It's the German-language version of Alfred Hitchcock's Murder!
, made back-to-back with different actors on the same sets. The early talkies sometimes did that, e.g. Laurel and Hardy, the 1931 Dracula
. This particular film was long thought lost, but in fact Germany's Bundesfilmarchiv has a copy and in 2006 it appeared on DVD.
Personally I thought it was better than Hitchcock's first attempt at the material, although the streamlining has made it blander. It's also addressing its theme of homosexuality more openly and in the process has managed to lose a racist plot point.
The important thing though is that it's shorter. That's why it's better. No, I'm not being shallow. There's a 26-minute difference in the two running times, which is exactly a third of Mary's length. Crucially, much of what's cut appears to have been flab. I watched the two films back-to-back and the main effect of the cuts was that my attention wandered a fair bit during Murder!
, but much less in Mary. The latter's better at pushing on with the plot and at tightening up the whodunnit nuts and bolts that you're only going to forget anyway.
Of course faster isn't always inherently better, mind you. Mary loses something by going more briskly through for me are the set-piece scenes. The policeman's backstage interviews during the show are less funny, while still more damagingly the trial and the jury's deliberations have been toned down and made more reasonable. What people say makes more sense. There's less idiocy and less abuse of the judicial process. The badgering of Sir John is less like a Gilbert and Sullivan chorus. It's shocking to think that a death sentence could result from the comic opera that's the first act of Murder!
, but in Mary it's more understandable.
This is damaging, I think. It makes the film less pointed.
Occasionally the cuts also introduce continuity or story problems. We only see one undecided juror even though two were mentioned in the dialogue, while the new explanation of the broken washbasin doesn't make much sense. Those are the only ones I noticed, though. Otherwise it's seamless.
However this version's a winner on the measures of 1. thematic coherence and 2. no racism. Firstly, there's no "half-caste" rewrite of the underlying homosexuality. They never come out and say that the villain was gay, but they also don't say he wasn't and the only alternative explanation is that he'd escaped from prison. This is clever because superficially it's sufficient, but of course in those days homosexuality was illegal and so it gently hints at what they're really suggesting. (As an aside, we joke about gay sex being rampant in prison even today, so what about the days when that was the official place to send homosexuals?)
Then we have the actors. Playing our hero, Sir John Menier, is a renowned German actor, director and producer called Alfred Abel, who made over 140 silent and sound films over 25 years and was Fredersen in Fritz Lang's Metropolis. In this he's also as bent as a three-dollar bill. I was astonished to learn that in real life he had a wife and daughter. In that case, either (a) he swung both ways, or (b) he's a subtle, highly intelligent actor being directed to deliver a performance that underlines the film's subtext. You couldn't get a bigger contrast with Herbert Marshall in Murder!
, who was charming, handsome and practically a romantic lead. Look at his sexual tension with Norah Baring. Alfred Abel though does none of that. His Sir John is bald and fey. In prison he's like a big sister to Olga Tschechowa, but look at him and Ekkehard Arendt sizing up each other during the fake audition. It's like a prelude to gay porn.
Meanwhile Ekkehard Arendt is far less camp than Esme Percy, but there's one minor way in which he makes a stronger impression. He's more threatening. He's bigger than Abel, who comes across as elderly and birdlike. Marshall on the other hand could have snapped Percy in two.
Those are the main differences as far as I'm concerned. Better pace and a different thematic focus. What you lose from the jury deliberations, you get back in gay subtext. Both are legitimate, so I'm happy to give the casting vote to "faster" and say that Mary is better than Murder!
Of the rest of the film, I got more into the drama of the early "discovering the murder" scenes, but maybe that's as much me as Hitchcock. I had seen it all the day before, after all. Technically the film's still primitive, but at least they've fixed the sound problems they had with Murder!
(and instead found new ones). The shaky camera when Sir John's deciding to investigate is new too, mind you. I liked Lotte Stein, who's incidentally a little plumper than Phyllis Konstam and this works well with her comedic role. Olga Tschechowa seems more rational and in control than Norah Baring, who'd been a space case in her version of the prison visit, but both are legitimate acting choices.
Incidentally, Hitchcock had spent time in Germany in the 1920s observing first-hand their world-beating movie-makers. He admitted to being influenced by F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang.
Overall, I think it's better than Murder!
, although this is admittedly based on my opinion that Murder!
gets dull and so I'm not going to try to shout down the opposing view. I think I might be in a minority on this one. However I think it's clear that Hitchcock had learned from his mistakes with the original, both in terms of picking up the pace and of fixing technical problems. It feels like a later draft, albeit one that's polished away some of the rough edges. It's still capable of dragging a bit, but it's a step in the right direction. We're lucky to have both of them.