Alfred Hitchcock Dials Up “Dial M for Murder”

14 11 2010

“I just did my job, using cinematic means to narrate a story taken from a stage play. All of the action in Dial M for Murder takes place in a living room, but that doesn’t matter. I could just as well have shot the whole film in a telephone booth.” — Alfred Hitchcock

In May 1954, Warner Bros. released “Dial M for Murder,” the thirty-eighth movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Based on the successful stage play by Frederick Knott, who also wrote the screen adaptation, it is, I believe, Hitchcock’s last movie remake of a theatrical drama. (Knott wrote another well known “woman attacked in her home” drama, “Wait Until Dark.”)

“Dial M” begins when illicit lovers Margot Wendice (Grace Kelly), a married woman, and TV mystery writer Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings, previously seen in 1942’s “Saboteur”), are reunited in London. Although they believe their affair is still secret, Margot’s husband, former tennis player Tony (Ray Milland), is aware of it, and has been coolly plotting his revenge. Margot explains to Mark that her purse had been stolen earlier that year, with the one love letter of his that she had kept still inside. The purse was recovered eventually, but the note was gone – and now, she’s being blackmailed by Tony himself, although she does not know it.

After Tony insists on staying home while Margot and Mark go to the theater, Tony contacts C.A. Swann (Anthony Dawson) under the pretense of wanting to buy his car. Swann, a former classmate of Tony’s, has been exploiting wealthy widows and skipping out on unpaid bills across England. Tony uses this information to blackmail Swann into agreeing to murder Margot, all the while calmly wiping his fingerprints from drinking glasses, doorknobs and chairs.

The next night, Tony and Mark go out after Tony goes to great – almost unbelievable –  lengths to talk Margot into staying home. Finally, she agrees, and Tony leaves a key where Swann can find it. Swann slips into their apartment, but when the phone starts to ring, he hides behind the curtains. Margot gets out of bed to answer it, and Swann attacks her, trying to choke her with a stocking. She manages to break free, and in the struggle she finds a pair of scissors and stabs him in the back. (The editing in this sequence is like a preview of the shower scene in “Psycho.”) He falls to the floor dead, and Margot hears a voice on the phone: It’s Tony, trying to get her attention.

Tony races home, calms Margot and puts her to bed, and deals with the police, believing that he’s committed the perfect crime. He doesn’t have to deal with Swann, and while he waits for the police, he sets things up to make it look as though Margot had killed Swann in cold blood.

The next morning, Chief Inspector Hubbard comes to the apartment, asking questions that cast doubts on Margot’s story, leading to her arrest. Tony acts outraged but has actually planted doubts of his own; the night before, he told the police a version of the events that is at odds with Margot’s story. In a brief sequence that borders on surreal, Margot is seen under different color lights as she is arraigned, tried and sentenced to death, her expression subtly changing with each stage of her trial. The color shifts and her lack of dialogue make the point that Margot is in shock as her ordeal continues.

Hitchcock generally used color in a very subtle way, manipulating in over the course of his career somewhat less successfully than he did sound. Here, however, is an example of Hitch using color to great effect, in what is only his third color feature.

The day before Margot is scheduled to be hanged, Mark shows up at her apartment to beg Tony to say that it was all his doing. Mark has made up a story for him to take to the police that matches what actually happened almost perfectly, arguing that Tony could save Margot’s life, and all he would end up with would be a couple of years in prison. Tony refuses, saying the police would never believe such a wild story, but just then, Hubbard arrives at the apartment, claiming to be investigating another crime in the area.

Mark, hiding in the kitchen while Tony and Hubbard talk, hears Tony telling Hubbard about a stolen attache case, Mark sees it in the kitchen with him, and opens it to find it loaded with money. Mark calls Hubbard and Tony, saying he has the case, and that Tony has something to tell Hubbard. Tony presents Mark’s story as ridiculous, and Hubbard agrees that no one would buy it.

Hubbard leaves, but not before switching his overcoat with Tony’s. After Tony and Mark both leave, with Tony heading to the police station to claim his wife’s belongings, Hubbard slips back into the apartment, followed by Mark. Apparently Hubbard suspects that Mark’s story is close to the truth after all. The next to arrive at the apartment is Margot, escorted by the police. Hubbard tells Margot and Mark that he’s got a way to prove that Tony hired Swann and that Margot is innocent, one that involves a lot of key swapping and fast talk. Tony falls into their trap and reveals his own guilt, but takes it rather well, offering his captors a drink before they take him away.

Hitchcock may have dismissed “Dial M” for several reasons: He was asked by Warner Bros. to make the film when his own project, “The Bramble Bush,” fell through. He did not go through his standard practice of story meetings and rewrites as he was accustomed to, possibly because he was not as invested in this project as he might have been with a project of his own choosing. Also, Warner Bros. insisted that the film be made in 3-D, although by the time it was released the 1950s 3-D craze was coming to an end. Lastly, and this is a more subtle point, the wily Chief Inspector Hubbard may have rubbed Hitchcock the wrong way, as competent police officers in Hitchcock’s pictures are few and far between.

On the other hand, this is the film that first brought Hitchcock together with Grace Kelly, arguably his greatest female star. Although her performance here is very strong, she would have more assertive roles in “Rear Window” and “To Catch a Thief.” The rest of the cast is very good as well;  John Williams as the Chief Inspector has a lot of fun, showing exasperation with Mark Halliday and racing around the apartment while waiting for the arrival of Tony at the end of the picture.

Nearly the entire film is shot in the confines of that one apartment, and Hitchcock, working with cinematographer Robert Burks, looks at that apartment from every conceivable angle. Although the apartment is sunny and bright, it is transformed at night into a moody, claustrophobic place.

Hitchcock makes one of his more clever cameos in “Dial M,” appearing in a photo of Tony and Swann at a college reunion banquet. Oddly, there seemed to be a perfect moment for Hitch’s cameo that he ignored: On his night out with Mark, Tony waits at a phone booth to call home; surely the man finishing his call could have been the Hitch.

“Dial M for Murder” ends up being a very entertaining, if half-hearted, Hitchcock film. The story retains the feel of a stage play through most of the movie, especially given its cast of five characters. Also, some of the proceedings are hard to believe, such as the lengths Tony goes to so that Margot stays at home (prompting her to call him a baby) and the complicated explanation of lost keys that implicate Tony at the end. Undoubtedly Hitchcock was encouraged by how big a hit “Dial M” had been on stage; also, he probably was preoccupied with keeping that one setting, the apartment, visually interesting. On that count, he and cinematographer Burks score.

Here’s a look at the trailer for “Dial M for Murder,” which relies heavily on review quotes.

Next, Hitchcock reunites with James Stewart and Grace Kelly for one of his greatest – and sexiest – pictures, “Rear Window.”

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Alfred Hitchcock’s Technical Wonder, “Rope”

30 09 2010

“I undertook ‘Rope’ as as stunt; that’s the only way I can describe it. I really don’t know how I came to indulge in it. The stage drama was played out in the actual time of the story; the action is continuous from the moment the curtain goes up until it comes down again. I asked myself whether it was technically possible to film it in the same way. As an experiment, ‘Rope’ may be forgiven.” — Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock clearly saw “Rope,” his 1948 picture starring James Stewart, as less than successful, but in watching it I found myself completely drawn into the story. Yes, it has its flaws, but rather than focusing on them, I enjoyed the story, the characters and the actors.

Based on a British play called “Rope’s End,” by Patrick Hamilton, which itself was inspired by the 1924 Leopold and Loeb murder case, “Rope” concerns two young men, barely out of school, who murder a friend to prove their own superiority.

The film opens as Brandon (John Dall) and Philip (Farley Granger) strangle David Kentley with a length of rope. They hide the body in a trunk and then get ready for a dinner party, with Brandon telling Philip how brilliant they are to have planned things this way: Not only have they committed the perfect murder, they’ve also hidden the body in their living room with a dinner party about to get under way. And among those guests are David’s father, his aunt, his fiance, her former beau, and Rupert Cadell (Stewart), the boys’ former house parent at prep school.

So confident is Brandon that he insists on serving the dinner off of the trunk, but the guests barely eat because they’re so worried about David, who was also invited. Cadell begins to suspect that something is going on, and eventually pieces together the fact that the two boys committed murder. Brandon explains that they were inspired by Cadell, though, who often talked aboutNietsche’s philosophies in school; even earlier in the film, Cadell had said that murder had its place in society. Cadell is horrified to learn that they actually acted on his empty talk, and that they felt they were carrying out his suggestions. After wrestling a revolver away from Philip, he fires out the window to summon the police.

“Rope” does feel like a stage play, although it was adapted by Hitchcock and Hume Cronyn, with a script by Arthur Laurents. There’s a declamatory quality to the script,; characters don’t talk as much as make speeches. Always intrigued by sex, Hitchcock plays up the relationship between Brandon and Philip, as well as Brandon’s almost voyeuristic pleasure in stirring up trouble between David’s fiance and her ex-boyfriend. Although it’s never said, Brandon and Philip are clearly a couple.

The tension builds as we wonder whether the guests will discover what’s happened. David’s aunt nearly upsets Philips when she reads his palm and says that his hands will bring him fame; he’s actually a concert pianist, but he takes her words to mean that he’ll become known as a killer. Later, as the group discuss David’s whereabouts, the camera stays focused on the maid as she clears the food off of the trunk, nearly opening it before Brandon leaps in to tell her she can clean up later.

“Rope” is largely remembered as a technical marvel, of course. It was filmed in continuous, long takes, with little or no editing. To allow for changes in film reels, the camera periodically closes in on something black, usually a shadow on someone’s back. Those breaks are a bit jarring, but the film’s other technical achievement is less intrusive: to allow the enormous Technicolor camera to follow the characters from one room to another, walls were mounted on wheels and moved out of the way while the shooting continued. Stagehands had to whisk chairs and tables in and out of scenes, too. It all required a great deal of planning and rehearsal; while Hitchcock was a master of this sort of planning, Stewart reportedly was so caught up in the mechanics of his role that he couldn’t sleep at night.

The apartment in which the entire film takes place looks out over the Manhattan skyline, and as the story progresses, darkness falls over the city. The buildings slowly light up, and neon signs flash – including one with Hitchcock’s silhouette. It’s never very clearly seen, though, so he also appears at the very start of the film as one of the people walking by the front of the apartment building.

Stewart gives a strong performance as a man whose beliefs crumble as he sees where they led his proteges; this is the type of torn, bitter character Stewart would play in “It’s a Wonderful Life” and his Westerns of the 1950s. The rest of the small cast give strong performances as well, particularly the flighty dowager aunt (Constance Collier) and the victim’s father (Cedric Hardwicke).

Hitchcock handles his first foray into color filmmaking with great subtlety. The set and costumes are all carefully color coordinated; there’s nothing garish until late in the film. With the tension at its peak, red and green neon lights cast a sickly glow on the stars’ faces.

This was the first film from Hitchcock’s new Transatlantic Pictures, a company he formed with financier Sidney Bernstein. Unfortunately, “Rope” had an uphill battle, and did not do well at the box office. Its biggest hurdle was the strong undercurrent of homosexuality throughout the story, something that was not acknowledged by the general public in 1948, which got the film banned in several cities. James Stewart was in a career slump at the time, too, which did not help. Also, I have to wonder whether Hitchcock’s promotion of the technical aspects of the film overshadowed the story itself.

The film succeeds in building a picture of David as a kind, considerate young man whose loved ones care about him a great deal. One of the strangest aspects of “Rope” isn’t in the movie at all. It’s the trailer, which shows David and his fiance in the park, talking about their future together. He never gets in a word in the movie itself, and it’s a strange way to build up sympathy for him. Take a look:

James Stewart would next work with Hitchcock in 1954’s “Rear Window,” while Farley Granger would return in 1951 with “Strangers on a Train.”

Next, Hitchcock reunites with both Ingrid Bergman and Joseph Cotten for “Under Capricorn.”





Talk Back and Win Tickets to “The 39 Steps”

28 04 2010

Talk back about your favorite Hitchcock movie for a chance to win tickets to “The 39 Steps” live in New York City!

Ever since I launched “Hitchcock and Me” back in December, I’ve been telling the world about Alfred Hitchcock’s movies and what I think of each one. Now, it’s your turn!

In the comments section below, tell me about your favorite Hitchcock picture – and why! – for a chance to win two tickets to “The 39 Steps,” live at the New World Stages on West 50th Street in New York City!

I’ll pick a winner in the next several days, and we’ll announce that person’s name here in a “Hitchcock and Me” blog post!

The winner will be chosen by me, based on top-secret criteria known only to Hitch and me (and he ain’t talking). This is my blog, after all – so impress me!

The judge’s decision is final. The winner will receive a voucher good for two tickets to “The 39 Steps” live on stage on a night of his or her own choosing. Some date restrictions apply. Winner will receive only the voucher; travel, accommodations and other expenses are not included with this prize.





Alfred Hitchcock Plays “The Skin Game”

18 04 2010

“It was taken from a play by John Galsworthy. I didn’t make it by choice, and there isn’t much to be said about it.” – Alfred Hitchcock

In a nice bit of symbolism from the start of the movie, Jill Hillcrist, on horseback, runs into Rolf Hornblower, in a sportster.

Following 1930’s “Murder,” which I wrote about here, Alfred Hitchcock began 1931 with a film he was not particularly fond of, “The Skin Game.” As Hitchcock says, it’s from a play by John Galsworthy, and it concerns two families: The Hillcrists, who are old money, and the Hornblowers, nouveau riche and gauche. Mr. Hornblower wants to expand his manufacturing business into the Hillcrists’ backyard by buying up the land that surrounds the Hillcrists’ estate; The Hillcrists learn of this when two of their tenants, the Jackmans, come to say that Hornblower is trying to buy their home out from under them.

The Hillcrists decide to oppose Hornblower to protect the old ways, but it soon becomes clear that they just don’t like Hornblower – he’s brash, uneducated and boorish. He’s not above trickery to get his way, either: In one of the movie’s more exciting scenes, the auction of a parcel of land, the Hillcrists sit at the back of the room while their agent, Dawker, bids directly against Hornblower. When it looks like Hornblower has beaten the Hillcrists, another person starts bidding as well, leading Dawker to stop bidding, but it turns out that the new bidder was in fact Hornblower’s own agent, getting into the action to throw the Hillcrists off the scent.

The Hillcrists soon resort to their own sort of trickery, though. Dawker recognizes Hornblower’s young daughter in law as someone who had been employed as a divorce correspondent. This is shameful enough that the Hillcrists are able to use it against Hornblower, and he ends up backing off of his land purchase to protect his daughter in law. The Hillcrists’ machinations backfire, though – the young woman’s secret is revealed after all, thanks to her own jealous husband, and Hornblower decides to leave the area entirely, but not before swearing that he’ll someday have his revenge on the Hillcrists. The Jackmans then return to thank their patrons for saving their home. After they leave, Mr. Hillcrist turns to his wife and says he’d nearly forgotten them entirely, then ruminates on how low they had to go to save their own way of life, and wonders if they were really any better than Hornblower.

“The Skin Game” is typical of early 1930s Hitchcock. He did not want to make the movie, but was assigned it by his employers at British International Movie; reportedly, he was bored during the filming of the movie, only getting interested in the proceedings when he would get up and demonstrate how he wanted his cast to perform. The only really interesting scene in the movie is the auction, which Hitch directs with more style than anything else in the movie. Hitch was tired of being the big fish stuck in the small pond of British cinema, but he had not yet found his way out. To extend the metaphor, he continued floundering through his next few movies, until he returned to thrillers in 1934 with “The Man Who Knew Too Much.”

Here’s an interesting paragraph from an article that ran in The Times of London on February 9, 1931 about a film program that was largely dedicated to propaganda filmmaking:

“Two other items in the programme are especially interesting, the first reel of the silent film “The Lodger” (1926) and the auction scene in the talking version of Mr. Galsworthy’s film “The Skin Game” (1931). Both films are directed by Mr. Alfred Hitchcock, and it is instructive to compare the different technique that go to the making of sound and silent pictures. Had one not known the respective dates, one might have placed “The Skin Game” antecedent to “The Lodger”, so much more elastic is the work of the camera in the latter and so much harder is the brain made to work to squeeze the full significance out of the scenes. Imagination in both producer and audience seems at the moment to be in danger of being atrophied by the introduction of the sound-recording apparatus.”

The technical limitations of early sound movies are apparent in “The Skim Game,” as there are some scenes in which it’s easy to hear one actor but difficult to hear another. Rustling noises and car engines also threaten to drown out dialogue at times, too.

Hitchcock makes no appearance in this movie, but the film does feature Hitch’s first work with Edmund Gwenn, who plays Mr. Hornblower. Gwenn would go on to appear in more of Hitchcock’s movies than any other actor.

We’ll get back to “The 39 Steps Fest” tomorrow, and then, later this week, I’ll look at Hitch’s next movie, “Rich and Strange.”





Alfred Hitchcock

11 04 2010

“I must say I didn’t feel like making the picture because, although I read the play over and over again, I could see no way of narrating it in cinematic form. The film got very good notices, but I was actually ashamed, because it had nothing to do with cinema.” – Alfred Hitchcock

Hitchcock’s trouble in transforming “Juno and the Paycock” from stage play to a movie is easy to see from the outset; it’s his second sound film, and his first movie of the 1930s, but it’s obvious he didn’t know what to do with it. The only real action in the movie comes at the very beginning: A speech about fighting for Ireland’s freedom is interrupted by gunfire, and we see the crowd struggling to escape the alley where the speech took place. From then on, almost everything takes place in the run down apartment of the Boyle family. And most of what takes place happens in the form of talk, talk and more talk.

Captain Boyle is a former sailor who can’t be bothered to find a job; his disapproving wife, Juno, berates him for his laziness. (She criticizes him for “gallivanting around like a peacock,” which comes out “paycock” in her brogue.) Their daughter has spurned a local man for the attentions of a lawyer, and their son, who lost an arm fighting for Ireland, is haunted by memories of battle. The captain has a friend, Joxor, who’s sort of a Barney Gumble to his Homer Simpson; Boyle doesn’t have much going for him, but Joxor kisses his ass all the same. When the lawyer, Bentham, brings word that a distant relation has died, leaving the captain a small fortune, the family starts buying new clothes and furniture on credit; of course, eventually they learn the fortune is no fortune at all, and so they lose everything. By the end of the movie, Mary, the daughter, is pregnant by the lawyer, who has disappeared, and the son is murdered by his former comrades, who learn that he ratted them out to the authorities. Mary’s former suitor offers to marry her, knowing only that the lawyer is gone, not that she is pregnant, and when he discovers that, he backs away like she’s holding a gun on him.

“Juno and the Paycock” is based on a play by Sean O’Casey, whom Hitchcock admired so much that he based a character in “The Birds” on him. And unlike many other instances in which Hitch would take a basic story and rework it to his heart’s content, here he remained extremely faithful to the original material, reportedly only adding one outdoor scene (probably the one I mentioned above) with O’Casey’s permission. Hitch puts in no cameo appearance here; he must have thought that his presence would distract from the setting’s verisimilitude. The authentic Irish accents kept the film from doing much business in the U.S., although it was released stateside under the slightly more comprehensible, if misleading, name “The Shame of Mary Boyle.”

Still, Hitchcock’s reputation as the biggest director in England is evidenced by the movie’s poster – that’s Hitch himself in the lower left corner, and when’s the last time you saw a movie’s director on a theatrical poster? Most of the cast reprised their roles from the stageplay. Here’s the review from the Times of London, which gives most of the credit for the quality of the piece to O’Casey and the cast, and not much at all to Hitchcock:

“Mr. Alfred Hitchcock, director of the British International talking film of Juno and the Paycock, which was privately shown at the Regal Cinema on Monday, has been so faithful to his text as almost to forget the medium in which he was working.

“The story of the shiftless “paycock’s” legacy which is no legacy, of the seduction of Mary by the young solicitor, and of the shooting of her brother by the Republicans he has betrayed, is told with humour, and with a restraint which transforms the pathos of the last scenes into tragedy. The acting is excellent: Miss Sara Allgood as Juno, and Miss Kathleen O’Regan as Mary, repeated and extended on the film the excellent performances they had given on the stage, while the other players (in particular Mr. Edward Chapman, who took the part of the “paycock”) maintained the high standard thus set for them.

“But the humour and tragedy were Mr. O’Casey’s; the manner of their expression was that of the Irish Players on the stage ; and all that remained to Mr. Hitchcock was the slight background of firing and street oratory which represented Dublin during the “troubles.” This criticism, it should be added, is without prejudice to Mr. Hitchcock’s great merits as a producer. His talking film is a work of art; well photographed, well acted, and carrying conviction in every word and scene. Remembering film versions of other plays, one is grateful, too, for the respect paid to Mr. O’Casey’s text. But it is less a film than a play projected on the screen.” – The Times, January 1, 1930

By the way, for those paying attention, after waiting for this movie to arrive on DVD for quite a while, I found it as a video on demand via Amazon, here. I’m not sure how deep their library of movies available this way goes, but I definitely liked the service – and the price, which was only $1.99.

Also by the way, “Juno and The Paycock” was revived as a Broadway musical in 1959 under the name “Juno,” starring Shirley “Hazel” Booth and Melvyn Douglas. It ran only sixteen performances!

For our next Hitchcock picture, we’ll look at “The Skin Game.” And watch for more information about my “39 Steps Fest” later this week!

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