Today, I’m participating, for the first time, in the Pre-Code Blogathon hosted by Pre-Code.Com and Shadows & Satin. For the occasion, I chose to write about one of my favourite early British Hitchcock’s films: Murder! Released in 1930, this was his third talking picture after Blackmail and Juno & the Peacock. As you know, I’m a huge fan of Alfred Hitchcock, so to watch his movies and write about them is always a great pleasure.
Before I’ll start exploring the details of the film, you might like to know what is a Pre-Code film. Pre-codes were made at the beginning of the talkies, from 1927 to the establishment of the Hays Code (or the Production Code) in 1934. These films had the particularity to use some “controversial” themes such as sexuality, drugs, homosexuality, violence, etc. Prostitutes and gangsters were very common characters in these films. With the establishment of the Production Code, a censorship code, producers and directors had to stop using these subjects or to be more careful because their movies were now much more controlled. The Production Code was abolished in 1967.
Well, let’s go back to Murder! Why did I chose this film? Well, I looked at a list of pre-code films and this one appealed me. It’s not a film that people talk a lot about, so I thought it might be interesting to explore the subject. So, I watched it for the second time in my life and, I confirm, there are many things to say about this film. My second choice would have been Hitchcock’s Blackmail.
What is Murder! about? Well, it tells the story of Diana Baring, a young actress who is accused of the murder of another actress, Edna Druce. During her trial, most of the members of the jury are convinced that she is guilty, but one of them, Sir John Menier, a famous actor-producer, is convinced that she’s not. Because of the jury’s pressure, he has no choice to declare her guilty too. So, Diana is put in jail, waiting for her hanging. Meanwhile, Sir John, who feels responsible for her imprisonment, decides to start his own investigation to prove that she is not guilty. Ted Markham, a stage manager, and his wife Doucie Markham, an unemployed actress, help him.
When he directed this film, Hitchcock was still looking for himself, for his trademark. At the time, he wasn’t known as “The Master of Suspense”, but he decided to use this theme for his film because it seems that this was what he was the best at. Remember, The Lodger and Blackmail were both successes, but Juno & the Peacock was not. This film was also the occasion for Hitchcock to discover a new actor: the great Herbert Marshall. It was his first talking picture and Hitchcock’s thought he was excellent for the talkies. He, eventualy, reengaged him later from Foreign Correspondent and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The cast was also composed of Norah Baring as Diana Baring. It’s kind of funny that she had the same last name as the character she was playing. Phyllis Constant and Edward Chapman were playing the parts of Mrs. and Mr. Markham, a couple with whom Hitchcock used his British humour so well. These are the main actors. I thought they were all great and all convincing. It was a well-made casting.
When I re-watched the film Tuesday, I realized that it was one of the most interesting Hitchcock’s films on the visual aspect. It certainly was a tribute to German Expressionism, with the use of shadows and contrasts. One of the best visual scenes is when Diana is walking around in her cell and we hear what Sir John and Ted are saying or maybe that’s what Diana thinks they are saying. The interesting visual aspect of this scene is that, gradually, we see the shadow of a hanging rope appearing on the wall. This is awfully revealing and tell us what will or might happen next. But this is not what you think… This shadow is, of course, quite terrifying because Diana is maybe innocent. And how terrible is it be to hang someone who hasn’t killed anyone?
For this film, Hitchcock and his team also did a great job for the sound dimension. At first, the film starts with Beethoven’s famous 5th Symphony. This is a good way for us to anticipate what will happen next: something dramatic or worst, tragic. This was also the first film using the inside monologue, the first movie where a person’s thoughts were part of the film soundtrack. A very interesting scene presents that perfectly. Herbert Marshall is shaving is face in front of his bathroom mirror and we can hear his thoughts and, during this time, we hear the music from an orchestra hidden behind the sets.
In Murder!, the main “Pre-code” theme is sexuality. But this thematic is presented in a very subtle way. The comedian Handel Fane (Esme Percy) is described as a mixed-race person, but that’s just a way to present his homosexuality. At the end of the film, he is dressed as a woman for his trapeze show. Never in the movie we’ll hear someone say the words “homosexual” or “gay” . All this is only suggested and it’s our job for us, spectators, to discover it. However, in his interview with François Truffaut, Hitchcock confirmed that the homosexuality was an important subject of this film. Murder! was also known as one of the first sensible representations of the homosexuality in the British cinema. There are some other allusions to sexuality in this film and some of them are presented with a certain humour. I can think of this moment when Doucie says to Sir John that she was only wearing a negligee when she was looking at her window. She says that with a very hussy voice. That’s funny and it’s a cute way to approach the subject. What’s funnier is the fact that she says that in the presence of his husband and this one just doesn’t have any particular reaction.
Like many Hitchcock’s films, Murder! uses a brilliant British humour. Yes, it’s tragic but, for Hitchcock, there is always a place for a good laugh. The Markham couple has a lot to do with this humour At the beginning of the film, they are looking at their window who is broken because it always falls on their heads. Another funny character in the film is Mr. Matthews, one of the jurors. This one is a little simplet and really doesn’t seem to understand what’s going on. He can’t have an opinion and, when someone says something against Diana Baring, he just says “that”s right” after him. One of my favourite scenes is when Sir John wakes up in the morning (he had rented a room in the same building as Mr. and Mrs. Markham) and the housekeeper comes in the room followed by a bunch of children. They are all very agitated and Sir John is kind of surprised! A little girl climbs in his bed and gives him a hug like if he was his father. Sweet! In this scene, there is also the cutest black kitten! I also love this funny scene when the police and an inspector are investigating for Edna Druce case and go to the theater where she and Diana worked to question the comedians. The problem is that they are right in the middle of a play. So the comedians answer the questions when they are not on stage, but, from time to time, they have to stop the questioning: “Oh! Excuse me, it’s my line!”
The first time I saw Murder! I liked it, but only watched it as an entertainment. When I re-watched it for the blogathon, I had to analyze it and discovered that it was not only an entertaining film but also a fascinating and very interesting one for all the reasons that I just told you. Murder! is not Hitchcock’s most well-known film, but it’s a very worth watching one. I hope you’ll have time to see it one day. Well, here is a link to watch it!
It was so great to participate in the Pre-Code Blogathon! Make sure to read the other entries! Click on the links to visit the host blogs and access the other entries: