A Hitchcock Rarity on the Big Screen (and with Subtitles!): Mary at the American Cinematheque
August 29, 2014
On April 27, 2014, the American Cinematheque at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica presented two rarely screened early works of Alfred Hitchcock, both from 1931: Mary, a German film, and The Skin Game, as part of their program "Beyond the Hitchcock 9." As if watching these two movies in a theater wasn't enough, the Cinematheque also treated the audience to an excerpt of François Truffaut interviewing Hitchcock in the 60s for what would later become the basis for Truffaut's famed work Hitchcock. I, as most people I'm assuming, am better versed in Hitchcock's later works, so the Cinematheque's exploration of the director's earlier films (along with some of his well-known classics thrown in for good measure) was a program I was very much looking forward to.
As the short that screened in between the films, "Multilingual Murder: A Conversation Between Alfred Hitchcock and François Truffaut," focused mainly on Hitchcock's experience filming Mary, a scene for scene remake of his own 1930 English language film Murder!, I will also concentrate on that movie and leave The Skin Game for another time (and sadly, the movie isn't nearly as racy as its title suggests).
Note: The screenshots within this article are from Murder!, as Mary is not available on home video.
Mary opens with the murder of a young actress. Fellow performer Mary Baring (Olga Tschechowa), part of the same theater group as the dead woman, is found eerily spaced out on a chair next to the body, a poker in front of her on the floor and blood splattered on her clothes.
At her trial, Mary admits she and the dead woman quarreled but proclaims that she blacked out and didn't know what happened afterwards. In the deliberation room, three members find her not guilty, but after some persuading, that number falls to one. Sir John Menier (Alfred Abel), who is an actor himself, doesn't believe Mary is the kind of person who would commit this type of crime, nor does he think her actions during the trial implied guilt. However, pressure from his fellow jurors eventually breaks him down, and he finally switches his verdict.
Jurors in Murder! converge upon Sir John and pressure him into changing his verdict, after Hitchcock flashed quick close-ups of several individual members coercing him as well.
With a unanimous guilty vote, Mary is sentenced to hang. When the reality of his decision comes down on Sir John, he begins to investigate the case on his own, recruiting Bobby Brown (Paul Graetz), the stage manager for Mary's theater company, to assist him by promising Bobby a job with his next show.
From there, Sir John and Bobby investigate clues they believe were overlooked during the trial and work to find the real murderer. After a wrong path or two, the duo are sure they've found the real culprit. To verify this, Sir John and Bobby bring the person in to read for a play that places the actor in the same situation as the killing. When that doesn't quite shake the perpetrator, Sir John and Bobby head to the circus, where the suspect works. There, they get more of a show then they bargained for - and not in a good way.
One reason I wanted to see Mary was because I'd read that it was a remake of Hitchcock's 1930 film, Murder! Well, that is partly true. In fact, as Hitchcock mentioned in the interview we listened to after the film, both movies were made at the same time, literally: once the English actors completed a scene for Murder!, the German actors came in and shot the same scene on the same set (ala Dracula, shot in Spanish and English, and The Smiling Lieutenant, shot in English and French with the same three leads, both in 1931). Hitchcock recalled that the Germans wanted him to change parts of the script for the German language version, but he refused, because then the two pictures wouldn't be identical, which is what he wanted (and in his interviews with Truffaut, he admitted that he was in fact wrong for not listening to them!)
Hitchcock had observed that certain directors (France's Renoir, for example) seemed to have issues working in foreign cultures, while others (German helmers Ernest Lubitsch and Billy Wilder, for instance) found more success directing in other countries. In Hitchcock's case, shooting in a language other than his native English was harder than he thought it would be; while he spoke some German and knew enough to give the actors direction, he did not fully understand the dialogue and idioms, which in turn made it difficult to exercise complete control over the set. Indeed, Hitchcock confided in Truffaut that only after wrapping work on Mary did he fully understood what the process of working outside your own language and culture entailed.
Another aspect of shooting in a foreign language that challenged Hitchcock was the difference in English and German culture. For instance, there is a scene about three-quarters through the film in which Sir John, used to a higher standard of living, wakes up in his bed in a boarding house not far from where the murder took place, surrounded by the landlady and her cadre of children. Hitchcock said the scene was supposed to be played for laughs, and the English understood the comedy Hitchcock intended to emanate from undermining the dignity of Sir John's character; however, in directing the German version, no one present thought the scene was funny. The difference in interpretation is clear in the performances: in Murder!, Sir John finds the scene uncomfortable yet also humorous, while in Mary, the actor who portrays Sir John seems upset to be bothered with the commotion.
Sir John awakes to a crowd in Murder! with an uncomfortable smile.
However, his wake-up call in Murder! was much better received than the rather perturbed reaction by the same character in Mary.
A similar culture clash resulted in a scene late in the story, in which Sir John visits Mary in prison. In the English version, Sir John appears in a normal suit, but in the German variation, the actor who played Sir John, Alfred Abel, insisted that he must wear dark clothing for such a somber scene; thus, his attire changed to black.
In this scene from Murder!, Sir John's suit is gray, while in the same scene in Mary, actor Alfred Abel insisted his character wear a dark somber black suit.
As for the film itself, it wasn't until midway through that the pace picked up after a slow start, as Sir John and Bobby finally get hold of tangible clues to advance their search. Though certain aspects of their investigation, particularly a bottle of Brandy that Sir John argues is the most vital point overlooked by the jury, seem inconsequential at first (seriously the Brandy made no sense to me), little details clicked in the end, even if they may have felt a little too convenient during the first go-around.
It's interesting to note that Murder!, and to a certain extent Mary, are lauded for a few 'firsts' and known as rarities in the Hitchcock world. To begin with, Murder! is widely known as featuring the first voiceover on film. While this technique is widely used and easy to pull off today, back in the early days of sound, it was anything but. Since sound could not be added after the initial recording, Hitchcock had to capture Herbert Marshall reciting the dialogue to be used in the voiceover and then run that record (on disc!) while they were filming the actually scene! Additionally, Murder! and Mary are two rare Hitchcock whodunit films, a type of story The Master of Suspense didn't particularly enjoy because, as he told Truffaut, they are "rather like a jigsaw or a crossword puzzle. No emotion. You simply wait to find out who committed the murder" (52). Finally, in a certain way the identity of the killer in both films turns out to be quite unique for the time. I won't divulge why, but when you see either movie, you will certainly understand!
Though neither movie qualifies as standard Hitchcock fare in terms of story, they both certainly are representative of the director's style; in particular, two scenes stand out as bearing stamps of Hitchcock's trademark techniques. The first one comes during the deliberation scene in the jury's quarters. Quick close-up cuts along with a chorus of talking heads converge upon Sir John to pressure him into changing his verdict, creating a surprisingly tense atmosphere simply through framing and editing; this camera approach helps the sequence stand out in an otherwise slow moving first half. The second example occurs at the very end, as Sir John and Bobby zero in on the murderer in a circus. Hitchcock's signature ability to squeeze even more trepidation out of situations that are already nerve-wracking is displayed beautifully atop - where else? - a high wire trapeze. What could go wrong there? Kudos to Hitchcock for approaching the scene differently than you'd expect; he deconstructed the murderer's fate in such a shocking way that even multiple audience members audibly gasped when the scene played out!
But then again, that's Hitchcock for you - always keeping the viewers on their toes, even in one of his earliest entries and a whodunit, at that!
It's a long way down from the trapeze...
Unfortunately, Mary is not available, to my knowledge, on home video or streaming. However, its English counterpart, Murder!, can be viewed several ways: on more than one DVD edition (this one includesThe Skin Game as well) or streaming from Amazon.com. Though neither represents the director's strongest work, both are interesting to view through their respective technical and cultural lenses and also as part of Hitchcock's early body of work.