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!

 

Look At Me Look At You: Alfred Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW (Paramount 1954)

When you go out to the neighborhood cinema, you’re indulging in a voyeuristic experience, watching the lives of people unfold before you on the screen. The theme of viewer as voyeur, peeping in on the privacy of total strangers, has never been done better than in Alfred Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW, nor more entertainingly. Like James Stewart’s protagonist L.B. Jeffries, we the audience are the voyeurs in the shadows watching from afar, stumbling onto things not meant for our eyes, and powerless to stop them without outside assistance. Hitchcock is not only the Master of Suspense, but a master of audience manipulation, and this dazzling piece of moviemaking is not only a hell of a thrill ride but a technical marvel as well.

 

The world of globetrotting photojournalist Jeffries has been boiled down to the view of the courtyard outside his apartment window, just as the audience’s world is now focused on the screen. Jeffries, confined to a wheelchair with a broken leg, spends his days watching the lives of others unfold before him. The courtyard itself is a massively constructed replica on a Paramount sound stage complete with fully furnished, functional apartments costing somewhere between $75-100,000 dollars to build (reports vary). The lighting was rigged to simulate dusk to dawn, mimicking the real world outside the studio confines. It’s incredible to me that Hitchcock would pay so much attention to detail, yet most of the action (except a few brief scenes) is shot from Stewart’s apartment! That’s what separates a true artist from the multitudes.

Across that courtyard, Jeffries (and the audience through him) observes his neighbors, each becoming their own film-within-a-film. Hitchcock had dabbled in many genres before donning his “Master of Suspense’ mantle, and we are privy to the mini-tales of a frustrated songwriter (played by real-life songwriter Ross Bagdasarian, later to achieve fame as Dave Seville, mentor to Alvin and the Chipmunks!) trying to follow his own muse (this is where Hitch’s annual cameo comes into play), the delectable Miss Torso (Georgine Darcy) fending off the wolves while waiting for her serviceman lover to return home, a put-upon married couple ( Frank Cady aka Sam Drucker of GREEN ACRES  , and Sara Berner) and their cute little dog (who will play a part in the unmasking of the crime), a newlywed couple (Rand Harper, Havis Davenport) celebrating their honeymoon (her cries of “Harrrry” are a lot different from Allison Hayes’s bellowing in ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN !), an eccentric artist (Jesslyn Fax, perhaps standing in for Hitchcock himself?) and the sad tale of Miss Lonelyhearts (Judith Evelyn), an unmarried woman “of a certain age” who dines alone and cries herself to sleep.

Yet all this is superfluous to where Jeffries (and our) real focus is: the goings-on inside the apartment of salesman Lars Thorwald and his invalid wife. We watch as Thorwald draws the shades in the bedroom, then late at night takes trips to and from home, carrying his sample case, holding what we don’t know. When Thorwald is seen cleaning a butcher knife and a handsaw, and bundling a large trunk with rope, Jeffries (and us) can only come to one conclusion – murder most foul has been committed! Noir heavy Raymond Burr conveys a sense of menace as the bulky Thorwald even from afar, and the in-joke is the actor is made up to look like Hitchcock’s bete noire, producer David O. Selznick, whom Hitchcock clashed with during his time spent under contract. The penultimate scene, where Burr enters Stewart’s apartment with malice aforethought, is a masterpiece of utilizing sound and vision on film to their best advantage, and should be studied by aspiring filmmakers as much as PSYCHO’s vaunted shower scene.

There’s  another conflict going on during the film with Jeffries’ culture clash with his girlfriend, glamorous model Lisa Freemont, portrayed by Hitchcock’s ultimate “ice blonde” Grace Kelly. When Jeffries balks at the thought of marriage to her, I thought, “Are you crazy??”. Kelly (beautifully gowned by the great Edith Head) is a vision of loveliness, and the polar opposite of working class Stewart, and his character believes their different worlds will never allow them to successfully navigate the swift rapids of relationship bliss. It’s only when Lisa proves her mettle by doing some “amateur sleuthing” (a favorite Hitchcock motif), and places herself in great jeopardy that Jeffries finally realizes she’s the one for him. Stewart and Kelly engage in some titillatingly hot sexual banter, and their scenes together allow the audience to peep on the peeper, indulging Hitchcock’s (and our) voyeuristic streak and taking it to yet another level.

And what can one say about Thelma Ritter except “Bravo”! Her sarcastic role of Stella, the nurse attending to Jeffries, is a real hoot, and lets Hitchcock set his comedic side loose. Thelma gets off the best lines with her own inimitable style; my favorite is when Stewart asks what Thorwald could possibly be selling at three o’clock in the morning and she replies, “Flashlights”. It breaks the tension as Stewart’s character is becoming more and more convinced that Thorwald is up to no good. She also gets in the last word regarding the contents of a hat box found in Thorwald’s apartment, delivering it as only Thelma Ritter could. Wendell Corey, an actor I usually find too bland, does a good job as Jeffries’ police pal Tom Doyle, skeptical about the whole situation, and serving to plant the seeds of doubt in Jeffries’ (and the audience’s) mind.

Alfred Hitchcock is like a cat with a catnip-stuffed toy mouse here, pawing at his audience and batting it around the courtyard with glee. REAR WINDOW is a movie about murder, but it’s also about moviemaking, about the audience as voyeur, and about manipulating our collective emotions like the Master of Suspense he truly was, drawing us in to this constructed world and making it look and seem all too real. That the reality is only an illusion on a Paramount sound stage is a testament to the genius of Alfred Hitchcock, and REAR WINDOW is essential viewing for the voyeur in all of us.