Blu-ray Review: Murder!

Murder Blu-ray Cover.jpg

Distributor: Kino Lorber

Release Date: August 13, 2019

Region: Region A

Length: 01:42:29

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: 2.0 English DTS-HD Master Audio (48 kHz, 1554 kbps, 16-bit)

Subtitles: English

Ratio: 1.37:1

Bitrate: 31.93 Mbps

Notes: This marks this title’s North American Blu-ray debut.

Murder! Title.jpg

Murder! was the first important ‘who-done-it’ picture I made.” —Alfred Hitchcock (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

Murder! is one in a series of films following Blackmail (1929) and proceeding The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) that are, in all honesty, very difficult to enjoy as entertainments. I’m sure that this statement will be met with a certain amount of derision and perhaps a bit of anger, but it seems reasonably obvious that the director was experiencing a creative dry spell that wasn’t entirely of his own making.

For one thing, the early sound era produced a great many films that make for very difficult viewing today due the limitations of recorded sound and the fact that sound production completely changed the way that films were shot. The industry struggled to overcome the challenges created by the new format as cameras had to be isolated in small “telephone-booth-like kiosks” which made movement extremely difficult, and actors remained stationary so that the microphone could pick up their voices. Visual aesthetics were suddenly not the primary priority, and the result of this change could be incredibly awkward (to say the least).

This would have been frustrating enough for Hitchcock, but British International Pictures often handed him properties that held little to no interest for him instead of allowing him to choose his own projects. In other words, most of these films were “assignments.” Blackmail and Rich and Strange (1931) seem to be exceptions, but it isn’t clear whether Murder! was the result of yet another assignment, if he chose to make it from a list of inappropriate BIP properties, or if this was his own idea. Whatever the case, it is worth noting that the director often made it a point to stress in interviews that he preferred suspense stories to mysteries and that these two genres are actually antithetical to one another:

“There’s a great confusion between the words ‘mystery’ and ‘suspense.’ And the two things are absolutely miles apart. You see, mystery is an intellectual process—like in a ‘who-done-it’—but suspense is essentially an emotional process. Therefore, you can only get the suspense element going by giving the audience information… I’ve only made one ‘who-done-it’ many, many years ago because in the course—before you arrive at that five second revelation—there’s no emotion going on… So, the mystery has no particular appeal for me.” –Alfred Hitchcock (AFI Seminar, 1970)

The mystery that he mentions making “many, many years ago” is obviously Murder!, and it is important to remember that this film was made before the director had latched onto the fact that he was at his best when working within the fairly diverse genre of the suspense thriller. This revelation wouldn’t come until the back-to-back successes of The Man Who Knew Too Much and The 39 Steps. In other words, Murder!—which is a who-done-it based on a novel by Helen Simpson and Clemence Dane (aka Winifred Ashton) entitled “Enter Sir John”—may have actually helped the director to understand his preferences for suspense over mystery. What’s more, evidence suggests that if the director didn’t choose this property as a potential film project, he was certainly excited and inspired by this particular “assignment.”

enter sir john - dust jacket

This is a dust jacket for “Enter Sir John.” It is worth noting Helen Simpson would work briefly with Hitchcock on Sabotage, and wrote a novel entitled Under Capricorn that the director would later adapt as one of his more unsuccessful films.

REDEVELOPING ‘THE HITCHCOCK TOUCH’

Alfred Hitchcock worked primarily with Walter C. Mycroft on the adaptation and the incredible Alma Reville on the scenario. The three Hitchcocks borrowed an overwhelming amount of the film’s dialogue from the novel itself, but the director didn’t allow the addition of sound to obstruct his ability to render scenes cinematically. Instead, he preferred to utilize the new medium to build upon his already developing cinematic voice.

“The talkies have given most of us a past about which we need to be ashamed. Why, we used to bore a hole in an actor’s head and superimpose tiny images representing his thoughts! Sound has done away with such clumsiness. I am thinking of a sequence from Enter Sir John. A murder has been committed. There is a shot of the curious outside the villa in which the body was found; a picture with a Fleet Street look. Then, a cut to the notice-board in the greenroom of the local theatre; attention being focused on the fact that an understudy is playing. After that, a glimpse of the curtain rising: immediately followed by a close up of the grille opening into the cell of the condemned actress. The camera holds her face, but the voices in the theatre talk about the understudy. The woman’s eyes just respond to the comments and her thoughts are pretty plain.” —Alfred Hitchcock (Advance Monologue, Close Up, August 1930)

In other words, Hitchcock applies cinema’s visual principals to sound. He uses sound in the same manner that he uses his camera (just as he had done previously in Blackmail). One particularly interesting scene concerned a jury deliberation as Sir John tries to explain his “not guilty” verdict to the eleven jurors who disagree.

“…The jury scene turns expressionistic when Sir John’s arguments against the other jurors are beaten back with increasingly loud, increasingly quick replies: ‘Any answer to that, Sir John?’ Finally, he is overwhelmed by their choral ‘Any answer, any answer, any answer to that, Sir John?’ The veer from dialogue to chant puts the audience into Sir John’s beleaguered position.” –Maurice Yacowar (Hitchcock’s British Films, 2010)

Hitchcock’s unique editing rhythm mirrors their chanting, but their words become little more than a distorted symphony of voices as Hitchcock moves into an extreme close-up of our anxiety ridden protagonist’s face. The result is a bit crude due to the aforementioned production limitations, but the scene does find the director experimenting with the cinematic possibilities that sound would offer him.

The moments that follow this exchange are just as interesting. After a despondent Sir John relents and agrees to a guilty verdict, he sits motionless in his chair as the other jurors gather their belongings and leave the room. He begins gathering his things only when the final jurors are making their exit. He finally leaves us alone in the empty room. However, an attendant soon enters the room and begins to clean up as we hear the verdict read to the court and a sentence of death passed down. This is something that couldn’t have been done in a silent film, and it seems slightly audacious even today.

SD - SIR JOHN BEATEN DOWN.jpg

“I tried to stylize a jury persuading a final juryman to agree to the verdict of guilty, and I stylized the voices hammering away at him.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock, 1966)

End of Jury Scene.jpg

Sir John sits despondently as the other Jurors happily file out of the room.

The scene that follows the fade out from this scene is probably the film’s most recognizable, as it is often discussed for its creative (and difficult to achieve) use of sound. Blackmail had the so-called “knife scene,” and Murder! has the infamous “mirror monologue.”

“Most people remember the picture by one particular scene—the one in which Marshall spoke his own thoughts without opening his mouth. The same idea was used more extensively some time later in Strange Interlude. It was considered a somewhat startling talkie innovation. Actually, the idea was one of the prominent methods of stage technique handed down from Shakespeare. Then it went out of fashion. Nowadays, a second actor is brought on so that the actor can speak his lines to him. I have always hated the idea of bringing in an unnecessary person, and this is why I set out to find some way of avoiding it when I had to direct that scene in Murder! I merely went back to the oldest form of all and introduced the soliloquy, brought up to date by making it unnecessary for Marshall to open his mouth.” –Alfred Hitchcock (My Screen Memories, Film Weekly, May 02-30, 1936)

This effect was more difficult to achieve at that time than it is today, and Hitchcock would discuss this scene in interviews until the end of his career.

“…[Marshall] had [just turned] the radio on, and I wanted to have the Prelude from ‘Tristan [and Isolde]’ playing. I had a thirty-piece orchestra in the studio, just for this little radio he’s playing in his bathroom. You see, you couldn’t add it later, it had to be done at the same time and balanced on the stage.” —Alfred Hitchcock (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

To complicate matters further, a recording of Sir John’s internal soliloquy also had to be played off-screen, and this recording had to be timed to the orchestra’s music! One can only imagine the madness that this probably created on the set, but the coming of talkies often created such chaos. Filmmakers who refused to build upon their already well established stylistic techniques would fail to make an impact in the sound era. Those, like Hitchcock, who became excited at the opportunity to build upon these already established techniques would flourish. However, even these directors would stumble on occasion. The “talkie” era made it necessary for directors to experiment, and these experiments weren’t always successful.

This was certainly true of Alfred Hitchcock, and one particular experimental approach during the production of Murder! helped him to establish some of his more steadfast directorial rules.

“I also experimented with improvisations in direct sound. I would explain the meaning of the scene to the actors and suggest that they make up their own dialogue. The result wasn’t good; there was too much faltering. They would carefully think over what they were about to say and we didn’t get the spontaneity I had hoped for. The timing was all wrong and it had no rhythm.” —Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock, 1966)

The failure of this technique helped to solidify his preference to “improvise in the office” while working on the script. The final film shows signs of this failed approach and adds to the clunkiness of the final product.

Publicity Still featuring Herbert Marshall from MURDER!.jpg

“[Murder!] was Herbert Marshall’s first talkie, and the part he played was ideal for him. He immediately proved himself a natural talkie actor.” –Alfred Hitchcock (My Screen Memories, Film Weekly, May 02-30, 1936)

Alfred Abel in Fritz Lang's Metropolis.

Alfred Abel was cast in a Hitchcock-directed German version entitled Mary. His most famous screen performance was probably his portrayal of Joh Fredersen in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927).

A BILINGUAL PRODUCTION

Most of what is known about the production of Murder! concerns its status as a so-called “bilingual production.”

“Since it took more time to make a picture, they were often made in several versions in order to reach an international audience. Therefore each film was much more expensive.” —Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock, 1966)

The practice was short-lived but crossed continents. There are multiple versions of a great many films made during these early days of sound. There are foreign-language versions of Dracula, The Blue Angel, M, and a great many other titles from this era. However, different directors usually took the reins of the foreign version (although the same sets were usually used). This wasn’t the case with Murder!. British International Pictures trusted Hitchcock to shoot both of these versions.

“We made the German and English versions simultaneously. I had worked in Germany and had a rough knowledge of the language—just enough to get by. In the English version the hero was Herbert Marshall, and we used a very well-known actor, Alfred Abel, for the German version. Before the shooting, when I went to Berlin to talk over the script, they proposed many changes that I turned down. As it happens, I was wrong. I refused them because I was satisfied with the English version. Besides, we didn’t want to shoot two versions that would be too different from each other for reasons of economy.

Anyway, I returned to London without having altered the script. But as soon as we started to shoot, I realized that I had no ear for the German language. Many touches that were quite funny in the English version were not at all amusing in the German one, as, for instance, the ironic asides on the loss of dignity or on snobbishness. The German actors were ill at ease, and I came to realize that I simply didn’t know about the German idiom.” —Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock, 1966)

The script was translated into German by Georg C. Klaren and Herbert Juttke, and a handful of changes were made to the story during this process. Most noticeably, the title was changed to Mary (as Diana Baring’s name was changed to ‘Mary Baring’). In addition, Fane’s motives were completely different in the German film. Instead of trying to hide his racial origins, the murderer is trying to conceal the fact that he is a fugitive from justice. However, the production was conceived as a close replica of Murder!

“It was designed technically that I would set up and light a scene with the English cast, [then] take them out, substitute the other actors and do the scene over again in German.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Transcription of François Truffaut’s Interview, August 1962)

MURDER! MARY COMPARISON.jpg

It is clear that the two films mirror one another, but this comparison probably doesn’t give us an accurate account of the differences in framing since home video transfers often crop images for various reasons. (These examples are taken from Sony’s 2007 DVD transfer of Murder! and a 2006 French DVD transfer of Mary.)

This methodology creates a film that mirrors Hitchcock’s British version more often than not, but it didn’t completely eradicate the insanity created by shooting two films at the same time. Charles Landstone—who portrayed one of the jurors in Mary—remembered the chaos created by the bilingual shoot and reminisced about his experiences in his memoir. Apparently, the prospect of interpreting another a role being portrayed by another actor at the same time made Landstone apprehensive. However, he managed to find a solution for this unique predicament:

“…Each man had to give his views—Norah Baring was being tried on a murder charge—and Hitchcock had the idea of planting each juryman with a solo shot that displayed his personality. The Englishman in my part was Kenneth Cove, quite a well-known feature actor of the day and a member of the famous Aldwych farce team. I watched him carefully as he went on the set, and thought that if I could copy him I might get through without being sacked as some of the others had been. I saw Hitchcock give me a knowing grin; he hadn’t been fooled, but he didn’t care. For the twelve days that the shooting of the jury scene lasted I followed the same procedure, carefully aping everything that cove did. Nobody seemed to notice, not even Cove.” –Charles Landstone (Memoir)

It isn’t surprising to learn of Alfred Hitchcock’s tendency to exploit the unusual “bilingual” situation for laughs (or for his own private amusement).

“He had a clapper boy named Harold, and he cast him in the role of the King’s Jester. His cry would be ‘Haro-old!,’ and when Harold dutifully came to heel he would be sent off on one fool’s errand after the other. He made ‘Haro-old’ learn off by heart a sentence in German which he told him to go and repeat to a young actress who was Norah Baring’s counterpart. I forget what it was exactly, but it was the sort of remark that one might expect in the most permissive of today’s scripts. In 1930 it was outrageous. ‘Haro-old’ dutifully repeated it; the girl was startled out of her life and ‘Haro-old’ stammered: ‘E told me to say it.’ The actress, catching sight of Hitchcock roaring his head off, wagged her finger at him in admonition.” –Charles Landstone (Memoir)

However, most of the director’s pranks seemed to be directed at the very difficult Alfred Abel:

“[Hitchcock] transparently disliked Alfred Abel, a stuffy man who didn’t share his sense of humor, Abel refused, for example, to wear the same tweeds-and-raincoat costume as the English star, Herbert Marshall, because it didn’t suit his idea of formality. And he refused to follow Hitchcock’s directions for the scene where a landlady’s children climb over Sir John, who is trying to relax in bed while sipping his morning cup of tea. It is a memorable interlude in Murder! (experimenting with overlapping sound, Hitchcock has a baby bawling throughout), but it had to be restaged for Abel and [Mary]…

…Abel finally stepped into the crosshairs when he objected to Marshall’s special lounge chair. No such privilege had been accorded to the German lead. ‘Hitchcock didn’t trouble to explain,’ wrote Landstone, ‘that Marshall was a 1914-18 war casualty and had a wooden leg, but simply said that provision would be made for the German to rest between the shots… and after lunch a magnificent-looking armchair, far more luxurious than Marshall’s, appeared at the side of the set. On it was Abel’s name, and the latter thanked Hitchcock profusely. Noticing, however, the director’s puckish grin, the German went over to the chair and touched it gingerly with his finger, whereupon the whole contraption collapsed to the ground. Hitchcock’s roar of laughter filled the studio.” –Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Norah Baring (Diana Baring), Alfred Hitchcock, and Olga Tschechowa (Mary Baring) during the production of MURDER! and MARY..jpg

This is a ‘behind the scenes’ photograph of Norah Baring (Diana Baring), Alfred Hitchcock, and Olga Tschechowa (Mary Baring) on the set of Murder! and Mary.

RELEASE AND RECEPTION

“It was an interesting film and was quite successful in London, but it was too sophisticated for the provinces.” —Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock, 1966)

The evidence suggests that Hitchcock’s above recollection as to the reception of this film is accurate. While the German Mary only received a limited release in Germany, the British Murder! did quite well upon its release (especially in terms of critical opinion). British critics were especially kind and fast to compare the film favorably with American product. The following review from ‘The Yorkshire Post’ is a case in point:

“…This adaptation of “Enter Sir John,” the novel by Clemence Dane and Helen Simpson, also deals with crime, but the film leaves you with a convincing impression of real people involved in quite possible situations… There may be melodramatic moments in the film version, but there is no rosy haze and no sham sentiment.

Mr. Hitchcock long ago proved himself the most gifted of British directors, and Blackmail showed that he could handle a talkie every bit as well as a silent picture. Murder! (I prefer the original title of the novel) is much longer and fuller than Blackmail, but no less brilliant. Once more we can enjoy Mr. Hitchcock’s remarkable gift for making every scene and every glimpse say something. His camera is as resourceful as in the days of silence. That feeling which the talkie used to give us of being anchored in a narrow room is entirely overcome.

Sometimes, I think, he pauses too long over details—particularly over his satirical touches. The scene in which the needy stage-manager and his wife go to lunch at Sir John’s West End apartment is extremely amusing, but the amount of footage given to it holds up the action. Still, Mr. Hitchcock’s eye for idiosyncrasies of character and his command over so many levels of English life are a great asset. Murder! is a long film, but so richly packed with material that not for a moment did I find it dull.

The acting is on a level with the direction. Herbert Marshall—a new recruit from the stage — has exactly the right urbanity for Sir John; Edward Chapman is first-rate as the little stage-manager; Edward Percy—another stage recruit—is equally effective as a trapeze artist; and Miss Norah Baring, in her short but difficult part as the suspected girl…

Nor is there any weakness in the production or in the settings. Here we have a home-made film which attempts to do no more than tell a mystery story, but which does its job with complete success. Indeed, the wealth of vitality displayed in the handling of this British picture makes the American efficiency of ‘Raffles’ seem oddly stereotyped, oddly thin.” —Yorkshire Post (Alfred Hitchcock’s Success, August 05, 1930)

Hugh Castle, who wrote a condescending but mostly positive piece on Blackmail upon that film’s release, did likewise upon the release of this film. In fact, it is obvious that he prefers Murder! to the director’s “talkie” debut:

“…Hitchcock by now must be an admitted authority on the black arts, having graduated with Blackmail. Hitchcock, of course, is an interesting phenomenon, said he, adopting the quietly introspective style. A rambler rose on an arctic slope. Or perhaps it would be better to say a walrus on Everest. He has his moments. He is the one man in this country who can think cinema. He may never achieve half of what he thinks. One cannot expect too much of the British industry… But Hitchcock’s moments justify themselves. Obviously Murder! had its moments. It may not achieve real unity, but it comes nearer than any of its homemade competitors. And after Two Worlds!

There is a suggestion in Murder! of a talk-film idea which personally has appealed to me from the start of the dialogue film. Too much, in my opinion, is made of the deliberate distortion of sound to make a counterpoint to the visual rhythm. For myself, I have always been interested in the direct linking of sound and picture by the employment of a literary translation in the dialogue of a similar rhythm as is used in the montage… In the jury sequence in Murder! Hitchcock has discovered this same idea. The acceleration of cutting, coupled with the dialogue rhythm, speeding up, speeding up. Speech montage. So much more fundamental than that psychologically interesting ‘knife’ episode in Blackmail.

Much could be said about Hitchcock, his use of the detached camera. Documentation. His efforts to weld literary satire into cinematic development, the old fault for which Lubitsch has to answer. His idea-fertility, the use of dialogue as a thought-medium [in Murder!]—a throwback to the Elizabethan stage, this.

Anyway, Hitchcock gives the screen ideas, in which it is so bankrupt. Murder! has several ideas, flung off, used to serve a purpose and then forgotten. Regarded as a motion picture Murder! is a praiseworthy effort, quite the best thing this country has done. Looked at from the straightforward angle of the film-goer it gets dangerously near the highbrow, which means to say that the fact it has brains may militate against it…” —Hugh Castle (Attitude and Interlude, Close Up, September 1930)

The review published in ‘The Times’ offers more thoughtful praise but forgoes Castle’s particular brand of snobbery. After praising Marshall’s performance in the film, the review elaborates on Hitchcock’s direction:

“…We find ourselves thrust into a world at once made passionately aware of itself, and Mr. Hitchcock has never been more skillful in revealing the inner lives of his characters and the strangeness of the scene that enfolds them. Murder!, then, is not simply a brilliant exercise in mystery melodrama. Like most of Mr. Hitchcock’s work, it tells us about the life as well as the lives of his characters, and we cannot follow him into Sir John’s study or into the actress’s lodgings without knowing more of the world about us than we did before. In short, Mr. Hitchcock’s method is that of the creative artist. He has produced a picture of which any country might be proud, and has shown that when so minded we can make films superior in intelligence and style to any submitted to us by America or Germany.” —The Times (September 23, 1930)

Charles F. Hynes offered the film plenty of qualified approbation and also predicted a successful future in film for Herbert Marshall:

“Probably the best of the pictures recently produced in Great Britain, this boasts a strong story, capably acted by a fine cast. Top honors go to Herbert Marshall, a good looking and capable hero, who solves the murder mystery. The picture has the fault common to many British films of too much dialogue and lack of action, but good direction surmounts this obstacle and the suspense is sustained throughout…

… There are no names of American prominence in the cast, but Marshall should be played up, as he is a good potential bet. This looks like a good offering for the weekly changes, as well as subsequents [sic]. The title should give it draw.” —Charles F. Hynes (Murder, Motion Picture News, November 01, 1930)

Even American trade publications offered the film their blessings as this review by Charles S. Aaronson illustrates:

“This British International film, adapted most expertly by Alma Reville from Clemence Dane’s stage play, ‘Enter Sir John,’ is as good a mystery thrill picture as they come. As seems to be the usual thing with the product of the Elstree studios in England, the cast is exceptionally fine, from the lead of Herbert Marshall as Sir John, actor and amateur detective, down to the most incidental part. Marshall gives an excellent exhibition of self confidence in his role, and handles his lines with a restraint and perfection of diction which is seldom bettered on the talking screen…

…The manner in which Sir John traps the suspect into betraying his guilt, and the odd way in which the murderer beats the law in the end provide an unusual conclusion and put real punch into a mystery thriller which is novel for its new angle. The direction of Alfred Hitchcock is all that anyone could ask. Every motion and speech is pointed toward the climax, with little or no time wasted on unnecessary incidentals. Photography is good throughout, with several scenes easily rating a grade better than good…

…An able cast, and fine adaptation and direction of a story which has at least one or two unusual twists for this type of mystery, make this film one of the most entertaining British International has sent over. There can be little doubt that American audiences will get a real kick out of it.” —Charles S. Aaronson (New Product: Murder, Exhibitors Herald, November 01, 1930)

The film’s successful reception is understandable, and it is the highlight of a decidedly uneven period in Alfred Hitchcock’s career (1930 – 1933 / Juno and the PaycockWaltzes from Vienna). If it has aged more than some of his later films, one can take solace in the understanding that it is on par with other “talkies” made during this era.

Murder! SS01

The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Kino Lorber houses their disc in a standard Blu-ray case with a sleeve featuring artwork taken from a Columbia Pictures window card design that was used to promote Murder! in US theaters. It’s probably the most famous available artwork for the film, so their decision to use it was wise.

Murder! Menu

The disc’s menu features this same image with accompaniment from Beethoven’s fifth symphony, and the result is both attractive and easy to navigate.

Murder! SS02 - BLOOPER

Those who enjoy finding mistakes will notice that equipment is visible in this particular shot. It seems likely that this error would have been cropped out of release prints.

Picture Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Kino has given Murder! a very healthy high definition transfer that blows previous DVD transfers of the film out of the water. As for the previous standard definition “public domain” transfers, there is absolutely no comparison as those were washed out, blown out, cropped to the point of ruin, and barely watchable. Those who have only seen one of these transfers haven’t actually seen the film. Kino’s Blu-ray transfer is also a step up when one compares it to Sony’s previous DVD edition of the film (which is the only legitimate release of Murder! in North America).

First of all, we see more information on all four sides of the frame when comparing it to the Sony release. Density isn’t always as strong as one might hope during a few scenes, but it is better than it has ever been in the past. Fine detail and clarity have also seen a significant improvement here, while the filmic layer of grain is healthier and better resolved. It’s true that there are occasional signs of damage, but none of these become at all distracting. In fact, it is surprising how clean the print looks considering the film’s age. There are a few instances of the film momentarily fading to black and then back into the scene that must be the result of age. It is a minor weakness that probably couldn’t be improved upon without significant restoration work being done on this title.

Murder! SS03.jpg

Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

It is important to consider the “early sound” nature of this track before criticizing the inherent weaknesses on display. These weaknesses were always on display! Kino’s 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio reproduces the film’s original mono accurately, and those who have only experienced those dreadful “public domain” transfers will be amazed at how clean and clear the track sounds when compared to those earlier releases. Dialogue is clear and usually intelligible. The weakest element is obviously the music as it is a bit boxed in and suffers slightly from the limitations of the era’s sound technology. However, even this has seen improvement when compared to earlier DVD releases of the film. It represents the original sound elements faithfully.

Murder! SS04.jpg

Special Features:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Mary (1931) – (SD Up-Res) – (01:22:07)

Mary Title Card

If Mary had been presented in high definition, it wouldn’t be discussed here as one of the disc’s supplemental offerings. It would have been one of two main attractions. The article that proceeds this disc review discusses the production of Mary, and cinephiles should agree that it is a substantial addition to the disc (even in standard definition). The film hasn’t received a legitimate North American release in any format, so Kino Lorber should be applauded for their efforts.

Audio Commentary by Nick Pinkerton

Pinkerton gives a well-researched but monotonous commentary that mixes analytical theory with biographical information and production history. The major weakness here is his delivery, and this is a shame because it is an informative track.

Alternate Ending – (10:06)

Alternate Ending

Apparently, the official UK cut of the film was slightly shorter than the version projected for US audiences. The latter of these versions inserts a pair of incidental scenes into the film’s ending in order to make certain points more clearly.

The first of these scenes follows directly after Handel Fane’s dramatic demise. We see his corpse being carried out on a stretcher as Sir John is handed a note that Fane had left behind for him. After looking at the note for a moment, he exits the dead performer’s dressing room. This, of course, leads into a scene that is actually in the official UK cut (the scene where Sir John reads the note out loud).

This scene is then followed by another added scene wherein we see the innocent Nora Baring as she exits the prison to ride off with Sir John. He tells her to save her tears since they will serve her well in his new play. This is the cue for the next (and final) scene in both cuts of the film. Sir John kisses Diana’s hand before tracking out to reveal that this is part of a stage performance. The curtain drops. The End.

In some ways, this US ending (which was included as the primary ending on the Madacy Entertainment DVD) is much smoother and less choppy than the official UK ending, but it also anticipates the final gag of pulling out from what we think is the clichéd “happy ending” kiss. It’s nice to have both endings on the disc, but one actually wishes that Kino Lorber had offered an option for viewers to watch the film with either ending.

Hitchcock/Truffaut: Icon interviews Icon – (14:19)

It’s very pleasing to find that this audio excerpt from the legendary Hitchcock/Truffaut interviews was included on the disc. This particular portion of the interview finds Hitchcock discussing Murder! and his memories and thoughts are played against a kind of slideshow featuring artwork and production stills. The only complaint that we have about this is that one of the photos is clearly from the production of Blackmail and not Murder! The oversight takes some of the polish off of the presentation.

Introduction by Noël Simsolo – (05:12)

Noël Simsolo’s French-language introduction is an odd and not altogether worthy inclusion as his information isn’t completely accurate and his theories aren’t entirely sound. First of all, it is clear when one examines Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography that he didn’t really latch onto the thriller genre until the back to back successes of The Man Who Knew Too Much. What’s more, Mary wasn’t shot after Murder! as he suggests. These films were shot simultaneously.

One doesn’t like to disagree with popular theories as to thematic subtext, but his adoption of Truffaut’s assessment that the film delves into the subject of homosexuality is questionable. Such subtext does crop up throughout Hitchcock’s work but Murder! is a different animal. In ‘Hitchcock’s British Films,’ Maurice Yacowar makes an argument against such readings:

“Ernest Betts makes an extreme claim: ‘More interesting than any technical gimmicks is Hitchcock’s awareness of dissolving ethical standards, of the whole atmosphere of moral and psychological change. He confronts homosexual and other issues in a manner considered bold at the time.’ Durgnat rewrites the film: ‘It leaves us, sophisticates of 1970, in little doubt that “half cast” means “left handed,” which means bisexual or homosexual.’ To Truffaut Murder! ‘in essence is a thinly disguised story about homosexuality.’ The film is neither ‘about’ nor does it ‘confront’ homosexuality. Well, if it is, it is more than ‘thinly disguised.’

…The ‘half caste’ need not denote homosexuality. Nor does transvestitism, given the British farce tradition of male performers in drag…” –Maurice Yacowar (Hitchcock’s British Films, 2010)

Yacowar should have gone farther with his argument, because performing in drag isn’t transvestitism. The performing artist isn’t dressing for his own pleasure but for the pleasure and amusement of an audience. This distinction is important.

In the end, one doesn’t mind Simsolo offering his theoretical interpretation of the film, but the factual errors and assumptions (presented as fact) are regrettable.

Theatrical Trailers and Blu-ray Advertisements:

Murder! (Blu-ray Ad) – (01:12)
Blackmail (Blu-ray Ad) – (01:15)
The Paradine Case Theatrical Trailer – (01:43)
Under Capricorn Theatrical Trailer – (02:04)
Lifeboat (Blu-ray Ad) – (01:28)

The ‘theatrical trailers’ are welcome and worth having on the disc, but the Blu-ray advertisements seem like superfluous additions. One wishes that the original trailers for Murder! could have been found and included. This would have been a significant addition to the disc.

Murder! SS05

Final Words:

Murder! is arguably the best of Alfred Hitchcock’s early (post-Blackmail and pre-The Man Who Knew Too Much) “talkies,” but his best work was still ahead of him. It is fascinating to see how Hitchcock experimented with the new sound medium. However, those who are only casually interested in Alfred Hitchcock’s oeuvre may find it a challenging entertainment due to the technical limitations that plagued the early sound era.

Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray is a remarkable release, and it is certainly recommended for devotees of the director.

Review by: Devon Powell

Source Material:

Staff Writer (‘Murder’ at Regal and Alhambra, Burnley Express, May 23, 1931)

Oswell Blakeston (Advance Monologue, Close Up, August 1930)

Staff Writer (Alfred Hitchcock’s Success, Yorkshire Post, August 05, 1930)

Charles F. Hynes (Murder, Motion Picture News, November 01, 1930)

Charles S. Aaronson (New Product: Murder, Exhibitors Herald, November 01, 1930)

Hugh Castle (Attitude and Interlude, Close Up, September 1930)

Staff Writer (Murder, The Times, September 23, 1930)

Alfred Hitchcock and John K. Newnham (My Screen Memories, Film Weekly, May 02-30, 1936)

Peter Bogdanovich (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

Alfred Hitchcock (AFI Seminar, 1970)

John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

Sidney Gottlieb (Hitchcock on Hitchcock: Selected Writings and Interviews, 1995)

Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Sidney Gottlieb (Alfred Hitchcock Interviews, 2003)

Maurice Yacowar (Hitchcock’s British Films, 2010)

Barton Palmer and David Boyd (Hitchcock at the Source, 2011)

Ken Mogg (Melancholy Elephants: Hitchcock and Ingenious Adaptation, Hitchcock and Adaptation: On the Page and Screen, 2014)

Mark Osteen (Hitchcock and Adaptation: On the Page and Screen, 2014)

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Blu-ray Review: Foreign Correspondent – The Criterion Collection

Spine # 969

Cover

Distributor: Criterion Collection (USA)

Release Date: February 18, 2014

Region: Region A

Length: 120 min

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio:

English Mono LPCM Audio (48 kHz, 1152 Kbps, 24-bit)

Subtitles:  English

Ratio: 1.37:1

Bitrate: 23.98 Mbps

Notes: This release also includes 2 disc DVD set. Warner Brothers has also given the film a DVD release. However, this Criterion edition is the only version available on Blu-ray.

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“I had offered Gary Cooper the Joel McCrea part in Foreign Correspondent. I had a terrible job casting the thriller-suspense films in America, because over here this kind of story was looked on as second-rate. In England, they’re part of the literature, and I had no trouble casting Donat or anybody else there. Here I ran into it all the time until Cary, who’s really English. Afterward, Cooper said, ‘Well, I should have done that, shouldn’t I?’ Of course I don’t think it was Cooper himself. I think the people around him advised him against it.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

It isn’t surprising that Alfred Hitchcock decided to make a film that contained anti-neutrality sentiment. Shortly after his voyage to America; London was bombed and Hitchcock worried about the safety his family. He even tried to convince his Mother to join him in America.

David O. Selznick was famous for loaning out his contracted talent for a hefty profit and decided to do so when Walter Wanger requested the services of his star director. Wanger had bought the rights to Vincent Sheean’s memoir Personal History and he wanted Hitchcock to bring the book to the screen. Hitchcock used only the basic idea of the book and constructed an original screenplay (with Alma Reville, Joan Harrison, and Charles Bennett) that can really only claim to be inspired by Sheean’s memoir.

The resulting production can only be described as “extravagant.”

“With Foreign Correspondent, Hitchcock hoped to advance his American career. When Selznick loaned him to Walter Wanger in late November 1939, both producers apparently contemplated a twelve week schedule. Hitchcock consistently exaggerated his speed and may well have promised to develop the script in only three or four weeks [and] shoot it in eight or nine. A lax supervisor, Wanger gave the reins to Hitchcock and let the production take its course. Three months later, the screenplay remained unfinished and pre-production expenses had begun to soar. According to press releases, nearly six hundred craftsmen and technicians worked on Foreign Correspondent, many of them building the enormous sets. Hitchcock supervised construction of a three-story windmill, an Amsterdam city square, an airplane interior, and a mock-up of London’s Waterloo Station. A replica of the Clipper ran $47,000, and the director’s subtle lighting effects required a special relay system from the cameraman to the gaffer. By June 1940, costs approached a reported 1.5 million and would finally tower over those of Rebecca.

‘As soon as I was working for someone I wasn’t under contract to,’ Hitchcock later said, ‘the supervision was lessened.’ Selznick understood the consequences. Although Hitchcock’s assignment to Wanger ultimately lasted thirty weeks and brought his employer a $54,000 gross profit, Selznick grew concerned about the picture’s long schedule. United Artists had accused Wanger of inadequately controlling his operation and broken with him; through ‘improper supervision,’ Dan O’Shea told Selznick, Wanger had now made Hitchcock appear ‘an exceedingly slow director.’ Production manager Ray Klune confirmed the point: Hollywood had begun to gossip that the quality of Foreign Correspondent only barely justified its cost. As Selznick realized, unchecked extravagance would make Hitchcock difficult to handle and even more difficult to lend.

Hitchcock returned from Wanger with a fresh taste of independence…”

– Leonard J. Leff (Hitchcock and Selznick: The Rich and Strange Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick in Hollywood)

Hitchcock’s extravagance paid off for Wanger, even if it was a thorn in Selznick’s side. Audiences and critics both raved about the film. Bosley Crowther’s review encapsulates the film’s critical reception:

“They say that the current heroes of Americans, young and old, are the foreign correspondents, those dashing chaps who presumably hop all over Europe, Asia, Africa and points between, hobnobbing with influential persons, catching wars on the wing and rushing madly every few minutes to cable home the latest hot news. If such is the case, then Walter Wanger’s own special Foreign Correspondent, which arrived at the Rivoli last night, should be the particular favorite of a great many wonder-eyed folk. For into it Director Alfred Hitchcock, whose unmistakable stamp the picture bears, has packed about as much romantic action, melodramatic hullabaloo, comical diversion and illusion of momentous consequence as the liveliest imagination could conceive.

Never, we venture to suspect, has there been an American news scout abroad who got himself so fantastically involved in international monkey-shines as does Mr. Hitchcock’s bewitched and bewildered Joel McCrea. And never, we know for a fact, has Mr. Hitchcock let his flip fancy roam with such wild and reckless abandon as he does in the present case. Instead of a young reporter covering Europe methodically for his sheet, Mr. Hitchcock is giving us a picture of Europe—or, at least, a small but extremely sinister sub-sector of same—doing its most devious best to cover and destroy Mr. McCrea. And although this does not abuse the romantic conception of a correspondent’s career it does make for some oddly exciting and highly improbable shenanigans.

Improbable? Well, after all, no one expects probability in a Hitchcock picture. The secret of the fellow’s success is his command of the least expected [and] his use of the explosive surprise which often verges upon the absurd. Usually he manages to keep things moving with such fascinating rapidity that he never goes over the edge, but this time he comes perilously close. With the news-hawk hopelessly entangled in a monstrous spy plot, beyond his control or even his comprehension; with Mr. Hitchcock trotting out some rather obvious old tricks of suspense and diabolically piling on the trouble, the patron is likely to suspect that his leg is being deliberately pulled. Even Mr. McCrea, in a desperate moment, yelps helplessly, ‘The one thing everybody forgets is that I’m a reporter!’

Obviously, it is unfair to reveal the plot of a Hitchcock picture. So the most we can tell you about this one is that it casts a young police reporter, sent to Europe in August, 1939, because his publisher believes ‘a crime is hatching over there,’ right bang in the middle of a big ‘fifth column’ plot in London; sets him legging after a kidnapped Dutch statesman and in turn brings the Nazi agents down on him. There is much flesh-creepy business, much genuinely comical by-play and a generous interlarding of romance. And it reaches a fantastic climax on the wing of a shell-wrecked transatlantic plane in mid-ocean. Some story!

No one but Hitchcock would dare to whip up a picture like this and for those who can take their sensationalism without batting a skeptical eye it should be high-geared entertainment. The cast is uniformly good, especially in the minor roles, and some of the photographic sequences are excellent—especially one in an old Dutch windmill. Only Robert Benchley, who plays a broken-down bowler-and-cane type of London correspondent, tends too heavily toward travesty—just a shade too heavily. And that is the lone inclination which Foreign Correspondent could most becomingly do without.” –Bosley Crowther (The New York Times, August 28, 1940)

His derogatory commentary about Robert Benchley’s performance seems unfair and does not extend to most of the other reviews written on the film.

One wonders what Selznick thought when he heard about the film’s various Academy Award nominations (Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Original Screenplay, B&W Cinematography, B&W Art Direction, and Special Effects). The film would be in direct competition with Rebecca (which was produced by Selznick)! Whatever his reaction may have been, it was soon remedied when Rebecca took home the golden statue.

While many of the propaganda films from this era have aged awkwardly, Hitchcock’s thriller still manages to engage modern audiences. Donald Spoto shares this opinion and elaborates:

“…Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent has best withstood the years, and even after just one viewing, the picture clearly reveals concerns beyond its concluding propaganda statement (tacked on by producer Walter Wanger). Charles Bennett’s and Joan Harrison’s screenplay is adventurous and entertaining, and the brilliant production design by William Cameron Menzies made for a film of astonishing visual complexity. In its meticulous structure, its disarming humor and its multi-leveled humanity, Foreign Correspondent remains without a doubt a Hitchcock Masterwork.” –Donald Spoto (The Art of Alfred Hitchcock)

Foreign Correspondent is not as well known as other Hitchcock films, but this should not be interpreted as a sign of inferiority. The film is thoroughly enjoyable and contains some amazing sequences that stand amongst director’s most iconic set pieces.

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The Presentation:

5 of 5 MacGuffins

Criterion has always packaged their discs in an attractive manner, but this release is one of their most beautiful presentations to date. The box features a spectacular cover illustration designed by Patrick Leger (and designed by F. Ron Miller). A booklet is also included and features an essay by James Naremore that is entitled “The Windmills of War.”

Box Set Art 5

Box Set Art 1

Box Set Art 2

Box Set Art 4

The menus are attractive and are in the same style as other Criterion titles and features music and ambiance from the film.

Menu 1

Everything about this release is presented with an elegance that is sure to delight cinemaphiles. This is by far the best presentation that any Hitchcock film has ever received on Blu-ray (so far).

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Picture Quality:

5 of 5 MacGuffins

Foreign Correspondent is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1:37.1. On widescreen televisions black bars will appear on the left and right hand sides of the image to maintain the proper screen format. This new digital transfer was created in 2K resolution on a Lasergraphics scanner from the 35mm original camera negative. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices warps, and jitter were manually removed using MTI’s DRS and Pixel Farm’s PFClean, while Digital Vision’s Phoenix was used for small dirt, grain, noise management, and flicker.” –The Criterion Collection

Criterion’s meticulous work on this transfer has paid off. To say that this 1080P transfer is a step above the previous Warner Brothers release (available on DVD) is a bit of an understatement. Much of the damage evident in the older release has miraculously disappeared and there is more information on all four sides of the frame due to the accurate 1:37.1 aspect ratio. The picture clarity is superb and contrast is beautifully rendered. One notices details and textures that haven’t been evident on any previous home video format.

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Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

“The original monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from a 35mm optical soundtrack. Clicks, thumps, hiss, and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube’s integrated workstation.” –The Criterion Collection

The sound quality has also been notably improved over the previous Warner Brothers release of the film. The disc’s uncompressed Mono mix sounds extremely clean and one must strain to hear a slight amount of hiss, which is really the only freckle on the face of this track.

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Special Features:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The Dick Cavett Show – (1:02:06)

Dick Cavett Show Logo

In 1972, Alfred Hitchcock was a guest on The Dick Cavett Show and the resulting interview is one of the most entertaining and informative television interviews with the director that this reviewer has ever seen. It is nice to finally see it featured on home video.

Dick Cavett Show Screenshot

Visual Effects in Foreign Correspondent – (18:57)

Special effects expert, Craig Barron provides an extremely in-depth analysis of the special features included in the film. Viewers are not only told but are also shown how the various effects were achieved.

Hollywood Propaganda and World War II – (25:19)

Mark Harris discusses the background of propaganda films and elaborates on the political atmosphere that surrounded their creation. He also gives a rather detailed account of the origins and production of Foreign Correspondent. It is a very compelling addition to the disc and should delight fans of the film.

Theatrical Trailer – (2:23)

This trailer for Foreign Correspondent is one of the more interesting trailers from the era.

Have You Heard? The Story of Wartime Rumors

One of the more interesting and unusual items on this disc is this1942 Life magazine “photo-drama” by Alfred Hitchcock. Life explained the essay in a short letter to their readers:

LIFE ESSAY - BTS

“From Stephen Early, [White House press] secretary to President Roosevelt, recently came the suggestions that LIFE tell a picture story of wartime rumors and the damage they are liable to do. In accordance with this request, the editors asked Alfred Hitchcock, famed Hollywood movie director, to produce such a story, with LIFE photographer Eliot Elisofon as his cameraman. When Mr. Hitchcock graciously agreed, a script was prepared, the director picked his characters from the ranks of movie professionals and LIFE’s Los Angeles staff, and shooting commenced in Hollywood.

Have You Heard? is the result of their cooperation in photo-dramatization. A simply sexless story, it shows how patriotic but talkative Americans pass along information, true or false, until finally deadly damage is done to their country’s war effort. One false rumor is silenced by a man who later is unwittingly responsible for starting a true rumor which ends in a great catastrophe. Moral: Keep your mouth shut.” –Life Magazine

The director even makes one of his cameo appearances!

 LIFE ESSAY - Hitchcock CAMEO

This is an extremely interesting addition to the disc that adds an incredible amount of value.

1946 Radio Adaptation of Foreign Correspondent – (25:07)

Joseph Cotton stars in this interesting radio adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock’s second American film. The story has been gutted like a fish and restructured to accommodate the much shorter length of the radio program, but this is an interesting companion piece to the film.

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Final Words:

Criterion deserves to be thanked and congratulated for their wonderful efforts. This release goes beyond offering a great transfer of a great film. It also contains one of the most impressive supplemental packages available on any Hitchcock related Blu-ray release. The included 2-disc DVD set is also a very welcome addition to this package.

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The Criterion Collection’s Foreign Correspondent page:

http://www.criterion.com/films/27692-foreign-correspondent

Review by: Devon Powell