The Last Gangster: James Cagney in WHITE HEAT (Warner Brothers 1949)


When James Cagney burst onto the screen in THE PUBLIC ENEMY, a star was born. Cagney’s machine gun delivery of dialog, commanding screen presence, and take-no-shit attitude made him wildly popular among the Depression Era masses, if not with studio boss Jack Warner, with whom Cagney frequently battled over salary and scripts that weren’t up to par. Films like LADY KILLER , THE MAYOR OF HELL , and ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES made Cagney the quintessential movie gangster, but after 1939’s THE ROARING TWENTIES he hung up his spats and concentrated on changing his image. Ten years later, Cagney returned to the gangster film in WHITE HEAT, turning in one of his most memorable performances as the psychotic Cody Jarrett.

Cagney is older and meaner than ever as Jarrett, a remorseless mad-dog killer with a severe mother complex and more than a touch of insanity. Jarrett has frequent debilitating headaches brought on by some unnamed trauma that only Ma can soothe. The actor is an untamed hurricane in this role, swaggering one minute, having a complete meltdown when he gets news of Ma’s death the next. He’s at his best when he’s totally unhinged, cold-bloodedly ventilating the car  trunk containing a would-be traitor with bullets, knocking spouse Verna off her chair, and the spectacular fiery finale where his madness engulfs him as much as the flames, delivering that immortal “Top of the world” line with gusto. Cagney’s Cody Jarrett is dangerous and unpredictable, a man to be feared, and that thread of fear permeates the film.

The women in Cody’s life say a lot about the kind of man he is. Margaret Wycherly is chilling as Ma, a far cry from her loving mother in SERGEANT YORK. Based loosely on Ma Barker, she’s been a criminal all her life, and has groomed her boy to be as ruthless as herself, if not more so. Virginia Mayo as Cody’s wife Verna is just as much a sociopath as he is, a duplicitous woman without morals who doesn’t hesitate to take up with Cody’s lieutenant Big Ed when her man goes to jail. Verna will lie and backstab to get her own way, but she’s deathly afraid of Cody’s wrath, letting Big Ed pay for Ma’s demise even though she pulled trigger that killed the older woman… shot in the back, no less! Cody and Verna are a match made in hell, and Virginia Mayo, who was one of Warner’s biggest stars at the time, received above the title billing just below Cagney. Both should’ve been nominated for Oscars.

Edmond O’Brien  plays T-Man Hank Fallon, who goes undercover as convict Vic Pardo to try and gain Cody’s trust. It’s a tricky part, but the always reliable O’Brien pulls it off. Steve Cochran is his usual menacing self as Big Ed… just not as menacing as Cagney! Another old reliable, Fred Clark , is on hand as ‘The Trader’, brains behind Cody’s crimes. And the Familiar Face brigade is out in full force – say, isn’t that young Robert Foulk? Omigosh, there’s Claudia “ROBOT MONSTER” Barrett! That guy looks like the butler in SON OF  FRANKENSTEIN! I could go on, but you get the idea, so happy hunting!


Raoul Walsh’s muscular, masculine direction makes WHITE HEAT even tougher. Walsh had success in the gangster genre before, helming Cagney’s THE ROARING TWENTIES and Bogart’s HIGH SIERRA, but he was one of those equally adept in any genre: silent classics like THE THIEF OF BAGDAD and WHAT PRICE GLORY, period pieces (THE BOWERY, THE STRAWBERRY BLONDE), westerns (THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON, COLORADO TERRITORY), war dramas (DESPERATE JOURNEY , BATTLE CRY). This is the third of four films Walsh would make with Cagney, and a fine coda to the gangster cycle. WHITE HEAT is a classic in every sense of the word, a movie that absolutely lives up to its reputation.

 

 

 

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Cleaning Out the DVR #20: ALL-STAR PRE-CODE LADIES EDITION!



I know all of you, like me, will be watching tonight’s 89th annual Major League Baseball All-Star G
ame, and… wait, what’s that? You say you WON’T be watching the All-Star Game? You have no interest in baseball? Heretics!! But I understand, I really do, and for you non-baseball enthusiasts I’ve assembled a quartet of Pre-Code films to view as an alternative, starring some of the era’s most fabulous females. While I watch the game, you can hunt down and enjoy the following four films celebrating the ladies of Pre-Code:

DAUGHTER OF THE DRAGON (Paramount 1931; D: Lloyd Corrigan) – Exotic Anna May Wong stars as Princess Ling Moy, an “Oriental dancer” and daughter of the infamous Dr. Fu Manchu (Warner Oland)! When Fu dies, Ling Moy takes up the mantle of vengeance against the Petrie family, tasked with killing surviving son Ronald. Sessue Hayakawa (BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI) plays Chinese detective Ah Kee, assigned to Scotland Yard to track down the last of Fu’s organization, who falls in love with Ling Moy. This was the last of a trilogy of films in which Oland portrays the fiendish Fu (1929’s THE MYSTERIOUS DR. FU MANCH, 1930’s TH RETURN OF FU MANCHU), and though he perishes early on, honorable daughter Wong is just as devious as dear old dad! Director Corrigan and cinematographer Victor Milner do some interesting work with shadows and light, overhead shots, and camera angles; though Corrigan is best remembered today as a character actor, he directed 12 features (and one short) between 1930 and 1937, and is quite good behind the camera. A film that’s structured like a serial, with secret passageways, sadistic tortures, and definite horror undertones, fans of Anna May Wong won’t want to miss it. Fun Fact: Bramwell Fletcher, who plays Ronald, was the actor who “died laughing” in 1932’s THE MUMMY .


MILLIE (RKO 1931; D: John Francis Dillon) – For a brief, shining moment in the early 1930’s, sad-eyed beauty Helen Twelvetrees was one of the Pre-Code Era’s most popular stars, gaining fame in a series of “women’s weepies”. MILLIE was my first chance to see this actress I’d heard so much about, and she excels as Millie Blake, who we first meet as an innocent college girl who marries rich Jack Maitland (Robert Ames), has a child, then discovers he’s a cheating cad. Getting a divorce (and giving up custody in the process), Millie’s next beau also turns out to be a two-timer, causing her to declare her independence from men and become a wild party girl. Years pass, and her now 16 year old daughter (Anita Louise) is almost compromised by one of Millie’s ex-lovers (John Halliday ), whom Mama Bear Millie shoots, leading to a scandalous trial. Joan Blondell and Lilyan Tashman are on hand as Millie’s golddigging pals (see picture above), and director John Francis Dillon knew his soapy stuff, having also guided Pre-Code ladies Ann Harding (GIRL OF THE GOLDEN WEST), Evelyn Brent (THE PAGAN LADY), and Clara Bow (CALL HER SAVAGE). MILLIE’s a bit dated (okay, more than a bit) and slow going in places, but Miss Twelvetrees made it all worthwhile. Fun Fact: Edward LeSaint plays the judge, and made a career out of magistrate roles; Three Stooges fans will recognize him from their 1934 short DISORDER IN THE COURT.

THE STRANGE LOVE OF MOLLY LOUVAIN (Warner Brothers 1932; D: Michael Curtiz ) – “I’m a pretty bad egg”, says Molly, but Ann Dvorak (SCARFACE, THREE ON A MATCH, HEAT LIGHTNING) is a pretty good actress, starring as poor working girl Molly, who gets pregnant and jilted, gives up her child, and hits the road with small-time crook Leslie Fenton. She leaves the bum to work in a dance hall, encountering naïve young Richard Cromwell. Fenton shows up, steals a car, kills a cop, gets shot himself, and Molly and the starry-eyed kid take it on the lam. Dubbed “the beautiful brunette bandit” by the press, Molly dyes her hair blonde, and the pair lay low… until fast-talking reporter Lee Tracy makes his appearance! There’s great chemistry between Dvorak and Tracy in this racy, double entendree-laden little movie, with a dynamite twist ending I did not see coming. It’s also packed with Familiar Faces: Ben Alexander, Louise Beavers, Richard Cramer, Guy Kibbee , Hank Mann, Frank McHugh , Charles Middleton, and Snub Pollard all pop up in small roles. This lightning-paced entry is an unjustly neglected Pre-Code gem that deserves a larger audience! Fun Fact: A newspaper headline misspells Molly’s last name as “Louvaine”.

SMARTY (Warner Brothers 1934; D: Robert Florey ) – Queen of Pre-Code Joan Blondell is back, and therapists would have a field day with her character of Vicki, a manipulative minx who equates being hit with being loved. Before you jump out of your skin, this is a romantic comedy – now you can jump! S& M overtones abound, and sexual innuendoes fly freely, as Joan’s incessant teasing of hubby Warren William (including a reference to “diced carrots”, obviously a penis size dig) leads him to slapping her face at a bridge party, and Joan winding up married to her divorce lawyer, Edward Everett Horton , who she also tortures into smacking her – but it’s a ploy to get back together with Warren! The censors must’ve been apoplectic viewing SMARTY, one of the last films in the Pre-Code cycle, as Joan also appears in various stages of undress, a voyeur’s delight. Despite the kinky subject matter, the movie is quite funny, with solid support from Claire Dodd, Frank McHugh, and Leonard Carey. Let me be clear: hitting women is NOT funny, but you’re doing yourself a disservice in letting that stop you from watching this outrageous screwball comedy. Fun Fact: Look fast for Dennis O’Keefe in one of his early, uncredited parts as a nightclub patron.

Drive-In Saturday Night 2: BIKINI BEACH (AIP 1964) & PAJAMA PARTY (AIP 1964)

Welcome back to Drive-In Saturday Night! Summer’s here, and the time is right for a double dose of American-International teen flicks, so pull in, pull up a speaker to hang on your car window, and enjoy our first feature, 1964’s BIKINI BEACH, starring Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello:

BIKINI BEACH is the third of AIP’s ‘Beach Party’ movies, and this one’s a typical hodgepodge of music, comedy, and the usual teenage shenanigans. The gang’s all here, heading to the beach on spring break for surfing and swinging. This time around, there’s a newcomer on the sand, British rock star The Potato Bug, with Frankie playing a dual role. Potato Bug is an obvious spoof of the big Beatlemania fever sweeping the country, with all the beach chicks (or “birds”, as he calls ’em) screaming whenever PB starts singing one of his songs, complete with Lennon/McCartney-esque “Wooos” and “Yeah, yeah, yeahs”. Avalon has a good time in a wig and Granny glasses (and a Terry-Thomas like accent) poking fun at the latest teen fad, and in typical low-budget AIP fashion, scenes with Frankie and Mr. Bug together have Beach regular Ronnie Dayton doubling for Potato Bug.

The villain of the piece is Keenan Wynn as Harvey Huntington Honeywagon III, who wants to get rid of the surfers so he can expand his old folks home. To prove his theory that the teens are nothing but Neanderthals “with an abnormal preoccupation with sex”, he has his simian sidekick Clyde (Janos Prohaska, The Bear from Andy Williams’s 60’s variety show) ape them by surfing, driving hot rods, and dancing. Martha Hyer is schoolteacher Vivien Clements, who stands up against Harvey for the kids, and guess who sides with him? That’s right, Eric Von Zipper (Harvey Lembeck ) and his Rats, who hates the surfers even more than Harvey!

Frankie and Annette argue (because of course they do), and she takes up with Potato Bug to make him jealous. Since Bug is a drag racing buff, Frankie decides to take up the sport and challenge him to a grudge race. Don Rickles Don Rickles returns as Big Drag (the former Jack Fanny), proprietor of Big Drag’s Pit Stop, the surfer’s hangout, and he’s funny as ever. There’s plenty of tunes and musical guests, including Little Stevie Wonder (singing “Dance and Shout”), The Pyramids, and The Exciters Band (who worked with the shimmying sensation Candy Johnson). There’s also plenty of padding, with lots of stock footage of surfing and racing, and though it’s an incredibly silly romp, it still manages to entertain if you like these sort of things (and I do!). Oh, and that mysterious art collector who keeps popping in and out of the film is none other than everyone’s favorite monster…

Boris Karloff  in a cameo! Now let’s go to the concession stand and load up on burgers and hot dogs during Intermission:

Our second feature is PAJAMA PARTY, also released in 1964:

Considered by aficionados as the fourth in the series, besides the fact it shares Annette, Jody McCrea, Eric Von Zipper and his Rats, and other regulars (Luree Holmes, Candy Johnson, Donna Loren, Michael Nader, Ronnie Rondell, Salli Sachse), it bears no relationship to the usual ‘Beach Party’ movies. In fact, PAJAMA PARTY is even goofier than normal – if you can imagine – a surreal, almost plotless piece of escapism with self-knowing winks to the audience! It may not be ‘Beach Party’ canon, but the film knows it’s goofy and revels in it.

Martians (yes, Martians!) send their biggest goof-up, an outer space teen named Go-Go (Tommy Kirk ) to infiltrate Earth and pave the way for their upcoming invasion. Don Rickles plays a Martian on the spaceship, and it’s not a spoiler to reveal Frankie Avalon is the alien chief – you’ll recognize his voice instantly. Go-Go lands in the backyard of dotty Aunt Wendy (Elsa Lanchester ), who renames him George and introduces him to her teenage borders, including Connie (Annette) and her dumb jock boyfriend Big Lunk (Jody). Von Zipper and his Rats are around, out to get “them volleyball kids”, and a crook called J. Sinister Hulk (Jesse White) is plotting to steal Aunt Wendy’s millions, left to her by her late husband – in cash! All this takes place amid one slapstick situation after another, until whatever plot ends are neatly tied up.

Among J. Sinister’s henchmen is Buster Keaton , making his first appearance in the series. The Great Stoneface has some funny gags and bits, and could still take a pratfall with the best of ’em! Also making her ‘Beach’ debut is Bobbi Shaw, the “ya, ya” girl, and actor and nightclub comic Ben Lessy rounds out the villainous quartet. Dorothy Lamour guest stars as hostess of a fashion show, and even gets a musical number, “Where Did I Go Wrong”. Sexy Susan Hart gyrates her way through the film without any dialog, which isn’t a bad thing; the wife of AIP co-founder James Nicholson was better at window dressing than acting.

The songs are no great shakes except for Loren’s rocking “Among the Young” and Annette’s uptempo “Pajama Party”, but there’s some real energetic 60’s dancing going on (see if you can spot Teri Garr and Toni Basil movin’ and groovin’ in the crowd). The Nooney Rickets 4 provide a few instrumentals for the kids to boogie to, and the soft drink Dr. Pepper pops up everywhere (Loren was the Dr. Pepper Girl for years in 1960’s TV ads). Both BIKINI BEACH and PAJAMA PARTY are products of a bygone era, and both are still a lot of fun. A perfect double feature to watch on a hot summer night, with some popcorn and a cold Dr. Pepper!

KOWABUNGA!

There’s A New Kid in Town: RETRO FAN Magazine


I frequent a place called Newsbreak, which has virtually every type of magazine you could ever ask for, from your tried-and-true legacy mags (TIME, PEOPLE, READER’S DIGEST) to the more esoteric (dedicated to things like raising chickens, bluegrass music, and mysticism). There are a few I pick up on a regular basis, mainly dealing with old movies: FILMS OF THE GOLDEN AGE, SHOCK CINEMA, and PHANTOM OF THE MOVIES’ VIDEOSCOPE, (along with my monthly fix of REASON, the magazine of libertarian thought). While browsing last week, I came across something new – the 1st issue of RETRO FAN, published by TwoMorrows, who are also responsible for publications like ALTER EGO (covering the Golden Age of Comics and edited by Roy Thomas), BACK ISSUE ( Bronze Age Comics), and JACK KIRBY COLLECTOR (’nuff said!).

The animated crew of The Enterprise

RETRO FAN is for people interested in pop culture past, and if you’re a reader of this blog, you’ll love it! The first issue is chock full of great articles. There’s an interview with Lou “The Incredible Hulk” Ferrigno, a piece about The Phantom on the Silver Screen by comic and TV writer Martin Pasko, a look back at STAR TREK: THE ANIMATED SERIES, Emmy-winning SPFX artist Ernest Farino’s childhood encounter with Lon Chaney Jr., and a trip to Mayberry (actually Mt. Airy, NC) complete with an interview with Betty Lynn (Thelma Lou). There are articles on collectible comics and toys as well, the whole gamut of retro nostalgia packed into 80 slick, colorful pages.

Editor/author Michael Eury

Editor Michael Eury has assembled a terrific new mag for fans who are into “The Creepy Cool Culture We Grew Up With”, including Yours Truly. Upcoming issues will feature horror hosts Zacherle and Elvira, Saturday mornings with Aquaman and The Groovy Goolies, an interview with SUPERMAN director Richard Donner, The Green Hornet, Ray Harryhausen, Thunderbirds, and a whole lot more. RETRO FAN is for the retro geek in all us, and has made my list of quarterly mags to purchase. If you’re into this sort of thing like me, you’ll want to pick up a copy, or go to TwoMorrows’ website and subscribe. And if you’re not… well, you’re missing out on some cool stuff, bunkie!

The Big Let-Down: THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS (Warner Brothers 1947)

You would think THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS is just the type of movie I’d love. It’s a Warner Brothers pic from the 1940’s, it’s got Humphrey Bogart and Barbara Stanwyck , there’s mystery and murder, a Gothic atmosphere… and yet, I didn’t love it, or particularly like it, either. For the first three-quarters, it’s too mannered, slow-moving, and (the cardinal sin) boring for my tastes. Things do pick up a bit towards the end, with Bogie menacing Babs alone in that gloomy mansion, but the denouement failed to satisfy me.

There are a number of reasons why the movie just doesn’t work. It was filmed in 1945, but held back two years by the studio for some reason or another (reports vary). Director Peter Godfrey, a Stanwyck favorite, just wasn’t up to the task of creating much suspense. Then again, the screenplay by Thomas Job practically gives everything away early on, so much that there’s really no suspense to be had. We already know Bogie poisoned his first wife to be with Barbara, and once he takes up with Alexis Smith and Stanwyck falls ill, we know exactly what’s going on. In the hands of, say, Alfred Hitchcock , perhaps we’d have a different, more suspenseful film, but Godfrey’s plodding direction fails to deliver the goods.

Then there’s Bogart, a fish out of water among all the Gothic trappings. I love Bogie, he’s one of my favorites of the classic era, but he just doesn’t feel like he belongs here as an artist with an insane streak. I could see someone like Errol Flynn (who costarred with Stanwyck in Godfrey’s similar CRY WOLF that same year) or maybe Paul Henreid (who was announced for the role during pre-production) pulling it off, but Bogie’s just flat-out not right for the part. THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS sometimes gets lumped in as a film noir (as it seems too many films do these days), but it’s a far cry from that stylistic genre. It’s more a Gothic mystery, and doesn’t make the grade in that department either, thanks to Godfrey’s mishandling of the material and Bogart’s weak performance.

The supporting cast doesn’t help matters much. Ann Carter, who was brilliant as the lonely child in CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE, is stiff and wooden as Bogart’s daughter Bea. Nigel Bruce goes for laughs as Stanwyck’s doctor, but doesn’t achieve any. Alexis Smith is okay as Bogart’s next conquest, but isn’t given a lot to do except look good. Anita Sharp-Bolster (MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS ) gives the best performance as the housekeeper Christine, a decidedly minor role. THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS certainly looks good, with Anton Grot’s set design and Peverell Marley’s cinematography helping a bit, and has a great dramatic score by Franz Waxman . But looks aren’t everything, and I can think of dozens of films starring Humphrey Bogart or Barbara Stanwyck I’d rather watch than this tedious, tired film. I bet you can, too.

That’s Blaxploitation! 12: COTTON COMES TO HARLEM (United Artists 1970)


I’m not really sure if COTTON COMES TO HARLEM qualifies as a Blaxploitation film. Most genre experts point to Melvin Van Peebles’ SWEET SWEETBACK’S BADASSSSS SONG and/or Gordon Parks’s SHAFT , both released in 1971, as the films that kicked off the Blaxploitation Era. Yet this movie contains many of the Blaxploitation tropes to follow, and is based on the works of African-American writer Chester Himes.

Hardboiled author Chester Himes

Himes (1909-1984) began his writing career while doing a prison stretch for armed robbery. After his short stories started being published in Esquire, he was paroled in 1936, and soon met poet Langston Hughes, who helped him get established in the literary world. Reportedly, Himes worked for a time as a screenwriter for Warner Brothers in the 40’s, but was let go when a racist Jack Warner declared he “don’t want no n*ggers on this lot” (1). His first  novel IF HE HOLLERS, LET HIM GO (1945) drew much praise from critics (and was later made into a 1968 film). After moving to France in the 1950’s, Himes began his Harlem Detective books, a series of hardboiled novels chronicling the adventures of New York detectives Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, whose violent methods make Mike Hammer look like a Boy Scout!

COTTON COMES TO HARLEM the film updates the novel to the 1970’s, as Gravedigger and Coffin Ed cover a Harlem rally by the Reverend Deke O’Malley, a charismatic Jesse Jackson type who’s spearheading a Back to Africa movement. Masked assassins attack and begin shooting, ripping off the 87 thousand in donations, and a comic chase ensues with a bale of cotton falling out the back of an escaping truck. The money’s gone, and so is O’Malley, who’s now Digger and Ed’s prime suspect. The bale is gone, too… seems a local junkman named Uncle Bud has picked it up and sold it for twenty-five bucks! The detectives, O’Malley, and some not-so-righteous Mafia dudes all want that bale, and the chaos begins in full…

Raymond St. Jacques plays the hardcore tough cop Coffin Ed, while comedian Godfrey Cambridge is his slightly more laid-back partner Gravedigger. They returned to the roles two years later with COME BACK CHARLESTON BLUE, a not nearly as successful sequel, due in large part to not having Ossie Davis on board. Davis directed and cowrote (with Arnold Perl) the screenplay for COTTON COMES TO HARLEM, and the actor/director/writer really nails it with his keen eye for mise en scene, dialog (and dialect), and handling his cast. Davis, a star on Broadway and television as well as films, knew what he wanted and how to capture it, and the movie, though maybe not truly within the Blaxploitation canon, was highly influential in the development of the genre’s style, from the location shooting on the mean streets of Harlem to the outrageously over-the-top bad guys to the funky R&B score written by Galt McDermott (of HAIR fame).

Calvin Lockhart shines as Rev. O’Malley, a con man out to bilk his own people. Other cast members include John Anderson, J.D. Cannon, Lou Jacobi , Judy Pace, Eugene Roche , and Theodore Wilson. Cleavon Little (BLAZING SADDLES ) makes his film debut as a junkie named Lo Boy. Also making his film debut is veteran comedian Redd Foxx as Uncle Bud, a precursor to his role as Fred Sanford on the hit TV show SANFORD & SON. Foxx had toiled for decades on the “chitlin circuit” as a “dirty” comic, and his Uncle Bud, who appropriately enough gets the film’s last laugh, got him some mainstream recognition. He was signed by Norman Lear to star in the new sitcom, and the rest is TV history.

While it may not quite hit all the ‘Blaxploitation’ buzzers, COTTON COMES TO HARLEM is an important movie in the genre’s evolution. It’s a gritty crime drama with a predominantly black cast directed by a black director, and broke down some barriers, paving the way for Melvin Van Peebles and Gordon Parks and the birth of what we now call Blaxploitation. Plus, it’s a damn good film that deserves rediscovery, and should be on your watch list.

(1) from “City of Quartz” by Mike Davies (2nd edition, Verso Books, 2006)

More ‘That’s Blaxploitation!’:

BLACK BELT JONES

BLACULA

FOXY BROWN

ABAR THE BLACK SUPERMAN

The CLEOPATRA JONES Saga

TOGETHER BROTHERS

TROUBLE MAN

SUPER FLY

THREE THE HARD WAY

HELL UP IN HARLEM

SLAUGHTER

SHAFT

 

 

Games People Play: Alfred Hitchcock’s DIAL M FOR MURDER (Warner Brothers 1954)

 

Alfred Hitchcock  wasn’t afraid to take chances. When the 3-D craze hit in the 1950’s, the innovative director jumped on the new technology to make DIAL M FOR MURDER, based on Frederick Knott’s hit play. The film is full of suspense, and contains many of The Master’s signature touches, but on the whole I consider it to be lesser Hitchcock… which is certainly better than most working in the genre, but still not up to par for Hitch.

Knott adapted his play for the screen, and keeps the tension mounting throughout. The story is set in London, and revolves around ex-tennis pro Tony Wendice, whose wife Margot is having an affair with American mystery writer Mark Halliday. Tony comes up with an elaborate plot to have her murdered by stealing a love letter Mark has written and blackmailing her, then setting up his old school acquaintance C.A. Swann, a man of dubious moral character, to carry out the killing. He plans things to a T, but you know what they say about the best laid plans of mice and men. A stopped watch and a botched strangling end with Margot plunging a pair of scissors into Swann’s back, so Tony must quickly come up with a Plan B, pointing the finger of guilt at Margot, who’s tried and sentenced to hang….

Hitchcock creates some interesting overhead shots to add depth to the 3-D process. Unfortunately, by the time DIAL M FOR MURDER was released, the process was going out of fashion, and the film was mostly released in standard 2-D. It also suffers from staginess, with most of the movie confined to the Wendice apartment. It plays more like an extended, color episode of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS rather than a Hitchcock thriller, and the director himself has stated he considered it a work-for-hire project. Still, this is Alfred Hitchcock we’re talking about, and even lesser Hitchcock is head and shoulders above what most directors could do with the material.

The cast is top shelf, with Ray Milland as the charming, coldly calculating Tony Wendice. Milland could (and did) play any role with style, and his smooth operator Wendice makes a chilling villain. Grace Kelly is ice blonde Margot in  her first of three Hitchcock films, and as always she’s a stunning presence. Robert Cummings, star of Hitchcock’s SABOTEUR , plays Mark, unaware that Wendice knows he’s involved with Margot. John Williams comes on the scene midway through the film as Inspector Hubbard, investigating the murder and coming up with an elaborate plan of his own to catch the killer. Anthony Dawson, who was the body double of Ernst Stavro Blofeld in two James Bond films , plays the sleazy Swann. Williams and Dawson both reprise their roles from the Broadway original, and as for Hitchcock’s traditional cameo… well, you’ll just have to keep your eyes peeled.

DIAL M FOR MURDER may not be Grade A Hitchcock, but the performances are all solid and the suspense held my interest until the end. Can ask for more than that, even if it is one of Hitch’s minor films… it’s better than none at all! I’d like to thank Maddy at MADDY LOVES HER CLASSIC FILMS for hosting her 2nd Annual Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon … follow the link for more movies by The Master of Suspense!