Great Britain (104 mi) 1930 d: Alfred Hitchcock
Opening with Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, Toscanini - YouTube (6:07), often thought of as the sound of death knocking on the door, simultaneous to a flurry of frantic knocks at the door by the police as a murder has been committed, this is one of the more provocative of Hitchcock’s early 30’s works, only his third sound film, playing out more like a radio play, using the sound of voices to greater effect than any visualization, where often the dialogue turns into a chorus of collective voices, expressing a kind of groupthink where the power of the collective is greater than any individual voice. While the film attempts to get into racy themes, it’s all disguised, hidden behind theatrical flourishes of silent era film to avoid having to actually deal with issues of sex and race, which simply weren’t talked about in these times. Nonetheless, this adds to the intrigue of the film, which is essentially a story about hidden homosexuality, using multiple layers to achieve the overall effect, which isn’t particularly a success in terms of building suspense, as the elements don’t exactly come together, but it works better as an experimental film that takes plenty of risks. Oddly enough, the movie was filmed in two languages, English and German, using a different lead actor (Alfred Abel) for the German version, with an almost completely different cast, released as MARY in 1931, which failed miserably, as none of the English language jokes were understood within German culture. Hitchcock developed a special fondness for those European directors who were able to successfully make the transition to another language, like Ernst Lubitsch, Fritz Lang, and Billy Wilder, while René Clair, Julien Duvivier, and Jean Renoir all experienced difficulties in the United States. Despite the seriousness of the subject matter, the story of a falsely accused woman, joining the falsely accused man theme of The Lodger (1927), this plays out as a comical farce, with more than the usual number of secondary characters, each exaggerating their roles with a certain theatrical relish, as the actors are given greater freedom than typical Hitchcock films to expand their limited roles with comic flair, where there may be more extended talking throughout this film than any other in the Hitchcock repertoire.
The film is essentially a whodunit, adapted from a novel about the theater called Enter Sir John written by Clemence Dane and Australian actress-turned-playwright Helen de Guerry Simpson, who would later contribute dialogue for SABOTAGE (1936) and write the 1937 historical novel that Hitchcock adapted for Under Capricorn (1949). According to Hitchcock, “It was one of the rare whodunits I made. 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.” Because of the stagy effect, this is often thought of as an adapted play, especially the way Hitchcock keeps intermingling themes of illusion and reality, as so many of the characters work in the theater. The accused is a young actress Diana Baring (Norah Baring), discovered with blood on her dress sitting next to the dead body of another rival actress, a fire poker laying next to the body, and no recollection of what happened, as she’s found in a daze when the police arrive. There’s immediate confusion as members of the same theater company begin offering rumors and behind-the-scenes details that only enlarge the mystery, while the accused herself seems to be deliberately holding back pertinent information, even while incarcerated, apparently protecting the identity of a man she refuses to name. The beauty of the film is often merging their stage characters with real life, blurring the lines between what’s real and what’s not, especially the hilarious police investigation sequence that takes place on the side wings of a stage, with Hitchcock returning to the theatrical setting of his first feature The Pleasure Garden (1925), as the two detectives only grow more confused by the myriad of cast members who offer a few seconds of information before returning to character as performers on the stage. Hitchcock himself was an avid devotee of the theater, but he seems to take particular delight in transferring the farce taking place onstage, that the viewer observes only through an entrance door leading to the stage and the sound of a howling audience, to another one taking place on the wings with a stream of heavily costumed characters quickly coming and going. It’s only here that the speed of the film is most effective, as otherwise there is little camera movement, often standing fixed for prolonged periods of time, moving in and out of conversations, going from character to character, where the relentless pace of the speech is what dictates the action, while there continue to be oddly out of place sequences still shot in the silent era style that slow the pace of the film enormously.
It’s only during Diana’s murder trial that we meet the lead character, Sir John Menier (Herbert Marshall), a renowned stage actor and manager, who is also a juror on the case, where all the evidence seems to point to an open and shut guilty verdict, but Sir John is one of the holdouts who is not convinced. Hitchcock uses an artificial wall of voices that resemble a lynch mob mentality all shouting “Murder!” in the face of Sir John, who unlike Henry Fonda in TWELVE ANGRY MEN (1957), quickly acquiesces to the swelling group pressure and changes his vote. Plagued by a guilty conscience afterwards, he rounds up the stage manager Markham (Edward Chapman) and recreates the scene of the crime, including the actions of each member of the cast that night, literally restaging the crime as a play within a play, making note of clues not obtained by the police, who were convinced this was an open and shut case. In one of the more inventive shots, we hear Sir John narrate his inner thoughts as he looks in the mirror, while a live orchestra behind the set (as sound could not be separated from the live performance) plays Wagner’s “Liebestod” Wagner - Tristano e Isotta - YouTube (conducted here by Arturo Toscanini, 5:58) heard on the radio in the background. Sir John is convinced there was someone else in the room that night, certain Diana would acknowledge as much during a prison interview, where she’s watched over by the female guards who never leave her side. The scene is brilliantly set up where each is on one side of a long table in between that barely leaves any room at each end, exaggerating the distance between them, shot with such an austere style, reminiscent of Carl Theodore Dreyer. Despite being charged with murder, surrounded round the clock by grim looking guards, she still refuses to acknowledge his name, though she inadvertently blurts out that the man she’s trying to protect is a Half-caste, a racially derogatory term in little use today, where the shame isn’t so much the racial aspect, but the fact he comes from a lower caste, so would never be accepted in her social circles.
The half-caste is none other than the defendant’s fiancé, Handel Fane (Esme Percy), seen earlier during the police interviews playing the role of a cross dresser onstage, where “she” could easily have fled the scene of the crime undetected. Using the same trick as Hamlet in his play within the play, The Mousetrap, hoping to prey upon the guilty conscience of the actual murderer, Sir John restages the scene of the crime with Fane, asking him to fill in the missing details, which he’s able to do quite easily. With the theater shut down, Fane has resumed work as a transvestite trapeze artist at the circus, based on a real-life transvestite trapeze artist from Texas in the 20’s and 30’s named Vander Clyde Broadway, stage name Barbette (performer), where his deviance from sexual norms was the only way gays could be presented onscreen during this era. Fane’s dubious character begins a long line of sexually ambiguous Hitchcock villains (often inaccurately described as Hitchcock’s “murderous gays”) that includes Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains) from NOTORIOUS (1946), Brandon (John Dall) and Phillip (Farley Granger) from ROPE (1948), Bruno Antony (Robert Walker) from STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951), Phillip Vandamm (James Mason) in NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959), and Robert Rusk (Barry Foster) in FRENZY (1972). In this case, it’s Britain’s suffocating class system and its implied homophobia that actually leads to the murder and a suicide. While the trapeze act itself is a thrilling climactic moment, cast under a looming shadow of death, the finale is a bit of a disappointment, as the murder mystery is resolved through the contents of a suicide letter read aloud afterwards that explains everything. The final shot once more reveals the theatricality of the film, as Sir John greets the freed prisoner Diana with what appears to be romantic inclinations, as the camera pulls back to reveal they are mere performers onstage as the curtain falls.
Note – Hitchcock’s cameo comes just prior to the one hour mark walking past the house where the murder was committed with a female companion (Hitchcock closest to the camera), which comes just after the end of Sir John's visit to the scene with Markham, who are both seen standing outside the front door.