More Than Just Film
Here’s another 500 word piece on an iconic film image for the Winchester University film blog.
Murder! (Alfred Hitchcock, 1930)
Late night in a simple but cosy front room in a rented terraced-house. There are two worn armchairs, a dinner table with remnants of an evening meal and a murdered actress in front of a roaring fireplace. The corpse is obscured from our view but, as if captured in a photograph, is perfectly framed in the mirror on the far wall. The majority of the onlookers frozen in captivation and horror had rushed to the scene of the crime from their beds. Separated from everyone else by the table is fellow actress Diana Baring. Her central positioning identifies her as the unwitting star of this grisly scene, the murder weapon before her places her as the prime suspect. Being a Hitchcock film though first appearances are invariably deceptive. Her passive posture and trance-like stare denote the amnesia induced by witnessing the brutal murder. It will prevent her from being able to identify the real killer or defend herself in court. In the scenes that follow, she will be found guilty by a jury of her peers and sentenced to death.
Murder! is one of half a dozen stage adaptations directed by Alfred Hitchcock which allowed him to return again and again to his fascination with the theatre. The tableau of characters in this scene are framed by the wooden beam on the ceiling which gives the room its own proscenium arch (the border around a theatre stage). Unsure of how to best utilise the new medium of cinema, many directors would film stage plays from a static central position, using a theatre’s proscenium arch to frame their shot. Hitchcock believed that ‘shooting the proscenium arch’ was a hindrance for filmmaking as it merely mimicked a theatrical perspective, and that only when D W Griffith took the revolutionary step of moving the camera inside the arch did cinema establish a perspective of its own.
Hitchcock illustrates this by cutting from the wide shot to a close-up of the policeman beside the fire, looking down at the corpse. As the camera pans down his body we see his torch is pointing in a different direction, trained like a spot-light on Diana Baring’s silhouetted face. The pan floats across the beam of light to Diana, down her right arm to the blood-stained carpet and the fireplace poker seemingly fallen from her hand. From the murder weapon, the pan moves along the carpet and concludes with the dead body, in a foetal position with her back to camera. The absence of sound or character movement during this audacious twenty eight second pan produces the haunting effect of time having stopped. The only movement is the camera gliding through and dissecting this frozen moment of horror.
This combination of an edit, a close-up and a pan enables Murder! to communicate the relationships amongst the characters in the room, as well as signpost the subsequent miscarriage of justice, without a word of dialogue or a single dramatic gesture. It is a demonstration of how filmmaking transcended its theatrical heritage and an example of the cinematic perspective – a means of visually expressing acts, emotions and the mechanisms of thought – which Hitchcock enigmatically referred to throughout his career as ‘pure cinema’.