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Alfred Hitchcock was an experimental filmmaker. He may have graduated in the 1940s to top Hollywood stars and A-level budgets, but he never stopped experimenting with camera movement, composition, editing, color, sound, and just about every other tool of filmmaking imaginable.
Take Murder! (1930), one of his first sound films. It contains a 3-minute uninterrupted take, overlapping dialogue, and inventive use of sound and music. In 1930, post-production dubbing technology did not yet exist, and in order to have more than one sound heard at the same time, Hitchcock had to have them actually played live during the shot. In Herbert Marshall's shaving scene, the audience is able to hear Marshall's stream-of-consciousness narration over the ambient shaving sounds because Hitchcock pre-recorded it and played it back on a tape recorder on the set. And that was just the half of it. Marshall is listening to music on the radio during this scene, and to get the music on the soundtrack, Hitchcock hid a 30-piece orchestra behind the bathroom wall. They played live while the cameras rolled.
Not all the experimentation worked, however. As Hitchcock told Francois Truffaut, "I also experimented with improvisations in direct sound. I would explain the meaning of the scene to the actors and suggest that they make up their own dialogue. The result wasn't good. The timing was wrong and it had no rhythm."
The plot of Murder! follows a juror (Herbert Marshall, in his talkie debut) who remains unconvinced of a young actress's guilt after the jury convicts her of murdering a friend. Playing a distinguished stage actor, Marshall sets out on his own to find out who really did it by re-enacting the crime. Murder!, in fact, is often recalled as having been adapted from a play. It wasn't. The source material was a novel about the theater called Enter Sir John. The book was co-written by Helen Simpson, an Australian actress-turned-playwright who would later contribute dialogue to Hitchcock's Sabotage (1936) and write the novel Under Capricorn, which Hitchcock filmed in 1949. The screenplay for Murder! was adapted by Hitchcock, his wife Alma Reville, and Walter Mycroft. "It was one of the rare whodunits I made," said Hitchcock. "I generally avoid this genre because as a rule all of the interest is concentrated in the ending. They're rather like a jigsaw or crossword puzzle. No emotion. You simply wait to find out who committed the murder."
Aside from the technical innovations, Hitchcock kept things interesting by playing with the story's themes of reality and illusion. There are constant plays on what is real vs. what is performance. The characters work in the theater or the circus; a crime is re-enacted as a play within a play; the accused's last name is Baring, the same as the actress who plays her. Hitchcock visually captures the blurring of what is real with what is not throughout the picture, and never more strongly than in the final shot. Perhaps such an intellectual idea is why the well-reviewed Murder! played well primarily in cities. At least Hitchcock thought so, who later said, "It was quite successful in London, but it was too sophisticated for the provinces."
One of the pivotal characters in Murder! is a transvestite trapeze artist named Handel Fane. Hitchcock based his presentation of Fane partly on a real-life transvestite trapeze artist from Texas named Vander Barbette. (And why not?) This was the first of a long line of sexually ambiguous villains in the director's movies, and Fane's climactic scene is a thrilling moment in Murder!.
Hitchcock shot a German version of Murder! concurrently with the British film. A common practice of the time, these foreign versions were called "bilinguals" and featured different casts in the same sets and camera set-ups. The German title was Mary, and only one actor appeared in both versions: Miles Mander, as the murder victim's husband.
Producer: John Maxwell
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Alfred Hitchcock, Walter Mycroft, Alma Reville, Clemence Dane (story), Helen Simpson (story)
Cinematography: Jack Cox
Film Editing: Rene Marrison
Art Direction: John Mead
Music: John Reynders
Cast: Herbert Marshall (Sir John Menier), Norah Baring (Diana Baring), Phyllis Konstam (Doucie Markham), Edward Chapman (Ted Markham), R.E. Jeffrey (Foreman of the Jury), Miles Mander (Gordon Druce).
by Jeremy Arnold