By Tony Williams.
Kino Lorber has continued to fill the gap left by other boutiques by providing both classic and popular films with informative audio-commentaries and features unlike its once prestigious competitor. Despite technological developments that have resulted in far better viewing copies than occurred when the films were in 35mm or 16mm circulation, one sadly regrets the absence of several critics who pioneered serious attention towards certain films and directors who are no longer around to provide perceptive audio-commentaries. I do not mean to disparage the important work Video Watchdog critic Tim Lucas now does by providing informative background information accompanying the films. He is one of the most comprehensive and self-educated experts on films with us today who always provides key contextual information towards understanding the film. Nevertheless, often one wishes, “If only Robin Wood were still with us to illuminate the work in his perceptive way” or “Why is William Rothman not providing such commentaries?” Charles Barr is another possibility. Also Australian maestro Ken Mogg. Maybe, even if they did, these perceptive critics would have difficulty working with a new medium and not be as efficient as Tim Lucas has always been.
Britain’s First Talking Picture: Blackmail (1929)
This release from Kino is another good item in the company’s catalog. In addition to the frequently seen sound version, it supplies the silent version scored by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. Other extras include extracts from the famous Hitchcock/Truffaut interviews, and Anny Ondra’s infamous sound test where Hitchcock mercilessly teases her into revealing that her Czech accent was inappropriate for playing a lower middle-class girl in the audio version (not that Joan Barry is any better with her equally distracting upper class R.A.D.A pronunciation). An introduction by Noel Simsolo, like Colin McCabe’s similar introduction to Kino-Lorber’s Alphaville, tells us nothing that we did not already know. Most viewers will have read key texts by Charles Barr, Robin Wood, William Rothman, Tania Modleski, Ken Mogg, and other critics. They will already have extra-textual background information with which to view the film.
Lucas probably knows this and he has wisely decided to concentrate on analyzing the film itself with close attention to the silent version in his usual meticulous manner. Here he exhibits meticulous knowledge of technical detail that characterized his Video Watchdog contributions and other DVD audio-commentaries that also reveal critical precision concerning visual and sound details. Unlike Donald Spoto who found few differences between the silent and sound versions of Blackmail in his Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock (1983), Lucas finds many key contrasts he instantly brings to the viewer’s attention. In this way, his comments resemble the meticulous, neo-formalist, work of critics such as David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson who emphasize what is present in the work under examination rather than engage in deep interpretation that often strays too far away from important details. His background information always contains something new such as noting that the soon-to-be arrested criminal played by Percy Parsons (1872-1944) in the opening scenes was born in Louisville, Kentucky but mostly worked in British film and theater. Lucas also mentions his appearance in adaptations of Edgar Wallace novels, a very important influence on the police thriller of the day. Unlike Robin Wood’s interpretation in Hitchcock’s Films Revisited, Lucas’s keen eye recognizes that the suspect is a well-known criminal wanted for a $100 robbery and the theft of a gold watch that is clearly visible besides the gun on his bedside table. Lucas also notes the different aspects of screen ration in the silent and sound versions with the silent 1:37 reduced to 1:19 to accommodate the soundtrack on the new version. Noting Hitchcock’s use of a tracking camera behind Crewe as he advances on Alice in the silent version, Lucas comments that this scene alone would have demanded its preservation. He also notices the use of the shop bell ringing that disturbs Alice making her throw up the breadknife in the silent version that functions as a visual substitute for the “Knife” stream of consciousness type of “inner speech” in the sound version. Contrary to the usual interpretation of Barry’s voice substituting for Ondra’s in the sound version when she spoke her lines besides the camera while Ondra silently moved her lips, Lucas also suggests that some aspects of post-synchronization occurred, especially in scenes where synchronization between lip movement and dialogue clearly do not occur. He also speculates that Joan Barry was not alone in voicing Ondra suggesting from some sources that Hitchcock may have also used Gladys Cooper (1888-1971), an actress he would later work with in Rebecca (1940) and in “The End of Indian Summer” 1957 episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Like Hitchcock, she would move in a reverse direction to that of Percy Parsons working for the remainder of her career in Hollywood.
Here Lucas shows himself as very good on technical detail, especially the contrasts between the silent and sound versions of Blackmail but not so much on interpretation that distinguishes his Alphaville audio-commentary. For that, we should turn to the works of critics like Wood, unless we have already done so. However, one error occurs when he mistakes the name of the actress (49:21) who plays the gossip in the sound version as Phyllis Konstam (1907-1976) who worked with Hitchcock in Champagne (1928), Murder! and The Skin Game (1931). It is actually Phyllis Monkman (1892-1976). Konstam appears as the gossip in the silent version but was unavailable when the sound version commenced for that scene. Perhaps consulting Barr’s English Hitchcock would have avoided this confusion?1 Apart from that, the DVD is definitely a credit to Kino-Lorber’s growing reputation.
Hitchcock Screams: Murder!
Murder! is the second classic Hitchcock sound British film to receive a restoration and release by Kino Lorber. Once hard to see, Murder! has had a wide circulation on 16mm, VHS, and DVD formats and the subject of intense critical analysis by scholars such as Charles Barr, Tania Modleski, and William Rothman.2 Its early artistic and technical deficiencies should not blind the alert and knowledgeable viewer to recognizing the early appearances of elements that would be defined in a more polished manner within the director’s later achievements as well as the presence of other features blocked from realizing their true subversive potentials. Although retreating from his earlier dismissal of Hitchcock’s British films, Robin Wood later recognized the value of some of them but did not develop any detailed analysis of Murder! However, his brief comments reveal that he understood its significance to the director’s work.3 Significantly, the screenplay is the work of Hitchcock’s wife and creative collaborator Alma Reville, though nothing is made of this in either the audio-commentary or features.
With audio-commentary by Film Comment critic Nick Pinkerton, this DVD contains another irrelevant introduction by Noel Simsolo on which Tania Modleski, Ken Mogg, and William Rothman could have done much better, the full version of the Hitchcock Truffaut interview that the famous Hitchcock/Truffaut book often abbreviates (thus necessitating a more fuller version of this influential text?), an “alternate ending” often found in most versions where the finale occurs on a stage, and the 1931 German version Mary also directed by Hitchcock. The last is a very good addition, since it is usually difficult to access this version and the viewer now has the opportunity to engage in a detailed comparison of both versions similar to Tim Lucas comparing and contrasting the silent and sound versions of Blackmail.
While lacking references to the pioneering work of Modleski and Rothman, Pinkerton does prove himself a knowledgeable critic in the areas he chooses to focus on. From the opening of the film, he notes Hitchcock themes such as the deceptiveness of appearances when a supposedly seductive female shadow on a window blind turns out to be that of an older woman. The director undermines the male gaze from an early point in his career. He notes the music hall routine reality of the opening scenes aware of the low cultural theatrical milieu where Diana Baring (Nora Baring) has found herself acquiring the “experience” Sir John has recommended to become an accomplished star in the world of high cultural theater. From the very beginning of the film, the dominant male becomes indirectly responsible for the dilemma this now “guilty woman” finds herself in but it is one Pinkerton never explores in detail. However, like Tim Lucas in his Alphaville DVD commentary, critical insights will not be lacking and we will encounter them as the commentary proceeds. Like Lucas, Pinkerton does supply his listeners with necessary background information to understand the placement of various actors, such as Edward Chapman (1901-1977), Miles Mander (1888-1946), Nora Baring (1905-1985), Herbert Marshall (1890-1966), Esme Percy (1887-1957), and Phyllis Konstam (1907-1976) in the film, both in terms of why the director chose them and their place in the contemporary cultural world surrounding the film’s production. Yet, at times, Pinkerton displays an unawareness of certain relevant facets of British culture. For example, the reference to the murdered woman and her supposed murderer being “indisposed” for the next evening’s performance has nothing to do with a “stomach upset,” since this was the common term used for the absence of a leading player on a particular evening, though I do grant it may have a humorous connotation. Also, the fussy dressing of Doucie (Konstam) revealing her bloomers may be less voyeuristic but have more in common with the seaside comic postcard tradition analyzed by George Orwell in his 1941 essay, “The Art of Donald McGill”, where “marriage is a dirty joke or a comic disaster.”4
Deception, theatricality and performance form the key elements of this film. Pinkerton recognizes these in the backstage interrogation by the police where people play different roles often blurring boundaries. Markham (Chapman) performs the roles of actor and stage manager, Doucie appears in masculine looking riding attire with crop anticipating Barbara Stanwyck’s future role in Forty Guns (1957) as Samuel Fuller’s “Woman with the Whip”. Fane’s first appearance in drag follows. Reassuring the police officer that he is not “the other woman in the case”, he changes costume with a fellow actor to take on the garb of a policeman thus placing himself on the “right side of the law.” Significantly, this blurring of boundaries occurs in the trial when male and female barristers wear similar attire blurring their actual genders. Later, we learn that Fane has also donned a policeman’s uniform for another deadly post-stage appearance. Percy studied acting under Sarah Bernhardt in 1904 and become known as a leading interpreter of George Bernard Shaw’s plays until an accident directed into character roles in 1930. He often played indeterminate character types of a manner Mrs. Thatcher would later describe as “not one of us.”
Pinkerton also notes Hitchcock’s deliberate use of the theatrical “tableau vivant” staging in early scenes as well as the choice of actors associated with Edgar Wallace plays and Aldwych Farces such as the jury member played by Kenneth Kove (1892-1984), then known for his appearances in those productions often directed by actor-manager Tom Walls (1883-1949) during 1923-33. From what we observe of the play from the earlier backstage scene, it appears that Diana has found herself playing in one of those Farces certainly not regarded as high class. One wonders what really lay behind Sir John’s advice for her to gain “experience” in a world of jealous actresses (the late Edna Druce), drunken husbands (Miles Mander), and “wrong men” like Fane whose very presence questioned supposedly rigid boundaries influencing definitions of class, gender, and race. Though not explored explicitly, Murder! does contain several disturbing implications within its narrative.
Although never referring to Modleski and Rothman, Pinkerton does refer to two other critics – Richard Allen and Raymond Durgnat.5 He quotes relevant references from each concerning the blurring of boundaries that forms a key element of this film which, though it may resemble the “whodunit” that Hitchcock regarded as inferior to his type of suspense narrative, does contain deep disturbing contradictions affecting the status quo, elements that characterize Hitchcock’s cinema at its best. The film operates like a sponge, an antenna pointing towards new developments in Hitchcock’s cinema with a generally passive silent heroine and her rescuer out to restore her voice. Yet, as Durgnat notes, despite the potential aspects of the style to create a certain meaning, “The defect of the quality is…that Hitchcock often indicates, but rarely explores, the deeper layers of existence” (144). This evokes Wood’s recognition of the stifling blockage that lies at the heart of the director’s work that combines an incisive recognition of the problems of human existence with an inability to go beyond this dilemma.
As Allen notes, there is a significant duality operating in this film, one involving the competition between two different, yet dangerous, forms of “dandys” opposing word and image, silence and sound, A contest exists between two different types of male antagonists who attempt to make their lives into art, with one “winning” conclusively at the end in a tragic way. As far as I know, no one has commented in detail about the two opposing classical musical items used in the film. The credits open with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, a composition that represents the passionate Romantic tradition in its “acceptable” form. However, Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) will later cast doubt on its supposedly pure aesthetic sensibility. When Sir John narcissistically gazes at his face in the shaving mirror, the action supposedly contradicting any conception of seeing this as abnormal, Wagner’s “Liebestod” theme from Tristan and Isolde occurs on his radio. Though lacking the negative associations it would soon gain in Germany three years later, Wagner’s music exposes the darker elements of the Romantic Tradition with its masochistic sexual immersion in feelings combining Love and Death. The music acts as a dark subliminal link between the supposed hero and the “wrong man” whom Allen sees in a particular way far removed from the prejudices of Sir John and his contemporary society.
Hitchcock turns the racially half-caste nature of the villain in the novel into a MacGuffin that is a pretext for exploring sexual deviance through the visual spectacle of film. While he may be accused of avoiding the question of sexual difference and identity that lies at the heart of the novel, he also achieves, as a result, one of his most complex and humane portrayals of non-normative sexual identity in his work and his most articulate exploration of the oppressive nature of the gender system that labels deviation from the heterosexual norm, degenerate.” (98)
Following Allen, Pinkerton notes the incarceration of Diana as visually evoking Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. She is towards Fane as an “outsider”, as she is in the lower class world of theater she has entered into. She keeps silent until Sir John gains the necessary clue from her to attack his rival. However, Diana is also a sacrificial victim to both men in different ways. However, while Sir John narcissistically aims at making his life an art. However, it is actually Fane who does this by committing suicide in the even lower class milieu of the circus. As Allen significantly notes, by not showing the actual death of Fane, “Hitchcock may also be evoking the myth, clearly unpresentable of the erection/ejaculation of the hanged man, wherein fane’s death becomes an auto-erotic liebestod. Fane’s death becomes an auto-erotic reproof of Sir John’s authority. Hitchcock makes tragically clear that the happy ending that secures the formation of the white heterosexual couple, Sir John and Diana, is one that is achieved by sacrificing the deviant who is neither white, nor simply, heterosexual.” (109)
It is also significant that in Fane’s final performance on the trapeze he sees the still images of Sir John and Diana gazing at him as she swings back and forth past the lights. If one freezes the image as Rothman does in his freeze frame of Sir John’s face on 2.62, then one perceives an early example of Mrs. Bates’s grinning skull confronting a heroine who wants to learn the solution of an enigma from a living person but who instead confronts death.
These ideas never gain expressive coherence. Instead, they are fragmentary repressed pieces from a nightmare jigsaw puzzle that dare not become complete. They symbolize a dark comprehension of the realities of human existence, ones Hitchcock discerned but never developed to their logical conclusions. In this way, Murder! , despite its clumsy, early realization, becomes a key text in understanding the real artistry of the director, one he consciously denied in an industry promoting him as a consummate entertainer taking audiences on a roller coaster ride into darkness and returning them to their original safe points of entry. Only a few would realize the deeper implications.
Pinkerton realizes that despite Sir John’s noble intentions of being the heroic knight in armor who will rescue his lady- in- distress he will never rise to the level of Fane’s commitment. Fane will not only get the last word in his posthumous letter to Sir John filling in the blanks in contrast to his adversary’s Hamlet attempt of using a play to capture his opponent’s conscious . He also exercises a composure in his “last bow” on the trapeze engaging in a tremendous performance that is “downright Oshimaesque”. Thus, Sir John’s last words in the film to the freed Diana, “Now my dear, you must save those tears. They’ll be very useful – in my new play” are nothing less than sociopathic suggesting Sir John’s relationship to Mark Rutland in Marnie (1964). Leading males and females display unhealthy psychological tendencies in this film that they conceal for the “best of reasons.” Sir John eventually wishes to dominate Diana and use her as a character in his new play. Diana wishes to shield Fane from further discrimination but passively sado-masochistically accepts her future end on the gallows while Fane allows his protector to face a death sentence for a crime she did not commit. Despite raw edges, Murder! is a film of great complexity.
One welcome extra is the inclusion of the German version of Murder! filmed with a mostly new German-speaking cast in Elstree Studios using the same sets as the British version retitled Mary (1931) with veteran actor Alfred Abel (1879-1937) as Sir John and Olga Tschechowa (1887-1980) as the heroine. Viewing this film in a non-subtitled version Charles Barr noted that this version contained much less visual and sound expressionism than the original British version and lacks the humor and class satire that appeared there. One could not imagine the former “Master of Metropolis” Joh Pederson being happy with the little child’s line “He’s got my pussy!” appearing in the German language version and the re-editing supports Hitchcock’s comments in the original version of the Truffaut interview about the idiomatic aspects of both cultures being entirely different. Abel insisted on a more dignified persona for his character and the necessity of visiting Mary in prison wearing more formal attire than a grey suit. Hitchcock comments that he later understood why French filmmakers such as Rene Clair, Julian Duvivier, and Jean Renoir did not succeed as well in their Hollywood films than German émigré directors such as Billy Wilder. Barr noted, “A full survey of the German versions of Hitchcock films would be illuminating… “ 6 The inclusion of Mary on this DVD offers this possibility. Paradoxically, Mary appears more conservative than Murder! resembling a Hollywood studio remake of a foreign original version than anything else. Angles are different in certain scenes with dissolves often replacing cuts and additional shots such as Fane in drag and the policeman backstage exchanging smiles before they change costumes. Scenes are frequently re-edited and abbreviated.
The most drastic change is the elimination of Fane’s “queer” character and the absence of racist references. When asked about Fane’s motivations for murder in the penultimate scene, Sir John gives the explanation that Fane was an escaped convict afraid of exposure. This change resembles later requirements of the Hollywood Hays Code but it and other differences may result from the changing circumstances in Germany that led to the end of tolerance for the license of the Weimar Republic and the development of repression that would begin in 1933. Three years earlier, Goebbels had orchestrated his Storm Troopers against a screening of All Quiet on the Western front (1930). Instability affected the film industry during 1928-1932 caused by the conversion of sound and reduced production. In 1930, UFA C.E.O Ludwig Klittzsh had met with Motion Picture President Will Hays concerning issues of foreign investment and economic support. In the summer of 1931, the Weimar Republic was on the verge of bankruptcy.7 A German version of Murder! dealing with issues of ambiguous sexuality and mixed race would offend both American conservative values as well as the growing Nazi Party that would not look too kindly on a film with an Aryan heroine protecting a criminal personifying homosexual tendencies and “black blood”.
1. See Charles Barr, English Hitchcock, Dumfriesshire, Scotland: Cameron Books, 1999, 93, 224; Ken Mogg, The Alfred Hitchcock Story. London: Titan Books, 1999, 27. 184.
2. See the various examinations in Charles Barr, English Hitchcock. Moffat, Dumfriesshire: Cameron & Hollis, 1999; Tania Modleski, The Women who Knew too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory. Third Edition. New York: Routledge, 2015; and William Rothman, Hitchcock: The Murderous Gaze. Second Edition. New York: Suny Press, 2012.
3 .Note especially Hitchcock’s Films Revisited. Revised Edition. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989, 245, fn. and 374 where he respectively comments that the significance of Fane’s character “is his deviance from social/sexual norms” and Modleski’s impressive study on Murder! That “relates very interestingly to the work on Hitchcock’s treatment of sexuality that I have attempted.”
5. Richard Allen, “Sir John and the Half-Caste: Identity and Representation in Hitchcock’s Murder!” Hitchcock Annual 13 (2004-2005): 92-126; Raymond Durgnat, The Strange Case of Alfred Hitchcock. London: Faber and Faber, 1974.
6. Barr, 229.
7. Klaus Kreimeier, The UFA Story: A History of Germany’s Greatest Film Company 1918-1945. Trans. Robert and Rita Kimber. New York: Hill and Wang, 1996, 193-197.
Tony Williams is an independent critic and a Contributing Editor to Film International.