A barely feature-length drama directed by Michael Powell, The Murder Party (aka The Night of the Party) is a mystery of sorts about an upper-crust party involving a murder game that predictably leads to the real thing. True to form, powerful newspaper publisher Lord Studholme (Malcolm Keen) is set up as the obvious victim because he is such a jerk. But once he has served his formulaic purpose, the mystery falls apart without delivering anything better than confusion.
None of it is particularly involving. The suspects in this very “U” story include police commissioner(?) Sir John Holland, a novelist and even a princess. There are the inevitable lovers (Lord Studholme’s daughter and secretary) thwarted by his objections to their marriage while the publisher himself has designs on Sir John’s daughter Joan, whose ex-lover seems included for no reason except to motivate a forgettable subplot. A blackmailing butler (no, he didn’t do it) solely represents the lower orders.
None of these characters even rise to the level of a stereotype. The one highly overdrawn exception is the writer, Chiddiatt (Ernest Thesiger) who, from his name onward is more a collection of mannered eccentricities than a character. He seems less a human being or literary construction than a screaming meme at war with common sense.
Such hysteria is typical of Powell, who has a habit of cushioning shrill outbursts with luxurious, indulgent visual flourishes. In The Murder Party, his ostentatious over-reaching is most obvious in the murder sequence in which Studholme’s apartment is thrown into darkness, giving the director and cinematographer the excuse for showy lighting setups. Unfortunately, nearly total darkness makes it tough to tell what is going on. Nor is the dank justified as a means to keep the killer’s identity secret, since the murder simply occurs off-camera, rendering the arty lighting gratuitous.
Indeed, everything feels pointless in what must be the most anemic murder investigation ever put on film. The policeman in charge of the investigation, Inspector Ramage, always defers to Sir John even though the latter is among the suspects. Even when Ramage gets to ask questions, the characters’ testimony seems to concern just about anything other than the murder or the victim. The result is critical confusion during the concluding trial sequence. Sir John seems ready to commit perjury to protect Joan, or perhaps confess when the mystery is not so much solved as suddenly and inexplicably ended as the murderer breaks down in court.
In a good mystery such sudden reversal might tear the mask off of a clever red herring, letting everyone enjoy how they have been misled. Murder Party’s confessional outburst simply happens without warning or motivation and becomes just one more gratuitous flourish. It is of little interest because it is difficult to care about the murderer’s identity when no one in the movie seems to care much either.