Blu-ray Review: Hitchcock – British International Pictures Collection

BIP - Blu-ray Set Cover

Distributor: Kino Lorber

Release Date: November 26, 2019

Region: Region A

Length:

The Ring – 01:45:44
The Farmer’s Wife – 01:52:12
Champagne – 01:45:37
The Manxman – 01:40:36
The Skin Game – 01:22:34

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: 2.0 English DTS-HD Master Audio (24-bit)

Subtitles: English (The Skin Game)

Ratio: 1.33:1

Bitrate:

The Ring – 23.98 Mbps
The Farmer’s Wife – 24.99 Mbps
Champagne – 17.00 Mbps
The Manxman – 16.99 Mbps
The Skin Game – 16.99 Mbps

Notes: This is the North American Blu-ray

British International Pictures Logo

“[British International Pictures] rapidly gathered assets—a couple of distribution companies, cinemas, subsidiary production companies, and Elstree film studios. It also signed up as much talent as it could back up its claims to eminence in the newly secure-seeming British film industry. Most importantly, it acquired Alfred Hitchcock, who was prized away from Michael Balcon and Gainsborough with promises of new freedom, bigger and better budgets—a considerable inducement since Gainsborough’s finances were painfully modest and Hitch had not been happy with either of his assignments since The Lodger.” –John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978) 

When Hitchcock joined British International Pictures in June of 1927, he fully expected to be able to make ambitious films of his own choosing.

“Hitchcock was envisioning various future projects, including ‘two epic films dealing with the Mercantile Marine and the English railways.’ There was also loose talk of Hitchcock’s chronicling England’s general strike of 1926—a ten day nationwide stoppage, generally regarded as a historic opportunity and dismal defeat for English labor—in a film that would depict ‘the fistfights between strikers and undergraduates, pickets, and all authentic drama of the situation,’ in his words. Already in pre-production, according to B.I.P. was an experiential ‘film symphony’ called ‘London,’ which Hitchcock had written in collaboration with Walter Mycroft… Hitchcock’s ‘London’ would offer a heaping slice of humanity.

None of these experimental, populist, or otherwise out-of-the-ordinary Hitchcock pictures would ever be made. The director’s actual deal with B.I.P. included option clauses that hinges on his ability to churn out four B.I.P. productions a year, maintaining the staggering level of output he had managed in 1927. As fast as he was, Hitchcock couldn’t keep up that pace and hope to make the kind of films that called for studio to risk more time and expense…

…What Maxwell really wanted to do in the foreseeable future was to consolidate his English Audience. His twelve picture, three year deal with Hitchcock was part of a general speedup, and a studio policy that called for more—for cheaper—films to justify its overhead. Photographing English plays and books, with English actors, was front-office conservativism that took no account of Hitchcock’s higher aspirations. And so the next several years at Elstree, from 1928 to 1932, would prove the busiest of Hitchcock’s career, but also at times the least personal.” –Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Luckily, his first film under this new contract was one that he chose himself. It was an original story by Hitchcock entitled The Ring.

The Ring - TITLE

The Ring (1927)

“You might say that after The Lodger, The Ring was the next Hitchcock picture. There were all kinds of innovations in it, and I remember that at the premiere an elaborate montage got a round of applause. It was the first time that had ever happened to me.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Le Cinéma selon Hitchcock, 1966)

The fact that Alfred Hitchcock took sole credit for the original story (a practice unique in his career) may hint at the director’s affinity for the project, but it may also be the result of a temporary falling out with Eliot Stannard. He had collaborated with the writer on all five of his previous films and would work with him again on his subsequent silent endeavors (with the notable exception of Blackmail). While Walter Mycroft is reported to have worked on the script, it is usually suggested that his contributions consisted of minimal touch-ups and advice on the film’s boxing sequences. In any case, the bulk of the script was left to Hitchcock (and most likely his wife Alma) after Stannard’s exit from the project.

Today, it may seem as if the film’s subject was an unusual choice for the director, but boxing wasn’t totally outside of the Hitchcock’s milieu.

“I was interested — I used to go to the Albert Hall. I think the thing, strangely enough, that fascinated me about boxing in those days was the English audience that would go all dressed up in black tie to sit around the ring. It wasn’t the boxing that fascinated me so much, although I was interested in the shop, all the details connected with it. Like pouring champagne over the head of the boxer at the thirteenth round, if he was going a bit groggy. You’d hear them uncork the champagne bottle and pour the whole bottle over his head. All that kind of thing I was interested in, and put it all in the picture.” –Alfred Hitchcock (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

Hitchcock’s creative freedom extended to the film’s casting, and he exorcised this freedom by offering Lilian Hall-Davis the role of Mabel (a.k.a. “The Girl”). He had admired her work in a film entitled The Passionate Adventure and wanted very much to work with her. He decided to offer Carl Brisson the role of “One-Round Jack” as he was a former middleweight champion, and his rival in and out of the ring would be played by Ian Hunter despite his lack of boxing ability. In fact, Hitchcock used Hunter’s shortcomings as a fighter to good effect within the film:

“The high-spot of the picture was the last round of a boxing match. Brisson had to win. Brisson was a trained boxer. He was, actually, a boxer before he was an actor. Hunter was only an amateur. It was, incidentally, his first—and very successful—film.

On the day we were shooting this last round—the previous rounds had been photographed before with trick photography to speed up the effect by ‘under-cranking’ (turning the camera more slowly)—I ranged four cameras [a]round the set and told them to go all out. Ian went off to the local tavern with Gordon Harker. He lunched off bread and cheese and beer. How he must have regretted it!

I exploited Brisson’s knowledge of boxing. I told him to box as he would if it were a genuine match. So Brisson, with the eye of a practiced athlete, attacked Ian’s body. Every time he connected, Ian remembered the beer. It was a raging hot day. He was sweating like a bull. They fought on and on, Hunter swinging at Brisson’s handsome elusive face; Brisson plugging blow after blow to the mark; Hunter puffing, and blowing, and grunting with every smack he took.

Finally, I gave the signal for the last of it. Brisson was to knock out his opponent. He launched a blow at Hunter’s body. Hunter caught his breath with a gulp, that sort of gulp you give when a football catches you amidships. He swayed, tottered, sat down. He was congratulated on a brilliant piece of acting. I got some kudos for a good piece of direction. Actually, neither of us deserved any credit. I was not directing. Hunter was not acting. He was really ‘out.’” –Alfred Hitchcock (Life Among the Stars, News Chronicle, March 01-05, 1937)

Gordon Harker filled the role of Jack’s best friend and trainer.

“I found Gordon Harker on the stage, too. I was looking for a Cockney “second” for Carl Brisson in The Ring, and I happened one night to drop into Wyndham’s Theatre to see Edgar Wallace’s ‘The Ringer.’ Harker was playing a Cockney part, and I saw in him the very man I needed. Incidentally, it has always seemed to me to be rather a waste of Harker’s talents that he should almost invariably be cast as a Cockney. He is a brilliant character actor, and perhaps you’ll remember that I gave him the role of a Devon farmhand in The Farmer’s Wife. He made a very good job of it…” –Alfred Hitchcock (My Screen Memories, Film Weekly, May 02-30, 1936)

In addition to his role in the two aforementioned films, Harker would also appear in Champagne. It is clear that the director admired the actor’s work, and his performances in these silent efforts are incredibly entertaining. (The fact that he also appeared in Elstree Calling is also be significant, but the director preferred to downplay his participation in this project.)

The Ring would also mark the first time that Alfred Hitchcock worked with Jack Cox as his cinematographer.

“…It marked a clear division in the camera department between the Hitchcock films made at Gainsborough and those made at B.I.P. Cox was an ‘effects’ cameraman—an expert in ‘blurred images, overlays, and double exposures,’ in the words of [Duncan] Petrie… That was more important to Hitchcock than framing or lighting genius. Hitchcock really didn’t need compositional advice; his staging within the frame was always strongly in his mind, and annotated in the script. What Hitchcock wanted was a cameraman who would take a dare. And even veterans like Cox were sometimes taken aback by Hitchcock’s taunts and demands… Cameramen learned to trust Hitchcock’s instincts; he not only stipulated the setups, but, with his art training would whip out a sketch-pad, draw the image, and specify the focus…

…Starting with The Ring, Cox would photograph all ten of Hitchcock’s B.I.P. films during the prolific years between 1927 and 1932. Then, after an interval of several years, they would reunite on The Lady Vanishes. Eleven Hitchcock pictures: only Robert Burks, another virtuoso cameraman, whom Hitchcock found at Warner Bros. in America, would work with him more.” –Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Unlike many of the director’s later efforts at British International Pictures, The Ring was given a reasonable budget and plenty of time to achieve Hitchcock’s intended vision. It was shot during the summer of 1927 (July and August), and the production was an incredibly smooth one. Cox’s adventurous spirit came in handy when it came time to shoot the film’s Albert Hall climax as the Schüfftan process was employed. This would blend live action footage with painted backgrounds, photographs, and miniatures.

The freedom that he was given during the production of The Ring resulted in a spike in the director’s creativity. He was working on a project that he was excited about, and this resulted in some very interesting visual touches.

“This is also the film in which I introduced a few notions that were widely adopted later on. For instance, to show the progress of a prize fighter’s career, we showed large posters on the street, with his name on the bottom. We show different seasons—summer, autumn, winter—and the name is printed in bigger and bigger letters on each of the posters. I took great care to illustrate the changing seasons: blossoming trees for the spring, snow for the winter, and so on.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Le Cinéma selon Hitchcock, 1966)

This sort of transition may seem quaint by today’s standards, but filmmakers are still using similar techniques to show the passing of time in their films. A film director should be able to tell a story visually, and this is why Hitchcock is without equal. He is and has always been a visual storyteller. However, he later questioned some of his celebrated visual touches in The Ring.

“I must say that in recent years I have come to make much less use of obvious camera devices… The other day a journalist came to interview me, and we spoke about film technique. ‘I always remember,’ he said, ‘a little bit in one of your silent films, The Ring. The young boxer comes home after winning his fight. He is flushed with success—wants to celebrate. He pours out champagne all [a]round. Then he finds that his wife is out, and he knows at once that she is out with another man. At this moment, the camera cuts to a glass of champagne; you see a fizz of bubbles rise off it and there it stands untasted, going flat. That one shot gives you the whole feeling of the scene.’ ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘that sort of imagery might be quite good: I don’t despise it and still use it now and then. But is it always noticed?’ There was another bit in The Ring which I believe hardly anyone noticed.

The scene was outside a boxing-booth at a fair with a barker talking to the crowd. Inside the booth a professional is taking on all comers. He has always won in the first round. A man comes running out of the booth and speaks to the barker. Something unexpected has happened. Then a straight cut to the ringside: you see an old figure 1 being taken down and replaced with a brand new figure 2. I meant this single detail to show that the boxer, now, is up against someone he can’t put out in the first round. But it went by too quickly. Perhaps I might have shown the new Figure 2 being taken out of paper wrapping—something else was needed to make the audience see in a moment that the figure for the second round had never been used before.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Direction, Sight and Sound, Summer 1937)

It is interesting to note that his criticism is focused on the issue of clarity. The audience was always on Hitchcock’s mind. Unfortunately, audiences didn’t flock to the theaters upon the film’s release despite a whirlwind of critical praise.

“…The picture had a succès d’estime, but it was not a commercial hit.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Le Cinéma selon Hitchcock, 1966)

His next film was also praised by most critics (and is still praised by many scholars), but it was often dismissed by Hitchcock.

TFW - TITLE

The Farmer’s Wife (1928)

The Farmer’s Wife, I would say, was again merely a photograph of a stage play with lots of titles instead of dialogue. It was just a routine job.” –Alfred Hitchcock (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

With their working relationship patched-up and running efficiently, Eliot Stannard was back to work on the script of The Farmer’s Wife, and his adaptation is surprisingly faithful to the Eden Phillpotts play. This was always a source of regret for Hitchcock as he preferred more cinematic material. One assumes that the film was an assignment, and it is unclear how much freedom Hitchcock actually had over the production. Periodicals from the period suggest that Eden Phillpotts may have had as much (or more) control over the film as Hitchcock.

“I hear that the producers of the forthcoming film version of The Farmer’s Wife are searching diligently for real Devon ‘types,’ and that Mr. Eden Phillpotts is himself assisting them. He has also personally chosen the locations for the film.” –Staff Writer (The Farmer’s Wife, Western Morning News, September 16, 1927)

The original play was written by Phillpotts and premiered in London in 1924, and it would eventually be performed over 13,000 times on that stage before Laurence Olivier went on tour as the lead in 1926. Such success would have given the writer plenty of contractual authority. Even so, it is likely that the film’s director had a hand in the casting since both Lillian Hall-Davis and Gordon Harker appear in the film. In fact, much of what Hitchcock has said about the production concerns the actors (although, his comments aren’t specific to the film’s production):

“…This was in certain respects a tragic film, for tragedy came to two of the leading players in it. The star of the picture was Jameson Thomas. He had, of course, been in numerous films before this, and he was undoubtedly one of England’s most popular players. He is in Hollywood today, playing supporting roles. He left England to take his wife to California. She was very ill. The Californian sunshine seemed to offer the only hopes of a cure. So Jimmy Thomas packed up everything in this country and moved to Hollywood—in vain. His wife died in spite of the sacrifice.

Thomas’s leading lady in The Farmer’s Wife was Lillian Hall-Davis. She was an amazing girl. On the set she suffered from acute self-consciousness. She had an acute inferiority complex in regard to her ability to play certain parts, and I remember that she turned down an extremely good role because she wasn’t sure she could do it well enough. Actually, she could have played it with ease. Yet, in private life she was altogether a different person. She possessed a terrific personality and amazing vivacity. It was with the deepest regret that, two or three years ago, I read of her death in tragic circumstances.” –Alfred Hitchcock (My Screen Memories, Film Weekly, May 02-30, 1936)

Tragic indeed. Davis committed suicide on October 25, 1933. A neighbor named Herbert French found the actress with her head in the oven, a razor in her right hand, and a wound in her neck.

As for the film itself, we know that production commenced in October of 1927, and that Hitchcock shot much of it on location in Surrey and Devon, Somerset in order to capture an authentic countryside setting. Interestingly, the director enjoyed his visit to the rustic locations and would soon purchase a weekend retreat in Shamely Green as a result of his time there. The film’s camera work is also noteworthy:

“When the chief cameraman got sick, I handled the camera myself. I arranged the lighting, but since I wasn’t too sure of myself, I sent a test over to the lab. While waiting for the results, we could rehearse the scene. I did what I could, but it wasn’t actually very cinematic.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Le Cinéma selon Hitchcock, 1966)

During this same interview, the director claimed that he didn’t remember much about the film and seemed both detached from and disappointed in it. “There was too much dialogue,” he told Truffaut. “It was largely a title film… I know that filming that play stimulated my wish to express myself in purely cinematic terms.

Unfortunately, his assignments at B.I.P. would consist largely of stage adaptations that didn’t always allow the director’s cinematic ideas to flourish.

Champagne - TITLE

Champagne (1928)

According to most sources, Champagne originated with an idea by British International Pictures’ scenario editor and literary adviser Walter Mycroft.

“Someone had this idea, let’s make a film about champagne. And my thought was — it’s kind of a corny idea really — why don’t we do one about a little girl who works at Reims in the cellars and always watches the train go off carrying champagne. And then she eventually gravitated to the city and became a kind of whore and was put through the mill and eventually went back to her job, and then every time she saw champagne go out, she knew, ‘Well, that’s going to cause some trouble for somebody.’ That was scrapped. They thought it was much too, they didn’t use the word ‘highbrow,’ but, oh, that wasn’t entertainment. So we ended up with a hodge-podge of a story that was written as we went through the film and I thought it was dreadful.” –Alfred Hitchcock (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

Readers may remember running across Mycroft’s name earlier in this article as he would have collaborated with Hitchcock on a number of his earlier projects. Most sources agree that Hitchcock was enthusiastic about the hiring of Mycroft, who had previously worked as a journalist before joining BIP as the head of their story department in latter months of 1927. The director’s enthusiasm may have been due to the fact that the journalist was one of the founders of the Film Society. His own membership in the film society may have given him the erroneous idea that Mycroft would champion his ideas and secure him a certain amount of creative freedom. Unfortunately, this would not be the case at all, and his relationship with Mycroft would soon become somewhat antagonistic.

In fact, Champagne may have been the project that sealed their mutual loathing. His own ambitious ideas were cast aside for being uncommercial and potentially depressing after Betty Balfour—an incredibly popular British film star—signed on as the leading actress. After all, audiences didn’t want to see Britain’s biggest star being dragged through the trenches of a hard and apathetic universe. They wanted to laugh and enjoy her charismatic charm. Hitchcock had little choice but to re-write his gritty drama as a bubbly comedy of little consequence. The new script was rushed, and Hitchcock’s interest in the project evaporated.

Assistant cameraman, Alfred Roome, remembered that the film entered production without a finished script. This is, unfortunately, all too evident when one watches the finished film. Alfred Hitchcock tried to keep his spirits up by experimenting stylistically.

“…The opening and closing images, shot through a champagne glass, would become one of Hitchcock’s most celebrated effects [up to that point]. ‘I was the one who had to focus through the bottom of the glass,’ remembered assistant cameraman Roome. ‘Hitch had it made specially by a glass manufacturer who put a lens into the bottom of a giant champagne glass so we could shoot through it and get a clear picture of what was happening at the other end of the room. We all said it wouldn’t work. Most people said that of Hitch’s ideas, but they almost always did work.” –Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Michael Powell—a man now known as one of the British cinema’s most brilliant directors—was hired as a stills photographer during the film’s production. He later remembered that Hitchcock wasn’t at all happy about Balfour’s casting and wasn’t pretending otherwise. In fact, he tried to keep Powell from shooting publicity images of the actress! This is undoubtedly due to the fact that he blamed her casting for the change in the project’s direction.

In any case, the director had plenty to distract him from his disappointment over the fact that this project was now merely an inconsequential assignment. An extremely personal project was also in the works, and he and Alma would eventually name her Patricia. Production on Champagne wrapped in July of 1928—and his only daughter would be born on the seventh of that same month.

The Manxman -  TITLE.jpg

The Manxman (1929)

“The only point of interest about that movie is that it was my last silent one.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Le Cinéma selon Hitchcock, 1966)

Some scholars would dispute the film’s place as Hitchcock’s final silent feature since his silent version of Blackmail is very much an indelible part of his filmography. However, this quote speaks volumes about the director’s own attitudes towards the project. To his mind, The Manxman was merely another B.I.P assignment that he was obliged to direct.

The Manxman, again, was a kind of old-fashioned story. An assignment, more or less. It was a domestic melodrama, you know, the illegitimate child and the brother and the judge—one of those things full of coincidences—the brother happens to be a lawyer and the poor girl gets involved with a fisherman and so on.” –Alfred Hitchcock (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

He would tell François Truffaut that the film was “a very banal picture” and lamented the fact that the story was taken from “a very well-known book by Sir Hall Caine” since the novel’s popularity made it necessary for him to “respect that reputation and that tradition.” Hitchcock preferred to simply take a basic idea from a source and build visually striking cinematic situations from that idea. In other words, he felt that the forced fidelity to Caine’s original novel resulted in a film that wasn’t entirely his own. (This was a feeling that he would have quite often during his time at B.I.P.)

It’s impossible not to agree with the director when he describes the story as old fashioned. The scenario seems clichéd and outdated when viewed today, but these handicaps don’t overwhelm the film. In fact, The Manxman is one of the director’s most beautiful silent efforts. Much of this is due to some incredible location shooting in various communities along the beautiful Cornish coast. (These locations largely stood in for the Isle of Man, but there was also some incidental shooting at the actual island.) Meanwhile, Anny Ondra’s performance is a heartbreaking testament to her talents as a silent actress.

In any case, his collaboration with Ondra on Blackmail would return the director to material that he could fully embrace.

The Skin Game - TITLE

The Skin Game (1931)

In fact, one might expect the success of Blackmail to put Alfred Hitchcock in a stronger position at Elstree, but he was still a contract director and was obligated to accept the assignments that were handed to him. He followed his first “talkie” with an incredibly faithful adaptation of Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock, but the director felt that the incredibly talky play didn’t allow him to tell the story cinematically. As a result, the film’s enormous critical success wasn’t particularly gratifying for Hitchcock. He felt that the success was O’Casey’s and not his own. While Murder! leaned more towards mystery than it did suspense, it did allow the director to exercise his creativity. Unfortunately, his following project would be yet another talky stage property.

“[The Skin Game] was taken from a play by John Galsworthy. I didn’t make it by choice, and there isn’t much to be said about it.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Le Cinéma selon Hitchcock, 1966)

The truth is probably more complex. Hitchcock himself listed Galsworthy’s work as a foundational influence on him, but one imagines that he would have been more at home adapting ‘Escape‘ as this would have fallen in line with his penchant for suspense yarns. What’s more, the playwright’s contractual control over his film adaptation limited Hitchcock’s own creative input:

“…Galsworthy, like O’Casey, had a B.I.P agreement that outlawed, in his words, ‘dialogue except what is written and passed by me, and no tampering with the play’s integrity.’ Hitchcock would be hemmed in on The Skin Game more than on Juno and the Paycock. Though he worked to open it up visually, he’d adhere very closely to the play—shooting most of the scenes with multiple cameras for a fluid soundtrack (they still ‘couldn’t cut sound in those days’).

Galsworthy felt strongly about casting, and he presented Hitchcock with a list of preferred actors, though his contract gave him no say in this matter. Yet in the end, the leads must have pleased the playwright. Edmund Gwenn had been the original Mr. Hornblower, the nouveau rich industrialist whose hard-driving tactics ignite a feud over a parcel of land between two families, one aristocratic and the other parvenu. Gwenn also played Hornblower in the silent film; now he would reprise his famous role for Hitchcock. And Helen Haye, another original cast member who had returned for the Anglo-Dutch silent, was back as snobby Mrs. Hillcrist. The rest was a mix of Hitchcock semi-regulars and actors under studio contract.” –Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Ursula Jeans & Phyllis Konstan

Ursula Jeans was originally cast in the role of Chloe Hornblower, but when Jeans needed an emergency operation for appendicitis on the eve of shooting, Hitchcock gave the role to Phyllis Konstam: “I can remember very distinctly Miss Konstom’s woebegone expression when I told her that we should have a tenth ‘take’ on a scene in which she had to be rescued from a lily pond.” –Alfred Hitchcock (My Screen Memories, Film Weekly, May 02-30, 1936)

Hitchcock went on record about the difficulties he was having with his adaptation of The Skin Game during his publicity campaign for Murder!:

“It has been found that the technique demanded by the stage rarely lends itself to the screen…The more perfect the stage technique, the more difficult becomes anything like a faithful screen adaptation. Galsworthy’s brilliantly clever stagecraft in The Skin Game is giving us no end of trouble in finding the true screen equivalent.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Making Murder!, Cassell’s Magazine, August 1930)

One imagines that this is polite publicity speak for Hitchcock’s true opinion of his newest project as he was more direct in later interviews. “Photographed theatre, really,” he told Peter Bogdanovich. “I didn’t alter the Galsworthy play very much. It opened up a little bit more than Juno. Not too much, though.” He was able to apply his creativity to the film’s auction sequence. This scene finds a meek and mumbling auctioneer presiding over the frenzied bidding as the two rivaling families attempt to purchase the same piece of property. Hitchcock highlights the bidding with wild pans and quick cuts that place the viewer in the chaos of the scene. The audience experiences the sense of desperation that is at the heart of the scene. Both families need this property if they are to maintain their way of life.

John Galsworthy’s way of life was somewhat different than Alfred Hitchcock’s, but the director did enjoy his initial meeting with the playwright.

“In preparation for the film Hitch, still an avid playgoer …was invited down to week-end at Galsworthy’s country house. He found Galsworthy living in some style…surrounded by a large household. Hitch put his foot in it immediately. Mrs. Galsworthy asked him what kind of music he liked. ‘Wagner,’ replied Hitch, ‘he’s so melodramatic.’ ‘Oh, no,’ said Mrs. Galsworthy conclusively; ‘we like Bach.’” –John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

It was likely during this visit that the director attended a dinner party that was hosted by Mr. and Mrs. Galsworthy.

The Skin Game was responsible for the most cultured dinner party I ever attended and for one of the best malapropisms I have ever heard. The dinner party was at Mr. Galsworthy’s house. When we sat down, Galsworthy himself ‘set’ the subject for discussion. ‘Let us discuss,’ he said, ‘words. Words in relation to their meaning and in relation to their sound.’ One guest suggested the word ‘fragile’ as descriptive. Another advanced the opinion that the French ‘fragile’ was even more delicate in its sound. A third stressed the claims of crepuscular’ as being ‘filled with the nuance of the twilight.’ I sat amazed at the feeling the guests had for the sound-sense of words.

A course or so later, Mr. Galsworthy gave out another topic. ‘Let us discus,’ he said, ‘the various states of consciousness.’ Then he amplified the topic in answer to my question. ‘The states of consciousness are like stratified layers of earth. The crust is compete consciousness and the core is the subconscious. Between lie an infinite series of gradations of consciousness.’

That was my first contact with The Skin Game. Now for the contrast. Edmund Gwenn had to wear a toupee—a sort of hair wig—in the production. We got it from Clarkson’s. It cost three guineas. One day someone from the accounts, keeping an eagle eye on the pence, came rushing down. ‘Why go to Clarkson’s for a three guinea toupee?’ he asked angrily. ‘Do you think the firm is made of money? You can get one at Austin Reed’s for a guinea.’

‘Really?’ I asked. ‘Have Austin Reed started a makeup department?’ ‘Makeup?’ said he. ‘I thought you were buying a tropical helmet!’” –Alfred Hitchcock (Life Among the Stars, News Chronicle, March 01-05, 1937)

While The Skin Game is seen as little more than a mere footnote in the director’s filmography today, it wasn’t considered a failure at the time of its release. Actually, if the director would claim that it was one of the “most successful pictures” that he made during this period. The trouble was that the film’s strengths and weaknesses—or successes and failures—seemed to belong more to John Galsworthy than to Alfred Hitchcock. The film wasn’t a creative triumph for the director; it was merely an assignment that he was obliged to complete. In fact, Hitchcock’s treatment by British International Pictures was by now looking depressingly similar to the situation which had first prompted him to abandon Gainsborough.

The Ring - SS08

The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Kino Lorber house their two Blu-ray discs in a standard blue case with a sleeve featuring a very young Alfred Hitchcock. The case is further protected by a cardboard slip sleeve that exhibits the same artwork. It’s an attractive package and an appropriate design for a release like this one.

BIP - Menu BIP - Menu 2

Both discs contain uniform menus that utilize the same photograph. They are attractive and easy to navigate.

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Picture Quality:

3 – 4 of 5 MacGuffins

It is probably best to start by saying that each of these five transfers are significant improvements over those seen on the previous Lionsgate (and Studio Canal) DVD editions. Grain is more natural looking and resolves better here than the other format allowed. What’s more, the higher resolution allows for a bit more detail to come across (although the images are soft due to the limitations of the medium at the time that these films were made). They look fairly good considering their age, and BFI should be commended for their restoration efforts. The results are surprising as clarity is especially strong when one considers their age. The Manxman may very well be the sturdiest transfer in the set while The Ring is probably the weakest of the silent restoration transfers. However, each of the four silent films are impressive efforts. The Skin Game is probably the weakest transfer in the set as the credits are jittery and there seems to be some unfortunate cropping on display (though neither of these issues is nearly as problematic as is seen in the various bootleg copies that are still so readily available). The master for this film was provided by Studio Canal, and Kino cleaned this master up a bit. However, this film hasn’t been given a proper restoration.

champagne-1928-010-film-leader

Notes about Champagne

“Although the restoration team were able to work from an original negative, which meant we were able to get very good image quality, this was a mixed blessing… At the beginning of the restoration process we were concerned that for a Hitchcock film there were some clumsily juxtaposed shots and framing errors, as well as the occasional shot exhibiting substandard acting or shots that were held uncomfortably long.

Further examination revealed an instruction scratched into a leader (blank film attached to the start of a reel to enable threading into the projector) saying ‘2nd neg’. From this we deduced that this negative was assembled from second-best shots, kept as a backup in case of damage to the original or for making additional prints for export. This was studio practice at the time… These were edited together from different takes that you can clearly see were taken at the same shoot, but were not taken simultaneously with a second camera. As this negative is the only original element in existence we will never know exactly what the film looked like as it was originally released.

The evidence of editor’s marks on the negative of Champagne confirmed our suspicions. An extensive international search of archives and film collections didn’t turn up any further copies of Champagne that we could use as a guide. One 16mm print loaned by a collector turned out to be made from our negative so could supply no new information…” –Bryony Dixon (Restoring Hitchcock #4: The Trouble with ‘Champagne,’ BFI)

In other words, the restoration is a beauty to behold, but Champagne can be seen as a “lost film” in many regards since what remains is essentially made up of alternate/inferior takes instead of the footage that had originally been chosen for release. Obviously, having this is certainly better than nothing at all, but it is important to make this point quite clear.

Champagne - SS05.jpg

Sound Quality:

3-4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

All five of the included films have been given 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio transfers, and the four silent efforts include new scores. The Ring has been scored by Meg Morley, The Farmer’s Wife was scored by Jon Mirsalis, Champagne boasts a score by Ben Model, and the music for The Manxman was provided by Andrew Earle Simpson. Each of these scores adequately support their respective film, and their transfers are quite strong.

Kino’s transfer for The Skin Game is as strong as can be expected considering the film’s age and the recording methods utilized by the production. There is some slight background hiss throughout the track, but this is never terribly distracting. Dialogue isn’t as sturdy as one might hope, but it is certainly audible and understandable. This is a huge improvement over the many bargain basement “bootleg” releases of The Skin Game as those were nearly impossible to sit through.

The Manxman - SS01

Special Features:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Disc One

Feature Length Commentary for The Ring with Nick Pinkerton

Nick Pinkerton’s commentary gets off to a slow start, but those who continue listening to his track will be rewarded with some interesting information that might add to their appreciation of the film. Interestingly, his commentary seems to morph into the sort of “sports commentary” that one hears during sporting events when the film’s climactic boxing match gets underway. However, there were some interesting revelations during this portion of the film as well.

Hitchcock/Truffaut Audio Interview Excerpts: The Ring, and The Farmer’s Wife – (07:33)

Fans will be happy to note that the disc includes the excerpts from Hitchcock’s interview with François Truffaut that focus on The Ring and The Farmer’s Wife. Frankly, we disapprove when Blu-rays don’t include these excerpts. It’s obvious from their conversation that he prefers The Ring to The Farmer’s Wife, and the greater portion of these seven and a half minutes is devoted to that film.

Disc Two

Feature Length Commentary for Champagne with Farran Smith Nehme

Farran Smith Nehme’s commentary for Champagne is more immediately engaging than the Nick Pinkerton commentary for The Ring and no less informative. It isn’t one of the best commentaries we’ve heard as third party tracks rarely live up to those offered by people who have actually worked on the film. This one offers enough information and observation to make it a worthwhile addition to the disc.

Feature Length Commentary for The Manxman with Farran Smith Nehme

Nehme’s commentary for The Manxman is on par with her track for Champagne. There’s quite a bit of worthwhile material here. Fans should enjoy hearing it.

Hitchcock/Truffaut Audio Interview Excerpts: Champagne, The Manxman, and The Skin Game – (12:17)

This disc also includes excerpts François Truffaut’s infamous interview with Hitchcock. Of course, these segments cover Champagne, The Manxman, and The Skin Game. It seems as if some of their conversation covering these titles hasn’t been included (particularly in the case of The Skin Game), but what is here is certainly appreciated. It’s clear enough that none of these titles are among his favorites.

The Skin Game - SS05.jpg

Final Words:

Hitchcock: British International Pictures Collection is an incomplete assembly of the films made during one of Alfred Hitchcock’s fallow periods. The Ring is one of the director’s most interesting silent efforts, but films like Champagne and The Skin Game are less essential to casual viewers. Meanwhile, one wonders why they didn’t include Juno and the Paycock, Rich and Strange, and Number Seventeen in this set. This would compete the collection (since Blackmail and Murder! were released individually).

Kino Lorber’s set offers an opportunity for fans to watch films that were made during a time when Hitchcock was just a cog in the studio wheel. Many of these titles were merely assignments and were made on deficient budgets. It is nice that they are available in high definition, and Kino Lorber should be commended for their efforts.

Review by: Devon Powell

Portrait

Source Material:

Staff Writer (The Farmer’s Wife, Western Morning News, September 16, 1927)

Alfred Hitchcock (Making Murder!, Cassell’s Magazine, August 1930)

Staff Writer (British Films: Activities at Elstree, Sydney Morning Herald, December 05, 1930)

Staff Writer (Illness Among Screen Stars: Productions Held Up at Elstree, Dundee Evening Telegraph, December 05, 1930)

William A. Mutch (The Skin Game, The Filmgoer’s Annual, 1932)

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

Alfred Hitchcock (Life Among the Stars, News Chronicle, March 1-5, 1937)

Alfred Hitchcock (Direction, Sight and Sound, Summer 1937)

Peter Bogdanovich (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

François Truffaut (Le Cinéma selon Hitchcock, 1966)

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)

Maurice Yacowar (Hitchcock’s British Films, 2010)

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

Bryony Dixon (Restoring Hitchcock #4: The Trouble with Champagne, BFI, 2014)

Sidney Gottlieb (Hitchcock on Hitchcock: Volume 2, 2015)

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.

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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)