A movie so nice, they made it twice! And no, not like the two versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much, 24 years apart, but at the same time, on the same sets, but with different actors. (For an explanation, see Mary, below.)
This is only Hitchcock’s second sound film, and the previous one, Blackmail, was made in both sound and silent versions. Sound was still very new, with England lagging a few years behind Hollywood in the technology. It all had to be recorded right there, in real time. So when Herbert Marshall—and I didn’t know this, but he lost a leg in World War One—is standing in front of a mirror ruminating (and this was the first time this device was ever used in a movie), his “thoughts” had to be recorded and played back while the scene was being filmed. Not only that, but a 30-piece orchestra was hidden behind the walls to provide the music!
It’s a pretty silly story, redeemed by a lot of Hitchcock touches. A murder has been committed, and Diana, an actress, is sitting near the body with a bloody poker close by. She claims she can’t remember anything. She is convicted with circumstantial evidence, sentenced to death, but one of the jurors, himself a distinguished actor, begins to have doubts. He’s played a lot of amateur sleuths on the stage, and so sets out to find the real culprit. At one point he even uses Hamlet’s old ploy of re-staging the murder scene, doing everything but pouring poison in someone’s ear.
As I said, the delights are all Hitchcockian. While most directors were still being tied down by the cumbersome sound equipment, he used every device in the book (many of them invented by him and his crew) to make the static, stagy scenes move along. The camera moves right out to the end of its tether, and then stretches that tether. There were limits, of course, but he does a fine job. Many of the scenes have a surrealist, expressionist feel to them. And some are just plain funny. When a small-time theater guy is asked to tea by Herbert Marshall, we see how nervous he is when he enters the room, which has suddenly stretched to cavernous proportions. Then he walks across the room, sinking almost to his knees in the carpet. Loved it! There is also Hitch’s well-known fear of jails. A scene between the girl and Sir John in a bare room with hatchet-faced female gargoyle guards looming over it all is haunting, and funny at the same time.