) is an impossibly upper-crust, ever-so-correct and erudite fellow. After serving on a jury and failing to convince them of his misgivings over convicting Diana Baring (Norah Baring), he begins his own investigation. Happily, owing to all this taking place in the theatrical community and his being a theatrical type, they’re only too happy to help him out. Chief among these is Sir John’s Watson, stage manager Ted Markham (Edward “Mr Grimsdale!” Chapman, his second of three films with the director).
In his essay Identity and Representation in Murder! Richard Allen discusses the identification of Esme Percy’s Handel Fane (a precursor to Arthur Frayn?) with the term “half-caste” (he has “black blood”). It represents the ugly secret that pushes Fane to kill, “to silence the mouth of the woman who knew his secret and was going to reveal it to the woman he dared to love”. As Allen puts it, however “the identity of Fane is transposed in the adaptation… from a racial half-caste to an identity that is primarily defined through an ambiguous sexuality”. Indeed, Hitchcock by Truffaut fails even to mention the expository racial element, terming it “a thinly disguised story about homosexuality” (Hitchcock, ever flattered by Truffaut’s “Wasn’t that rather risqué for the period?” replies with a modest “Yes, in that sense it was daring”).
This means, though – at least, it did me – that the left-field association of a campy actor given to exulting in crossdressing with secrets about his racial origins is likely to throw the audience for a loop and leave them rather scratching their heads. Neither does it help the picture’s sleuthing element that Herbert Marshall’s lauded thespian turned investigator is essentially thrown the key to the case by Diana.
Allen comments that “While he may be accused of avoiding the question of racial difference and identity that lies at the heart of the novel, he also achieves, as a result, one of his most complex and humane portrayals of non-normative sexual identity in his work and his most articulate exploration of the oppressive nature of the gender system that labels deviation from the heterosexual norm degenerate”. Which is… Well, scholars are nothing if not prone to professing the bottomless brilliance of Hitch profusely. Someone somewhere will vouch for even his most maligned film. Murder! really does have a lot going for it, but great character depth, certainly on its “villain’s” part – aside from a highly-engaging performance from Percy – is not one of them.
But Allen isn’t wrong when he suggests “Hitchcock and Alma at once distance themselves from the racial ideology of the novel (even as they do not wholly overcome it) and display its concealed subtext… For Hitchcock, though not for Sir John and Baring, this “queerness” is what Handal Fane’s half-casteness seems to refer to”.
Certainly, it’s notable that the picture is “daringly” presenting several upfront clues to Fane besides his crossdressing and feminine voice (both of which derive from the Psycho school of sensitive movie sexual psychology). Besides being introduced as “one hundred percent he-woman”, there’s an early scene where Fane tells what he did after the performance, which was essentially inviting a young male actor up to his dressing room. But while it may be a blow to those intent on preserving a keen thematic range across the director’s entire career – particularly since this is an early genre effort and therefore formative – the most interesting part of the picture is neither his staunch protagonist nor the sexual peccadilloes of his antagonist. The director commented that this was one of his rare whodunits (“I generally avoid this genre because as a rule all of the interest is concentrated in the ending”), and I think that shows.
Everything about the investigation is rather weak, and Hitch, Alma and Walter Mycroft don’t seem to care much about bolstering it. There’s no great deductive skill on Sir John’s part, and his proof of mistaken assumptions in respect of a woman’s voice isn’t exactly a Holmesian level of inspiration. Added to which, his Hamlet-inspired plan to catch out Fane by rehearsing the script of the night of the murder is desperately weak. So not such a surprise that it fails; the best part of this sequence by far is Percy’s “dandyish” – to use Allen’s word– response “What a pity, Sir John, that the scene isn’t finished. I was getting quite worked up to it”.
The grand climax even takes victory out of Sir John’s hands as Percy turns his acrobat ropes into a noose and efficiently hangs himself, having obligingly provided Sir John with a confessional letter. And then, Hitch cuts to Diana starring in a new play with Sir John, which feels entirely facile and suggests the actor-sleuth’s obsession with the case isn’t so far from that of the derided juror Mr Daniels after all; Daniels initially considered her innocent on the grounds that she was “perfectly ripping” and the sort of girl one would “like for a daughter” (there’s also a more extended alternative ending that doesn’t add terribly much, except as a reminder Hitchcock wasn’t keen on wasting time with long goodbyes).
Everything about the first half hour of Murder! is fascinating, though. To such an extent, it’s something of a disappointment when the proceedings devolve into a standard whodunit. Indeed, at first glance the picture looks like it might be nursing aspirations to deliver a sort of procedural on the legal process, impersonally passing from the act to a trial to incarceration.
The drawback to this being that Diana is at her most interesting in her tableau first shot, immobile and stunned at the scene (close by are a bloody poker and the body of a fellow actress). Otherwise, she is largely without agency, dependent on a white knight (and reluctant to dob third party Fane in it; as a whodunit largely lacking multiple suspects, Murder! is entirely without red herrings). I suppose Diana does later ostensibly reveal herself to be entirely racist when she disdains the notion that she’s in love with Fane because he is “half-caste”, but if one reads that as meaning he’s gay, it isn’t quite such a horrendous position.
In terms of the initial setup, then, Hitch moves from the rumpus of neighbourhood reactions to the Old Bill arriving and establishing the crime scene. The director is in his element with every little vignette or diversion here. The opening with Diana is presented in the manner of the just-departed silent era, but it’s followed by an extended, almost giddy scene of teamaking gossip and exposition with Hitch indulging false-wall sleights, only to end on the punch line of Norah being carted off to the station (so no tea for her). The subsequent police inquiries at the theatre are also a delight, with every interview interrupted by the evening performance; the play itself looks like a knockabout riot, full of drunks, crossdressing and policemen popping in and out (so to speak). We move on from here to the trial, and from there to the deliberations of the jury, which offer some gems before Sir John’s concerns are voiced.
Juror Mr Shackleton has the best of the material, keen neither on a guilty nor an innocent verdict and diving into a rant about “Have you ever been inside a prison? It takes a civilised community to think out a punishment like that!” Then, when he is told “You can’t run the world on sentiment” he responds “The whole world’s a reeking pit of sentiment!” Hilariously, at the point he is pressed for a verdict, he indifferently adds “Guilty, I s’pose”.
Returning Hitchcock player Violet Farebrother, convinced the defendant isn’t guilty by virtue of diminished capacity, is persuaded from her stance with the warning “If we set this bad personality free, we must be prepared to shoulder the responsibility”. When Sir John chips in with his own disquiet, Hitch has the rest of the jurors reciting in choral unison “Any answer to that, Sir John?” to their every objection to her innocence, successfully wearing him down.
Murder! begins with Beethoven’s Fifth, and following the verdict, it’s the turn of Wagner’s Triston und Isolde to form the backdrop to Sir John’s striking internal monologue while shaving. It’s during this that his mind is made up to begin his own investigation (“Who drank that brandy?”) There are further notable bits and pieces of humour throughout: a piano lesson accompanying Ted and wife Doucie (Hitch veteran Phyllis Konstam) discussing Sir John summoning them; Ted offering his services, during which he recounts some performance trouble Doucie had during a quick change between a barmaid and a Sally Army (“After about a week, I said to her, ‘My dear, look here, this can’t go on. If you can’t pull yourself together, we shall have to go onto Shakespeare’”); and Doucie attempting Del Boy Trotter level heirs and graces. Then there’s Sir John having to sleep “rough” overnight, awakened by a throng of infants and kittens and cups of tea, which he takes all in his stride.
Pauline Kael commented “It’s a very class-conscious film, but in a somewhat snobbish way; we seem to be expected to identify with Marshall’s stylish courtliness and to see ‘lower orders’ through his eyes”. There’s something to that; Marshall’s performance is enjoyable, but there’s little to engage with in respect of Sir John himself, beyond his hallowed status. Hitchcock seemed to be acknowledging Murder!’s slight aloofness when he observed “it was an interesting film and was quite successful in London. But it was too sophisticated for the provinces”.