Recently Ive undertaken my dissertation plan. I intend to write about trans representations in horror movies throughout the years, which is not new or original, but it does mean I get to watch a lot of old movies where the villains are murdering transfem-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 Hitchcocks Murder!, adapted from a novel of a different name. Its about murder in an acting troupe and its 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 dissertation, 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 is the dissection of the titular murder; actress Edna Druce is found dead, the obvious killer, her colleague Diana Baring, is 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 Sir John Menier, who convinced Diana to take the job in the acting troupe, and who was a member of the jury at her trial, bullied into the deciding vote of guilty despite vehemently believeing otherwise. Diana fancies Sir John, and as it becomes apparent by the end of the film, this isnt unrequited and he is romantically interested in her too. The problem of course being that she awaits the noose in prison.
Sir John becomes convinced that there must be an alternate truth, that Diana is innocent and the real murderer of Edna walks free. He sets himself up to solve the mystery. His reasoning for Diana being innocent lies in the idea of the sort of person Diana is- a conventionally attractive, young, white woman. At the trial, one of the other juror entertains the idea that Diana is not guilty for this exact reasoning- shes very pretty. When Sir John is asked, he immediately seperates his own formed opinion from that of the other juror, stating that who she is has nothing to do with it. Um, so that was a fucking lie. Not only is he biased because of her appearance, however he denies it, hes 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 an empty whiskey flask- Diana didnt drink, so there must have been someone else there- and the fact that she never confessed to the murder, only stating that she was confused and could not remember the events. 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 a neutral sense), another actor in Edna's troupe. Im not going to disclose every piece of evidence Sir John collects against Fane, because its all circumstantial. The main reason, however, that Sir John is convinced of Fanes guilt, is that at the time of Ednas 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 lad that he is, fancying himself a detective, sets up a sting in which he invites Fane to read a scripted re-enactment of the night Edna was killed, with Fane of course reading for the part of the killer. Fane acts uncomfortable but proceeds until they point 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 wasnt written down- haha, ive got you now! 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 go to the circus where Fane 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 to them. After they complete their trapeze tricks, they promptly hang themselves, Leaving Sir John a note- a completed script detailing Fane would have killed Edna, and a remark along the lines of: theres your melodrama for you. Sir John takes this as a confession, and with no one to dispute it, Diana is released from prison.
Heres my problem with this; Fane never confessed either! They wrote the end of Sir Johns script, which is assumed to contain insider knowledge on Ednas murder, but could also be interpreted as just that- a script. There is no solid I did it type moment, in the same way that with Diana there is no I did it moment, yet unlike with Diana, 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 implied trans-woman fits your idea of a murderer more than a well-off cis white woman?
Fane did kill themselves, but this also isnt explicitly out of guilt. They know now that multiple people know the secret of their race, so they believe their career is over- that would have been their motive for Ednas murder, so surely it could also be the motive for their suicide. Furthermore, the final line of Fanes note- theres 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, probably Fane did seem extremely guilty, Diana an innocent victim of circumstance, but right now, from my trans perspective, it seems to me like a notable celebrity using his fame to push a mixed, queer individual to suicide in order to keep the woman he wants it off with 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 Ill find more Randel Fanes, with time mellowing their villainy and who will prove to me to be misundertood.