Recently, I've undertaken a new academic project. My intention is to write about the representations of transgender characters in horror movies throughout the years, and how they've changed. It isn't a new or orginal idea, but, what the hell, at least I study what I love, right? Anyway, it does mean I get to watch a lot of old movies where the villains are murdering trans-femme coded cross-dressers who kill themselves at the end. Good representation? Of course not, but I will always have an affinity for queer villains, especially in horror, where the villains are the most sought after, often the most interesting, characters. The other night I ended up watching Alfred Hitchcock's 'Murder!', adapted from a novel of a different name. It's about the killing of an actress in a theatre troupe and it's from the 30s, so if I told you the villain was a quote unquote cross-dresser, you might raise your eyebrows and expect me to detail a film which, in regard to trans interests, has not aged well.
However, for part of my little project, I want to ask the question of whether reclaiming some of these older villainous portrayals is possible. In the case of 'Murder!'. I think it is, especially considering that when you view the film through a contemporary lense, the trans-coded villain might not be a villain at all, and in fact one of the victims of the narrative. The narrative in question revolves around the investigation into the titular murder; actress Edna Druce is found dead, with the obvious killer, her colleague Diana Baring, found sitting next to her body, stunned, dress covered in blood and the murder weapon, a poker, laying at her feet.
However, Diana Baring has friends in high places, namely the actor-manager Sir John Menier, who convinced Diana to take the job in the acting troupe. He was also a member of the of the jury at Diana's trial, bullied into the deciding vote of guilty despite vehemently believeing otherwise. Diana kind of has a thing for Sir John, and, as it becomes apparent by the end of the film, this isn't unrequited- he is romantically interested in her too. The problem, of course, being that she awaits the noose in prison. Let's forget the obvious moral problem of having a powerful figure with a crush on the accused as a jury member at her trial. As presented by the film, Diana is wrongly-accused, and Sir John is the white knight who will save her from the death penalty.
So, Sir John becomes convinced that there must be an alternate truth, that Diana is innocent and Edna's real killer has walked free while his beloved protege wilts in a cell. He sets himself to the task of solving the mystery. Underlying it all is his reasoning that the sort of person Diana is- a conventionally attractive, young, white woman- makes her incapable of the capacity to murder. At the trial, one of the other jurors entertains the idea that Diana is not guilty for this exact reasoning, basically that she's very pretty. When Sir John is asked, he immediately seperates his own formed opinion from that of the other juror, stating that her appearance has nothing to do with it. What a crock! Not only is he biased because of her appearance (despite his denial), he's also biased because he knew her previously and insists that nothing in her character correlates with murderous tendencies. He alse defends her with the problem of the empty whiskey flask found at the crime scene. Diana didn't drink, how pure, how chaste; she really does give quite an angelic impression. Sir John believes there must have been someone else there.
Diana herself never confessed to the murder, only stating that she was confused and could not remember the events of the night. She never says with certainty that she didn't do it, but the fact that she doesn't claim the opposite either is more than enough for Sir John. Keep mental hold of the never confessed line, as it comes up again later.
So, if not Diana, then who else could have murdered Edna? Sir John sets his sight on our trans-coded villain, the habitual cross-dresser Randel Fane (who I will refer to with they/them in the neutral sense), another actor in Edna's troupe. I'm not going to discuss every piece of evidence Sir John collects against Fane, but I will say that all of it is circumstantial. The main reason, however, that Sir John is convinced of Fane's guilt, is that at the time of Edna's murder, they were the subject of discussion; Edna was about to disclose to Diana a fact which she already new, that Fane is of mixed heritage (only white-passing), a fact which could ruin their career if it got out. Sir John is conviced that Fane killed Edna in order to protect their secret.
Sir John, being the absolute gentlemen that he is, fancying himself a detective, sets up a type of honeypot trap for Fane. He invites them to read a scripted dramatic re-enactment of the night Edna was killed, with Fane of course reading for the part of the killer. Fane acts uncomfortable (interpreted as guilt, but, honestly, wouldn't you be shifty if you were asked to re-interpret a crime that happened recently to one of your co-workers). Regardless, Fane proceeds until it is pointed out that the script is unfinished. Sir John apparently wanted them to out themselves as the killer by delivering some sort of hidden tidbit that wasn't written down. Haha, an actor improvised and embellished a scene! This must be an indication of guilt. Sir John also reveals to Fane in this scene that he knows they are mixed race.
Sir John, and his accomplices in this borderline witch-hunt, then go to the circus where Fane also works as a cross-dressing trapeze artist. In one of the final sequences, Fane completes their act, but visions of Sir John watching them from the ground (presumably visions of guilt), visions of Diana, the stress of their secret being revealed, play out in their mind. After they complete their trapeze tricks, they promptly hang themself, Leaving Sir John a note; a completed script detailing Fane killing Edna, with a remark along the lines of: "there's your melodrama for you". Sir John takes this as a confession, and with no one to dispute it, Diana is released from prison.
Here's my problem with this; much like with Diana, Fane never unambiguously confesses either! Sir John however, is convinced of one's guilt, another's innocence. Fane wrote the end of Sir John's script, which is assumed to contain insider knowledge on Edna's murder, but couldn't it also be interpreted as just that- a script? Fane works in drama, after all. There is no solid 'I did it!', yet Sir John is unwilling to consider that Fane may be innocent. Now, why is that, Sir John? Could it be, perhaps, that you have no romantic interest in Fane? That a mixed race implied trans-woman fits your idea of a murderer more than a well-off cis white woman?
Fane killed themself, but this also isn't explicitly out of guilt. They know now that multiple people are in on the secret of their race, so they believe their career is over. That would have been their motive for Edna's murder, so surely it could also be the motive for their suicide. Furthermore, the final line of Fane's note- "there's your melodrama for you,"- reeks of an in-joke to me. I believe that Fane knew that however it was spun, they would be a more believeable culprit than Diana, that they would always look more guilty than her. The final line reads like- "here, if this is what you want to believe, so be it."
Watching in the 30s, Fane probably did seem extremely guilty, and Diana an innocent victim of circumstance. Right now, from my trans perspective, it seems to me like a notable celebrity using his fame to push a mixed-race, queer individual to suicide in order to keep the woman he fancies away from the death penalty. To me, Fane could ambiguously be seen as a victim!
Anyway, this gives me a lot of hope for further reclaimable gender non-conforming villains in horror movies. Maybe I'll find more Randel Fanes, with time mellowing their villainy, who will prove to me to be misundertood.