Week 24: Murder!, LGBTQ characters, and Electro-Shock Blues

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Disclaimer: These essays presume you’ve seen the film in question. If you want to avoid spoilers, watch the movie first!

Murder! is a hard film to talk about this week. The film itself is much better than I remember, a restless and brilliant example of Hitchcock pushing the boundaries of what could be accomplished in only his third sound film. But it also contains one of Hitchcock’s most unfortunate characters, a villainous man who dresses like a woman and murders to hide the fact that he’s a “half-caste,” an awful British term meaning his mother or father is from India (the horror). Trying to unpack this poorly thought-out character is hard enough.

And there’s the elephant in the room. I’m starting work on this entry on June 13, 2016, one day after what is now the worst mass shooting in US history, at a gay nightclub. It’s hard to write about anything, especially a film with Murder! as the title, and especially a film that features a character whose oddly effete gestures and manner code him as a homosexual, even as the story insists that he is not.

But I committed to this project. And as much as I hate this expression and all the cloying, idiotic statements that came with it after September 11, it’s true: We have to keep living our lives, or else the terrorists win. So let’s get started.

Murder! is a whodunit, which is rare for Hitchcock, as it eliminates any real chance for suspense. Lack of knowledge doesn’t create suspense; the audience knowing something that the characters don’t is what makes thrillers so entertaining. The film centers on the actors in a third-rate theater troupe, one of whom is found murdered. Norah Baring plays the accused woman who is almost comatose next to the victim, and she’s quickly railroaded through a trial. All the jurors think she’s guilty, except for our hero, Herbert Marshall, a kind of rich gentleman actor. He reluctantly votes to convict her but then thinks better of it. Marshall’s character “Sir John” engages the help of the theater troupe to find out who really killed the actress.

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Norah Baring (Left) is questioned by Herbert Marshall (right)

The first part of the film is excellent, breathless excitement as we discover the murder and are swept through the trial. In a preview of Strangers on a Train, Hitchcock stages the trial like a tennis match, with the prosecution & defense volleying back and forth while the juror’s heads swivel to watch them. And the jury room deliberations play like a reverse 12 Angry Men, with the jurors hounding Marshall until he gives in (Hitchcock directs with a musical tone here, with the group finishing each battery of questions with “Any answer to that, Sir John?”). Hitchcock incorporates humor and wit in this film better than in many of his early works. And all of the backstage scenes have a crackle to them that’s missing from other theatrical efforts like Stage Fright, especially when the police try to interrogate actors during a performance as they wait for their cues, continually interrupting questions to run onstage in a silly voice or costume.

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“Any answer to that, Sir John?”

Sadly the whodunit half of the film, where Marshall is investigating the killing, is tedious. Hitchcock either isn’t interested or can’t find a way to make the stodgy detective work come to life. They’re tied into a very British Agatha-Christie-type of story, where everything hinges on one clue (The brandy! Who drank the brandy?) that might work well on stage but feels too simplistic in a movie.

But overall Murder! is a remarkable film, notable for Hitchcock’s astonishing technical ingenuity. While other filmmakers were filming static scenes of people talking, Hitchcock has his camera travel down the street listening to snippets of conversations, experiments with overlapping dialogue & sound effects, and even includes something I’ve never seen in film before 1930: an inner monologue.

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A behind-the-scenes shot from Blackmail (1929) illustrating how cumbersome early sound shooting could be.

A brief reminder of 1930 film technology: in the very early years of sound film, there was no sound editing available. You couldn’t shoot dialogue and then add in sound or music later. Everything on the soundtrack had to be recorded on set while cameras rolled, similar to a radio play. Yet in Murder! Hitchcock pulls off two stunning pieces of audio trickery, one right after the other. Marshall is home after the trial has concluded, shaving as his butler plugs in the radio (you know, as your butler does). The radio announcer comes on and introduces a concert.

This means that Hitchcock not only has a man behind the camera pretending to be the radio announcer, he also has a WHOLE ORCHESTRA. In Hitchcock/Truffaut he boasts that it’s a 30 person orchestra behind the set to play the prelude to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, all so it can be heard in the background on the radio.

But Hitchcock being Hitchcock isn’t satisfied. He has to go further. So he constructs a scene where Marshall is looking in the mirror contemplatively as the music plays, and starts to wonder what he could have done differently. As the radio plays, the music mirrors the intensity of his thought process, which we hear as a voiceover. Simple, right?

Dear god no. Hitchcock fails to explain exactly how accomplished this but here’s my best guess: He recorded Marshall reciting his “inner monologue” lines in front of the orchestra, with no cameras. Then he played back this soundtrack with Marshall now in front of the camera reacting to the music and his own dialogue. It’s hard to conceive of how difficult this must have been in the infancy of sound recording, but if anyone could pull it off, it’s Hitchcock.

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Marshall during his inner monologue.

He also highlights all of the theatrical elements of the movie. He reveals Norah in jail by having a curtain rise on her cell. Later Marshall entraps the actual killer with a ruse from Hamlet, asking the actor to read a murderous scene and watching how he reacts. And in the final scene, as Marshall and Norah come together as a couple, the camera pulls back to reveal that their romantic embrace is happening in a theater, on stage in front of an audience.

There are countless technical tricks like this in the film, but not all of them work. When a theatrical underling first visits Marshall’s highbrow office there’s an expressionistic shot of his feet walking across an elegant rug, literally sinking several inches down into the floor, probably meant to communicate a sense of unfamiliarity with the trappings of wealth. But it’s a bizarre, out-of-place choice.

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Rare expressionistic Hitchcock: feet literally sinking into a carpet.

Much better is editing at the climax of the film, where the true killer, Esme Percy playing the cross-dressing actor/trapeze artist, knows that Marshall is onto him. As he swings through the air, he’s taunted by visions in his head before hanging himself in the rafters, culminating in a Sergei Eisenstein-inspired montage of panic.

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Percy hanging from the trapeze.

Oh Esme Percy. With his character Hitchcock is attempting to explore sexuality in a shocking and provocative manner. Yet he would handle this subject with more finesse in Rope and Strangers on a Train. And even those portrayals have problems. You can argue that Hitchcock provided some of the most sympathetic portraits of coded gay characters to be seen before 1960. But virtually all of his “gay” characters (Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca, the Leopold & Loeb-like duo of Rope, Bruno Anthony in Strangers on a Train, and Leonard in North by Northwest) fall into the “deviant sexuality” camp; they’re villains who commit or attempt murder and are caught and punished.

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Percy in full trapeze costume.

In Murder!, the villain makes no sense. He’s a half-caste who murders a woman who’s about to tell his fiancé his secret. He’s also an actor who dresses up in a woman’s costume for a stage farce (because the story demands it) and dresses up like a woman for his other gig as a trapeze artist. There’s no logic to it. And while he does cut a sympathetic figure in the end, the subtext is clear: this man is a deviant and deserves to die. Either Hitchcock couldn’t even begin to understand what would drive a man to dress like a woman for a performance, or more likely, he didn’t care and used the idea because he knew it would be salacious and talked-about.

Make no mistake: Murder! is a brilliant film. Hitchcock uses every trick in the book and invents several new ones. His insatiable thirst for innovation, combined with Herbert Marshall’s elegant performance (in his first film role) elevate this to the level of a great Hitchcock film. But like Marnie orYoung and Innocent or thousands of older films that now seem inappropriate in light of their social, sexual, or racial context, Murder! is a film that should come with a preamble or warning.

Maybe films like this are useful to show how far we’ve come. One of the many memes that made its way across the internet yesterday was a tweet from columnist Dan Savage that read: “Stonewall 1969: cops rush into gay bar to arrest patrons. Pulse 2016: cops rush into gay bar to save patrons.” 

So let’s talk about the awful, brutal reality of the Orlando shooting where a gay cub was targeted. I’m not qualified to talk about this horror in detail and I’d just be saying things have been said more elegantly by others. I will say that this all made horrible sense for me not as radicalized terrorism, but when I heard that several people recognized the shooter as a semi-regular at the gay club. One even traded messages with him on a gay men’s social networking app.

There’s no worse combination than a conservative reading of religion and homophobia driven by self-loathing. And that hatred of homosexuals has been reinforced for decades by films and TV shows like Murder! and thousands of others that portray members of the LGBTQ community as villainous, despicable, deviant, and less than.

What can you do in the face of such hate? What can any of us do?

Well the truth is that the world is often a horrible, terrifying place with evil people. But that’s not everything. There’s also good and beauty and art and laughter and friends and love. Our world can’t grind to a halt because an evil person takes our friends from us. We mourn, we grieve, and we get back up, goddamnit.

Lately during every tragedy or mass shooting (what a depressing sentence to write), people online will share that Mr. Rogers quote about “looking for the helpers.” That’s sweet but it’s not enough. Don’t just look: be a helper. Live your life and make part of that life donating to charities that promote LGBTQ causes or gun control (Check out Everytown for Gun Safety or GLAAD or OneOrlando). Write your congressman or senator or president and advocate for gun control. Take action.

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At times like this I think of a song by one of my favorite bands, Eels. Their singer/songwriter E (aka Mark Oliver Everett) wrote a gut-wrenchingly sad, beautiful album, Electro-Shock Blues, about his sister’s struggle with mental health and eventual death. The album charts his memories and experiences with his family and closes with the swelling, gorgeous “P.S. You Rock My World.” After an album full of sorrow, regret, and loss, E comes to accept that you can’t hide from the harsh realities of life. You have to face the good and the bad, and embrace happiness where you can find it. I’ll leave you with the last words of the song, the last words of the album, and I’ll talk to you next week:

Laying in bed tonight I was thinking
And listening to all the dogs
And the sirens and the shots
And how a careful man tries
To dodge the bullets
While a happy man takes a walk
And maybe it’s time to live

Watch It: Murder! is available to watch streaming for free on Youtube, and is also streaming on Amazon Prime. It’s available on DVD too.

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