The annoying thing about Hitchcock is that he’s made about fifty films, and so far, only about half of them are turning out to be good. That’s not necessarily meant to bring down the master of suspense, because in a lot of his films that aren’t very good, including Murder!, there are flashes of brilliance that are worth examining. I just wish they weren’t burried in movies that are generally uninteresting and mediocre.
Murder! is definitely in the auteur’s lower half of work. It has quite an interesting premise actually, but the film fails to do much with it. When an actress is found dead, another actress, Diana Baring (Norah Baring), is found practically catatonic at the scene of the crime. Naturally everyone assumes that she’s killed her friend. At her trial, only one man, another actor, Sir John (Herbert Marshall), seems to think she could be innocent. Unfortunately, he gets peer pressured to vote guilty anyway, and Diana is sentenced to hang. Sir John feels bad about what he’s done, and sets out to catch the murder using that old trick from Hamlet; restage the crime so the criminal watching it betrays his guilt.
That actually sounds really good, and it is in the beginning. The trial scene is pretty humorous, with all the other jurors ganging up on Sir John. It’s kind of a wrong version of 12 Angry Men, with the one holdout for innocence switching to a guilty verdict pretty quick. Also the scene where they discover the body is really cool, Hitchcock gives us a wonderful tracking shot leading all the way down Diana’s arm to the murder weapon on the floor. It’s an interesting way to direct the audience’s gaze and helps them draw the inescapable conclusion that Diana is the killer.
However, after Sir John decides on his Shakespearian plan of action, the plot slows down completely and doesn’t pick up until the final moments of the film. Honestly, I’m not even sure how Sir John discovered who the actual murderer was because I was having such a hard time paying attention. Basically all that happens in the catching the killer phase is Sir John revisisting crime scenes and talking to people. It’s really not very interesting, and since the sound in this movie is terrible, it’s hard to tell what exactly the characters are saying. The film is from the early days of sound, so I get it, but still.
This is actually a landmark film, though it doesn’t appear as such from first glance. There’s a scene in which Sir John talks to himself in the mirror, but he is speaking in voice over. This is actually the first voice over naration in cinematic history, so I commend Hitchcock for introducing it. He achieved this by recording Marshall’s lines and them playing them back during the filming of the scene, because that was the only option for achieving the effect in the early days of sound.
There are some really interesting visuals here, even if the surrounding action is very uninteresting. Hitchcock keeps the camera moving impressively for so early in the sound era; when they all converted over the cameras got even bulkier and harder to move, so some directors (and Hitchcock does this a couple of times in the film) just took the sound out and got some nice, but silent, tracking shots. My favorite visual and easily the most impressive one is when Diana is in her cell and sees the shadow of the gallows rising on the opposite wall. I think it’s intercut with Sir John failing to make progress in catching the killer somehow, but I’m not quite sure.
So even though most of the film is mediocre and boring, Murder! has some really good stuff in it too. The premise is cool, even if its execution doesn’t really do it justice. Hitchcock achieves some splendid visuals and invents voice over narration. I would only suggest watching this film if you are going through Hitchcock’s entire catalog, otherwise I would suggest just watching the interesting parts, like the trial and the end, with the gallows scene somewhere in the middle there. Trust me, it’d be a lot less painful that way.
“Any answer to that, Sir John?”
Long story short: 2.5/4 stars