Spencer Tracy plays Steve Gray, the titular “Murder Man,” a star reporter for a New York daily who earned his nickname by covering the city’s highest-profile homicide stories. His latest beat involves a crooked businessman shot on a crowded street in broad daylight. Tracy goes to work, leading the police through the investigation while breaking stories with an eerie prescience. But when he finds himself on the stand giving testimony against the accused murder, the stress threatens to break him.
Five years into the talkie revolution, Hollywood was drowning in dialog. The Murder Man features enough lines for a movie three times as long.
The script narrates everything. Even the transitions. An early sequence sees Steve missing after going on a bender. His editor has the newsroom canvasing the streets for him, including “Shorty” a reporter played by Jimmy Stewart in his feature debut. Capping a montage sequence, Stewart asks a bartender if he’s seen Steve. The bartender says no, and Stewart starts to leave, then turns back to the bartender and says, “The guy’s got me on a merry-go-round.” Cut to a merry-go-round where Steve’s asleep.
It wouldn’t be such a problem if the dialog weren’t so bad. Consider this bit of exposition from Steve’s editor to Steve: “You’re a crazy cynical drunken bum, but as a news getter, you’re there.”
Tracy deserved better. He’s capable of carrying a picture, and the production—featuring multiple sets, and tons of extras—proves ample. In his disheveled suit, with his hat cocked and set back atop bushy hair, he looks the part of an alcoholic newsman. But the script forces him to dictate his every emotion, leaving him little room to act.
The ending proves the most egregious example. Tracy has dictated his final story and given it to co-star Virginia Bruce to transcribe. The film should have ended here, with a poignant shot of Bruce’s reaction listening to Tracy’s story, followed by a shot of Tracy resigning himself to his inevitable fate. But no, ever in love with its own dialog, the script tacks on a redundant scene where Tracy recaps the entire movie, followed by a coda that undermines what little emotional resonance the ending proffered.
As an entertaining piece of filmmaking, The Murder Man underwhelms, but as a curiosity, it may hold value. For Spencer Tracy fans, it began his twenty-year association with studio MGM. For Jimmy Stewart fans, it marked an adequate, if inauspicious debut.
Perhaps 1935 audiences were so enamoured with the novelty of talkie sound they thrilled to the endless reams present here. I suspect not. Hollywood would endure such excesses for another five years before Howard Hawks ushered in the next sound revolution with His Girl Friday, where he’d solve the endless dialog problem by having his characters talk over each other.