You can’t run the world on sentiment.
A lot needs to go wrong for Alfred Hitchcock‘s Murder! to go right. I say this because Diana Baring (Norah Baring) would never have been arrested in a perfect world. Why? For all the reasons Sir John Menier (Herbert Marshall) lays out about two-thirds of the way through. No one asked her what she thought happened. No one demanded she give the name of the man she and the deceased (Edna Druce, a performer in Diana’s acting troupe with which she had a tumultuous relationship) were arguing about. No one even looked to see if a third party could have entered the room. A circus of gawkers saw a discombobulated Diana sitting next to the murder weapon and merely assumed. What’s worse: so did the police.
Authors Clemence Dane and Helen Simpson (whose novel Enter Sir John serves as the basis of Hitchcock, Walter C. Mycroft, and Alma Reville‘s script) therefore balance their entire mystery on the fact that those who should be asking questions don’t. They see an empty bottle of brandy and assume Diana downed it despite saying she never took a sip and they use her caginess where it comes to the unknown man’s identity as evidence of guilt. From there the prosecution constructs an open and shut case against a defense too helpless (or ignorant) to procure an alternate scenario. They agree she did it, but in a fugue state outside her control. The jury then must decide to hang her or risk another innocent victim falling prey to this “condition” later.
Only one man truly gives pause when it comes time to sentencing (Sir John) and you have to wonder how he even got on the jury in the first place since he knows the defendant personally. It’s this connection that forces him to be the last holdout in need of some psychological strong-arming on behalf of his fellow jury members (a group of self-important lemmings just waiting to have their minds made up for them) and also ensures his guilt continues to eat at his conscience with the thought he could have done more. So while all of Diana’s coworkers and friends do nothing just like the police squadron assigned to the case, this celebrity actor with no investigative background begins his unofficial fact-finding mission for appeal.
Sir John says something about looking at the case through a dramaturgical lens to see what nobody else could and we go along with it because everything to this point has been pretty nonsensical anyway. It’s hard to question one person’s peculiarities without accepting how the rest of the cast is naïve, obtuse, lazy, or disinterested. Diana is really the least important piece to the whole because no one actually cares about her as more than a tragic story or source for truth. She’s in jail awaiting death simply so those on the outside can play detective and find the satisfaction of being able to sleep at night without thinking they have blood on their hands. They’re each selfishly motivated with her potential freedom proving a happy coincidence.
It’s thus difficult to engage with the plot on any level beyond curiosity. The events are so plainly laid out with no one showing even the slightest emotional outcry of empathy that we honestly don’t care who the murderer is. It could end up being Diana (which would be an inexcusable waste of our time as an audience watching characters spin their wheels for literally no reason) and our reaction would be identical to discovering it was some other bit player we would never suspect because we didn’t know he/she existed until Sir John’s amateur sleuthing made it so. The truth ultimately reveals itself to be a convoluted mess of secrets and paths of least resistance that matter-of-factly unfold without a gratifying release because our investment is nil.
There’s just Sir John’s haughty elitism making him smile smugly as he discovers each new clue and the strangely drawn Markhams (Edward Chapman‘s Ted and Phyllis Konstam‘s Doucie) who tag-along as witnesses holding crucial positions with which to give their compatriot unfettered access to the places Diana would have been (they’re her troupe’s stage manager and co-star respectively). What’s strange is that they always look as though they’re up to something—imploring the other to hold back or give more whenever it suits the slim opportunity of advancing their careers within Sir John’s orbit. He latches onto this and leads them on with promises of future collaborations that I assumed were subterfuge. But that would also mean somebody on-screen was legitimately interesting. This sadly never does prove true.
They’re all silly people roaming a series of meticulously planned pathways that arrive only when needed. Everything that seems a ploy isn’t and everyone is more or less better than Hitchcock wants us to think. The only bad person is the murderer, but he/she can’t even earn intrigue in that role since they exist solely to be this villain. Regardless of some nice visual flourishes and effective performances, Murder! is therefore undone by a ludicrous script surely made more so with almost a century of time passing since release. Perhaps the so-called twists and turns were thrilling in 1930, but today it’s impossible not to laugh. Even when someone dramatically sacrifices himself for redemption, we’re asked to ignore his plight and applaud Sir John for being right instead.