Blackmail was a peculiar mixture of silent montages and long talking scenes. Juno and the Paycock was not much more than a filmed stage play. In his third talkie, Murder!, we see Hitchcock begin to master editing in the talkie age. Flowing dialogue overlaps his short, speedy cuts and there’s a well-implemented early example of a voiceover. It’s a shame Hitchcock’s lively editing struggles against a flat and uninventive script.
Acclaimed stage actor Sir John Menier (Herbert Marshall) sits on a jury for a murder case. The lead suspect is a fellow thespian, a young actresses called Diana (Norah Baring) who was found in a daze by the bludgeoned corpse of a colleague. Although Sir John initially believes she’s innocent, he’s peer-pressured into a “guilty” verdict by his fellow jurors. Soon afterwards, he starts having second thoughts and sets out on an investigation of his own with the help of the stage manager Ted Markham (Edward Chapman). Who killed Edna Druce? Can Sir John save an innocent woman from the gallows? And what the hell does Hamlet have to do with anything?
The script, adapted from the whodunnit Enter Sir John by Clemence Dane and Helen Simpson, tries to address some heavy subject matter such as the fallibility of the legal system and questioning the line between acting and reality. Where it stumbles is in its clunky execution. The story moves along at a snail’s pace (despite Hitchcock’s slick camerawork) and there are some absurdly theatrical moments. In the scene where Sir John is bullied into changing his verdict by the rest of jury every objection he raises is drowned out by a repeated chorus chant: “Any answer to that Sir John?” It’s rather silly.
As mystery it doesn’t really work either. A key plot-point is based around a racial issue that doesn’t make a lick of sense. It’s not an offensive portrayal, but it sure is baffling.
That’s not to say the film is without its merits. Herbert Marshall is a sound lead; Hitchcock shows off some decent camerawork; and the intense final climax at a circus ends on such a dark note it freaks the shit out of a clown. But even down to its title, Murder! is almost the dictionary definition of an average Hitchcock.