Dial M For Murder (1954)
Four reviews in five days? Yes, well, someone is in-between assignments aren’t they? Well I’d best make the most of it, with two interviews and a couple of meetings with consultancies already programmed by the end of the week I can’t see this lasting, although to be honest I’d rather take August off, shoot off to Toronto really make a renewed effort in September but beggars can’t be chosers, at least not in this market. Naturally I’ve been perusing the BFI schedule and the pickings are relatively slim, however one of the most frustrating omissions from last years expansive Hitchcock season was the chance to see a restored print Dial M For Murder in glorious eye-milking 3D, as a cinephile the option of not only digesting another Hitchcock on the big-screen was a tantalising option, but also the one and only 3D Hitchcock which has been restored to three-dimensional presentation? Now that’s a cinematic treat. Nevertheless my schedule wasn’t convenient with the limited run of screenings last year, and for some reason all the screenings were arranged in the cramped interior of the NFT3 screen, I have a vague policy not to pay for movies in that environment as frankly the screen is tiny and in any case the presentations sold out quickly thus solving that problem. I had a sneaking suspicion that a wider release would follow, my instincts were correct as the BFI are now in the midst of a second strand of screenings, so over the weekend I popped over to the Southbank for a little frisson of murder along the z -axis – it’s what Sunday afternoon’s were invented for…….
London, Madia Vale, Apartment 22C, Crochester Road. It is with some small sense of regret that I must report to you sir that an absolute bounder and cad, the retired tennis ace Tony Wendice (a superbly smarmy Ray Milland) is planning to murder his wife Margo (a radiant Grace Kelly) after he has discovered her infidelities with American mystery writer Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings). This poor excuse of a gentleman has unfortunately acquired many expensive tastes and hobbies during his time in the spotlight, and now that he is relying on his wife’s income to supplant his lifestyle he can’t face the through of her leaving him, so he is resorting to rather more permanent measures to ensure his comfort. This cowardly rascal isn’t prepared to get his well manicured hands dirty though, as after a chance encounter with an old public school chum Captain Swann ( Anthony Dawson) he blackmails him into killing his wife with a generous payout and threats to approach the police, Swann being in a rather precarious position given his rather sordid past of theft and larceny and the rather unfortunate habit of the elderly widows he has been recently fleecing of dropping dead in suspicious circumstances. In a briskly arranged first act Wendice enlists Swann into his murderous plot which has been a year in the planning, with every aspect involving entrance latch-keys, murder implements and financial records arranged to satisfy even the most quizzical Sherlock Holmes impersonator, alas pale and beautiful Margo seems inevitably doomed….
A rare Warner Brothers production for the portly purveyor of sinister shenanigans – most of Hitchcock’s pictures were Paramount or Universal productions during the Forties & Fifties – Dial M For Murder is largely regarded as second tier Hitchcock, an experimental curio along the lines of the single-take chained Rope and nautically confined Lifeboat pieces, but I’ve always had a sneaking affection for this movie despite its rather stage bound constrictions – not surprising since it was culled from a successful stage play of the same name by Frederick Knott. I just love the procedural arrangement of the film through its clear three acts – Swann’s recruitment, the botched attack, the sparring investigation and resolution. I like the confining claustrophobia of 85% of the movie being set in the single apartment, this actually increases the concentration and the compositions utilising the 3D depth of field exhaust the paranoid proceedings which helps the film breathe in a rushed, hurried pant. The 3D is amusing with plenty of foregrounding of bottles and table lamps which is quite a distracting effect when you watch the 2D home cinema version, so it was a joy to finally see this as the macabre maestro intended. 3D of course has come in three waves as Hollywood’s response to other threats to its bottom line, the advent of television in the 1950’s, the explosion of VHS and home viewing in the 1980’s,the threat of piracy in the current climate, so any chance to see an early technological format which is still tenaciously hanging on despite its detractors howls is to be welcomed by any committed fan of the cinema – the murder for example does leap out from the screen like that upturned, clasping, pleading palm;
Yes, she spends a lot of time sleepily calling ‘hello’ which raised a few nervous titters in the audience but c’mon, it’s a movie, it ain’t supposed to be realistic now is it? Hitchcock expands the tension through framing and pace, ventilating the picture from its theatrical origins by adding in the cutaways from Margo to her nervous husband at his gentleman’s club, in a manner similar to her amours arrival on a cruise ship earlier in the tale.
The film features one of my absolute favourite supporting players in the Hitchcock pantheon, Chief Inspector Hubbard is played with a gleeful polite British deviousness by haughty John Williams who also appeared in To Catch A Thief and The Paradine Case , as well as a few small screen Alfred Hitchcock Presents episodes. It’s his intellectual sparing with our murderous confidant Wendice which form the dark nebulous melee of the picture, although money is ostentatiously the reason given for the criminal plan you can’t help but think that Wendice is actually being manipulated by dark forces of his own – if he can’t have her, then no-one will. Hitchcock thrums tension and anxiety out of slow reveals and half cloaked plot twists, as Milland manipulates one of the most cruelly charming and darkly debonair performances which situate him firmly in the rogues gallery of the gracefully and unapologetically homicidal. Another terrific little sequence which is vintage Hitchcock is when Margo is sentenced for her crimes in a scathingly expressionistic, single take mid-shot with the non-diagetic chorus of society pouring scorn and shame on the falsely accused heroine, haloed with a murderous crimson haze its a wonderful flourish which prefigures deeper psychological mining of the anxious and erratic in the years to come.
The film was remade in 1999 as A Perfect Murder which is a perfectly adequate three star thriller, featuring early turns from Gwyneth Paltrow and a pre-Aragorn Viggo Mortenson, Michael Douglas takes on the murderous central role. Grace Kelly is as screen presence I’m slowly enjoying more each time I see her up on the screen, I’m beginning to get interested in the upcoming Grace biopic which stars the porcelain Nicole Kidman stepping into the glamorous glittering ball gowns and Hermes scarves, I always find it interesting to see how filmmakers interpret other film sets so we should see both this film and Rear Window re-created for the silver screen. In terms of my diminishing Hitchcock hit-list I still have a desperate need to see Strangers On A Train, The Wrong Man, Spellbound, The Man Who Knew Too Much and maybe Shadow Of A Doubt which as Hitch’s personal favourite of his sixty year career should be given a chance, especially since I’ve never fully connected to it on the three or four TV screenings I’ve apprehended over the years. The BFI fun continues next weekend where anyone who even remotely pays attention to capital cinema events won’t need to consult with their creator to guess what restored epic is being hitched to the Menagerie saddlebag , but before that there is the small matter of a deadly siege in Norwich….