Murder! (Alfred Hitchcock / United Kingdom, 1930):

Pirandello and the cadaver, "what the critics described as a ‘highbrow shocker.’" Sound is already a fundamental part of Alfred Hitchcock’s sense of style, clock chimes and a shriek guide the opening montage until the crime is discovered and expressive movement takes over: The camera tilts down from a police officer’s aghast expression to the searchlight in his hand, then pans right to the catatonic young actress (Norah Baring) and down to the poker on the ground, and finally left to the bludgeoned corpse. The lass sits in her cell like Dreyer’s Joan, cross-shaped shadow and all, prosecution and defense come and go and then it’s up to the jury to decide in a pulsing little set-piece that’s like 12 Angry Men compressed to ten minutes. Life and art are overlapping techniques, that’s the philosophy of that "poorest of poor players" Sir John (Herbert Marshall), whose stagecraft is his tool as he goes sleuthing for the true culprit. Acting very aware of its artifice, a camera very aware of its presence, the essentials of Hitchcock’s splendidly self-reflexive mystery. The screen is a proscenium continuously stretched this way and that: An investigation takes place while thespians scramble in and out of costumes for an unseen but appreciative audience, but even the making of a cup of tea is endowed with mobile shots. (Turning side to side as a pair of busybodies rush from kitchen to dining room and back, the lenses are like the tennis-match audience in Strangers on a Train.) The inquisitive epiphany is an internal soliloquy, Marshall shaving before a mirror as the words in his mind arm-wrestle with the Wagner overture played by the full orchestra just beyond the frame, a droll Hitchcock experiment among dozens. Hamlet figures strikingly in the trap for the "half-caste" trapezist (Esme Percy), an audition stopped cold by a blank page in the screenplay; the circus sets up the anguished plunge remembered by Ophüls in Lola Montès. "There’s a melodrama for you, Sir John." The curtain drop is a tip of the hat to Lubitsch, who returns the compliment in To Be or Not to Be. With Phyllis Konstam, Edward Chapman, Miles Mander, Donald Calthrop, Amy Brandon-Thomas, and Una O’Connor. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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