Alfred Hitchcock’s “Dial M For Murder” Takes on a New Dimension in 3D

25 06 2011

This week, New York’s Film Forum is screening Alfred Hitchcock’s “Dial M for Murder” in its original 3D. Shot in a format called “Natural Vision,” the movie takes on new dimension when seen this way, and it was a distinct pleasure to watch it with an audience.

Hitchcock used 3D to great effect, but also sparingly. Mostly, it adds depth to the action, rendering scenes so that some objects seem to be very close to the viewer, creating an effect that’s almost like watching a movie in a lenticular. Hitchcock shot most of the movie in the single set of the Wendice’s tiny apartment, looking up at the action from a low angle to amplify the feeling of dread. Lamps and other objects sit in the extreme foreground, creating barriers between various characters.

Only a few times does Hitchcock deploy 3D for that “it’s coming right at you” effect, in scenes when Margot (Grace Kelly) reaches for her scissors to fend off her attacker or, later, when her husband puts a key in the lock to try and open the door. It also allows the credits to stand out during the opening sequence.

It was also a revelation to watch the movie with an audience. When I wrote about the movie here, I felt that its humor took a back seat to suspense. Seeing it this week, though, I laughed along with the crowd at Wendice’s insanely convoluted scheme and his pretense of innocence and at the too-convenient reunion photo on his wall. John Williams’ hammy acting broke up the crowd as well, particularly his moment of preening at the end, after he’s solved the case.


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.”

Alfred Hitchcock Encounters the “Saboteur”

22 08 2010

“I would say that the script lacks discipline. I don’t think I exercised a clear, sharp approach to the original construction of the screenplay. There was a mass of ideas, but they weren’t sorted out in proper order; they weren’t selected with sufficient care. I feel the whole thing should have been pruned and tightly edited long before the actual shooting.” — Alfred Hitchcock

The lack of discipline Alfred Hitchcock mentions in regard to his 1942 film “Saboteur” led to a picture with a dizzying diversity of settings and cast members who show up briefly and then go on their way. But really, what would “Saboteur” be without those strange detours and odd, colorful roles?

With “Suspicion,” Hitch fulfilled one of his primary goals in coming to Hollywood: He got to work with Cary Grant, who was just coming off the high of his early successes in romantic comedy and looking to subvert that image. Hitchcock gave him that chance in “Suspicion,” letting him appear charming at first, then revealing his character’s dark side.

“Saboteur” was a big step down in terms of star appeal from “Suspicion,” yet the story works in part because of it. The stars of the film – Robert Cummings, playing the wrongly accused Barry Kane; Priscilla Lane as model Patricia Martin; and Norman Lloyd as Frank Fry — were not well known enough for audiences to have much in the way of expectations for them (in fact, it was Lloyd’s film debut). “Suspicion” had to be revised at the end so that Cary Grant wasn’t a murderer after all. How likely is it that censors would feel the same way about Robert Cummings, though?

Of course, the film doesn’t work that way. It opens as Kane and his friend arrive at an airplane plant in California. On the way through the gate, they bump into a coworker who is rather unfriendly. Moments later, a fire breaks out at the plant, and Kane, his friend and the coworker all rush toward it. Kane hands his friend a fire extinguisher which turns out to be filled with gasoline, and the friend is killed in the inferno. Meanwhile, the coworker, Frank Fry, has disappeared, and the authorities’ chase after Kane is on.

Following a clue, Kane hitches a ride with a chatty trucker to a ranch, but is arrested while he talks to the owner. A breakdown on a bridge gives Kane the chance to escape, and he jumps into a river, then makes his way to a nearby house occupied by an old blind man. The blind man’s niece, model Patricia Martin, arrives at the house, and although she is believes that Kane is the saboteur in the news, her uncle asks her to help him.

They drive across the desert together, and when their car breaks down, they take refuge with a band of circus freaks in a caravan. Kane and Martin find their way to Fry’s next stop, Soda City, a ghost town where they gather hints about the spy ring’s plans before Kane is captured. He talks his captors into believing that he really is a saboteur, and they take him with them to New York City. There, Kane is taken to a society matron’s house, where a benefit dance is taking place. The money is going to the fifth columnist’s cause, of course, although the guests are unaware of this.

Kane learns that their next move will be to destroy a new ship; he escapes but does not manage to save the ship. He is again captured, but when the saboteurs get him back to their hideout, the police are waiting. The band splits, and both Kane and Martin pursue Fry to the Statue of Liberty. After a tussle in the torch, Fry falls to his death, and Kane is cleared of charges.

There’s so much going on in “Saboteur,” it’s almost a good thing that the lead isn’t as interesting as Cary Grant: A fire at an airplane plant; a road trip with a talkative trucker; a mystery at a ranch and, later, a ghost town; a wrongly accused man taking refuge with circus freaks; a chance encounter with a blind man; people taken captive in a society matron’s opulent brownstone and in a New York City skyscraper; sabotage at the Brooklyn Navy Yard; a life and death struggle at the Statue of Liberty — any one of these could have been the centerpiece of the film, but, except for the Statue of Liberty finale, none are particularly more prominent than the next. The suspense does not build as well here as it does in other episodic chase films of Hitchcock’s, like “North by Northwest,” possibly due to the ever-shifting supporting cast.

Robert Cummings is not the strongest leading man, and his mission is not as personal as it might be. At first, he’s out to clear his name, but that soon fades away, to be replaced by the new goal of stopping the saboteurs from harming America’s war efforts. The reason for their activities is not very clear, though: Their leader talks about having more power, and one of the underlings has a weird conversation with Kane that implies some sort of twisted psyche, but why they side with Germany is not particularly clear.

What is clear, though, is that Germany is indeed the enemy is this picture. Hitchcock had hinted at “trouble in Europe” and “the coming war” in several of his pictures since the late 1930s, notably the similarly named “Sabotage,” but there is no question about who the enemy is here. The airplane plant is guarded by armed soldiers, and the Navy is assembling new battleships. Someone asks Kane why he’s not in the Army, and while he doesn’t really answer, it’s clear that we’re in the midst of a war, and that able-bodied men who are not in the service are the subject of some suspicion.

“Saboteur” was an original idea developed by Hitchcock for David O. Selznick, with whom he was under contract. When the script was complete, though, Selznick did not want to make it; instead, he made Hitchcock shop the script to other studios, engendering ill will between the two men, as Hitchcock did not appreciate Selznick’s apparent lack of confidence in his abilities. The film was made for Universal, under a tight budget, which explains the relatively low-wattage casting. The great writer Dorothy Parker contributed to the final draft of the script, adding several patriotic speeches that hold up well. Despite Selznick’s lack of interest in the film, I believe this is the first of Hitchcock’s movies to be billed in the possessive, i.e. “Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur.”

“Saboteur” was praised for its timeliness and its message of warning about Fifth columnists. And while the scene with the circus freaks may seem odd, their different opinions about Kane’s innocence symbolized the different positions people were taking around the country at the outset of the war, when it was not yet clear to some Americans why we were in the fight.

“Saboteur” is also notable for Hitchcock’s use of location shots of the Brooklyn Navy Yard and the Statue of Liberty, although Hitch brings his technical expertise to bear in scenes like the finale, where Fry falls to his death from the Statue of Liberty’s torch.

So, for anyone keeping track, “Saboteur” marks the start of the second half of Hitchcock’s feature film career. I now have 25 films to go, not including some special entries that we’ll get to in the next few weeks.

Meanwhile, our next film will be “Shadow of a Doubt,” starring Theresa Wright and Joseph Cotten and cowritten by Thornton Wilder.

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