Alma RevilleMiles ManderPhyllis KonstamHerbert Marshall
Remade as: Mary
Medium: film
Year: 1930
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writer: Clemence Dane, Helen Simpson, Alfred Hitchcock, Walter C. Mycroft, Alma Reville
Country: UK
Keywords: gay subtext
Actor: Herbert Marshall, Norah Baring, Phyllis Konstam, Edward Chapman, Miles Mander, Esme Percy, Donald Calthrop, Esme V. Chaplin, Amy Brandon Thomas, Joynson Powell, S.J. Warmington, Marie Wright, Hannah Jones, Una O'Connor, R.E. Jeffrey
Format: 104 minutes
Website category: Hitchcock
Review date: 12 August 2011
It's one of Hitchcock's first talkies. It's okay and has good bits, but the second half's slow and dull.
The story involves... well, guess. It involves an actress and a poker. The chief suspect is a fellow actress, Norah Baring, who was found next to the body in a bloodstained dress and hasn't been able to give a straight account of what happened, or even defend herself. Suddenly she's in court! Eh? Whassat? Justice clearly moved fast in 1930. A pretty girl's about to get hanged, but luckily for her the jury includes Herbert Marshall, playing yet another actor called Sir John Menier!
The first forty minutes of this film are great, but slightly scary. I'm glad I don't live in 1930. You'll think you know where the plot's going, but then the police skip the usual formalities, e.g. examining the murder scene, verifying people's stories, etc. Instead we jump straight to the trial. Admittedly a policeman goes backstage during a show to talk to Baring's fellow actors, but he doesn't learn much. That was startling, but I calmed down a bit on learning in court that the defendant wasn't denying the charges. That makes the prosecution's case more acceptable, despite all their evidence being circumstantial and their motive being unimpressive too. Baring's surprisingly colourless throughout all this, incidentally. You'd think Hitchcock would be milking her trauma for all it's worth, but instead our attention is more on the circumstances and the legal process itself.
However that's nothing compared with the trial and especially the jury's deliberations. The main argument in defence of the accused is that she is indeed a killer, but that this shouldn't be held against her because she might have done it in a mental fugue. 1. One jury member wants to acquit Baring because she's pretty. 2. Another thinks it's outrageous that juries should have the responsibility of deciding guilt or innocence, because it's stressful. 3. There's a chinless wonder who barely seems sentient. In fairness the foreman is down-to-earth and practical, but unfortunately this takes the form of immediately getting everyone to give a preliminary verdict and then badgering everyone who's undecided or has a minority opinion into agreeing with the majority. This means a grilling for anyone who thinks Baring might be innocent, while the arguments for the majority verdict (guilty) go unexamined.
Oh, and the foreman looks like Bela Lugosi and has trouble even putting pieces of paper marked "guilty" and "innocent" into the correct piles.
There's only one human being among the twelve and that's Herbert Marshall. However when he explains his reservations, the others gang up to bully him into submission. They keep repeating "any answer to that, Sir John?" like a chorus from Gilbert and Sullivan. Eventually he surrenders and it's time for the Black Cap. Yikes.
This plays almost like a deconstruction of courtroom movies. Admittedly it's subtle enough that this feels like a real jury and you can believe that many court cases really unfolded like that, but that just makes it worse.
Here ends the good (and smaller) half of the film. Herbert Marshall, it turns out, feels bad about letting himself get bullied into voting for the execution of someone he thinks is innocent. Quite right, too. Go on feeling bad, you bastard. He thus decides to investigate and suddenly we're watching any old murder mystery with an amateur detective, except that it's been structured upside-down. This is kind of dull. I was gobsmacked to look at the clock and realise that we still had nearly an hour to go, since the pace until now had been so breakneck I'd been convinced we were nearing the finale. Nope, not the case. There's a lot of movie still to come and at times it crawls.
However that said, it's not that bad. It's amiable enough, the characters are likeable and it has some outstanding individual scenes. Its biggest problem is that it's a come-down after those first forty minutes, although it's also noticeable that Hitchcock managed to make a German-language version (Mary) that ran 26 minutes shorter without seeming to have cut anything at all. I watched the two back-to-back, one yesterday and the other this morning, and they felt like the same film.
What makes this English-language version stand out, I think, is its personality. Its quirks get more screen time. Hitchcock and his actors have more fun with that policeman going backstage during the show, while the trial and the jury's deliberations are the more eye-popping for being more drawn-out.
Then there's Marshall's Sir John. You could, if you were determined to do so, perceive snobbery in this film, given how all the working-class characters defer to him. This is fair enough, but it would probably be more accurate to point the finger at English society in 1930. Furthermore Marshall's Sir John is a lovely chap. He's handsome, charming and willing to put himself to any amount of trouble for others. Note the exaggerated patience he shows with those who don't understand what he's talking about, or indeed (in the case of cats and small children) are climbing all over him and burrowing under his bedclothes. You couldn't find a more perfect gentleman and frankly one feels that he deserves the respect with which he's treated.
However the film also has one extreme quirk, involving racism. (Hitchcock fixed it in Mary.) The original novel and play were built around a character being homosexual, but presumably this was deemed unsuitable for a movie. Thus the plot was changed. He's a half-caste instead. Now it has to be said that Hitchcock doesn't seem to be taking this plot point as much more than a veneer and has made him homosexual anyway. This obviously white guy has a high-pitched voice, an effeminate manner and a job that involves dressing up in women's clothing. However that's subtext and what's ostensibly on screen is that it's such a terrible secret to have a coloured parent that someone who loves you won't betray it even during her trial and facing the death penalty. The film isn't racist. You could make it today with no changes, although obviously the plot wouldn't work unless you set it either in 1930 or else some other such brain-damaged environment. No, what comes across as staggering is simply the attitudes that were deemed acceptable in those days.
Like The Skin Game, albeit in a different way, this makes the film a museum piece. It's only a couple of lines, but even so.
As a production, it's primitive. It's ahead of most 1930 films, with Hitchcock at least trying to keep things interesting visually, but the sound quality is variable. It's an early talkie and you wouldn't believe the technical difficulties. They couldn't dub in post-production. The concept didn't exist yet. Thus everything had to be done live and the scene where Sir John thinks out loud in front of a mirror was achieved with a recording of the lines and an orchestra hidden behind the set. Thus the actors aren't always audible, whereas ironically everyone's far too loud in the scene where they're talking backstage during a show.
Hitchcock quite liked this one, incidentally. He hated whodunnits, but he'd tell Truffaut that this film (and Mary) did a number of things for the first time: play-within-a-play as in Hamlet, internal monologues as voice-over, hints of homosexuality and transvestitism, stream of consciousness, etc.
Overall, a curate's egg. It's basically an endurance test, but it also has a lot of charm and personality, not to mention some outstanding scenes. Everything leading up to the trial is great, while the jury's deliberations are unbelievable. That in itself makes this film worth watching. The backstage actors made me laugh, interrupting themselves in order to go into character and walk onstage. Marshall's prison visit is remarkable, as is every scene involving the murderer once we know (or suspect) that it's them. Imagine an oily Peter Lorre, if not even Uncle Fester from the Addams Family. The acting is very good, considering, and Marshall is an excellent lead. The ending is surprisingly nasty too.
Flawed, but interesting.