The Rare Hitchcock Whodunnit Swings High, Hangs Low
DIRECTED BY ALFRED HITCHCOCK/1930
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: AUGUST 13, 2019/KL STUDIO CLASSICS
Having revolutionized cinema in the home country of England one year prior with 1929‘s Blackmail, Alfred Hitchcock was emboldened.
It wasn’t that Blackmail was the first synch-sound talking picture in the country’s history. That was a big deal to be sure, and that technological development most certainly did impact this next project, to be sure. Murder!, taking place in large part in a courtroom, in the jury deliberation room, in police questioning rooms, has no shortage of yakkity-yakking.
No, it is with Murder! that Hitchcock claims to have knowingly come into himself as a director of thrillers. He’d made a few prior to this, and with the success of Blackmail and others, he’d arrived at the notion that this is the genre for him. While the whodunnit plot would thankfully prove not to his liking, the general notion of moral unease and dark ramifications surrounding wrongdoing- particularly murder- would come to be his grand-mastered territory. While his later title would prove to be a manufactured bit branding taken too far, there is in fact a reason that Hitchcock was and remains “the master of suspense”.
With that in mind, let’s not forget that this effort is merely one part of a prolific start to a major career. Murder!, it must be said, suffers not only from that unavoidable low-level din of early-sound movies and all the non-polish that the era shoved forth, but also a plot that’s too plodding and characters that are too cardboard- even by Hitchcock standards. As the lack of action drags beyond the 100-minute mark, we find ourselves waiting for that titular exclamation point to really earn its place. Only by intellectually unpacking the themes and plot points can we arrive at what might make Murder! interesting. But, in the case of an early work by a major director, that is plenty reason enough for examination.
Performance is a central theme in Murder!. The central deathly event, which occurs off-screen in the first moments of the story, takes place in and around a theatre troupe. The thematic conflation of working the stage and the British crinkle justice system are not uninteresting. And with this performing arts-centric setting comes a particularly interesting ripple of queerness and even gender fluidity. But, before we in the oh-so-enlightened year of 2020 perk up at some progressive interest of 1930 Hitchcock and company, know that the denouement herein is something of a mixed statement. Without spoiling the Big Reveal of this starless ninety-year-old murder mystery (after all, as Hitchcock himself would later explain, such a moment is all that most whodunnits have going for them), know that the debate on whether Murder! is a pioneering reinforcement of abnormality-as-perversion-as-diabolical (something we’d see no shortage of in the ensuing decades on screen) or a tellingly before-its-time bit of cultural commentary remains completely debatable.
Strangely warped print damage reoccurs just often enough to disorient viewers of this recent Blu-ray release from Kino Lorber Studio Classics. By early talkie standards, for the most part, this ninety-year-old film (technically eighty-nine at the time of this disc’s pressing) looks and sounds better than most anyone would expect. But every so often, typically in close proximity of a scene transition, fadeouts will come too early, be undone, then redone in their proper place. In one particular weird instance, the characters and objects on screen kind of garble out of existence in some sort of bacterial blob. Not part of this real-world-bound mystery, of course, but now somehow inadvertently part of Murder!.
The Kino Lorber disc is well stocked with bonus features, the most prominent being an actual bonus feature, the German version of Murder! that was also directed by Hitchcock, 1931’s Mary. Mary, though quite truncated, looks a lot like Murder! insomuch as it seems to utilize the same locations. Hitchcock states that he didn’t enjoy the process of making Mary, nor did he seem to harbor any affection for the finished product. Understandable, as cloning redundancy of his own work is apparently where he drew the line from this point onward. Even in remaking his own The Man Who Knew Too Much two decades later, his approach was widely freshened. For a young upstart with an insatiable passion for the new and the technological (Hitchcock would never lose that quality), and who was only then coming into his own, doing the exact same thing again in a language he didn’t even speak had to be trying. For me, Mary is shorter so therefore I’ll prefer it.
Additionally, Kino has included fourteen minutes of Murder!-specific audio from the legendary Hitchcock/Truffaut recording sessions, as well as a ten-minute alternate cut of the film’s ending. Film historian and Film Comment Big Cheese Nick Pinkerton is on hand for a newly recorded audio commentary track. Pinkerton, for his unyielding cinematic knowledge, is always a solid booking for commentaries such as this. And yet, depending on one’s tolerance level for his unflinchingly sardonic, kinda tired and even above-it-all delivery, Pinkerton will prove to be a bit of a mixed-bag proposition. It seems he might be having fun or he might rather be anywhere else doing anything else. Hard to tell. The fact of the matter is that he’s right in his element; though if he’s enjoying this (as one would hope he is), his enthusiasm is suffocated under a cadaver’s worth of deadweight droll. Hitchcock could sell this sort of thing; clearly not everyone can. Stick with Pinkerton, though. What he lacks in PowerPoint for his academic presentation is made up for in the form an actual scene-specific movie accompanying his talk (about said movie). His delicious wordplay and observations are worth it.
Though the film itself cannot be said to rank among Hitchcock’s most engaging works, it is nonetheless a worthwhile addition to any film library. Regarding this specific edition, the single biggest flaw is one that purchasers will have to deal with going forward, every time the unit is graced on the shelf: the lack of explanation point in the film’s title on the package spine of the Blu-ray. Because, this isn’t just any murder. This is Hitchcock’s Murder!