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!

 

Sweet Land of Liberty: Alfred Hitchcock’s SABOTEUR (Universal 1942)

The Master of Suspense puts the pedal to the metal once again in SABOTEUR, another “double chase” spy thriller that doesn’t get the attention some of Alfred Hitchcock’s other films do, but should. I’ve always enjoyed the performance of Robert Cummings as the “ordinary man caught in an extraordinary situation”; his naturally laid-back, easygoing charm makes him perfect playing Barry Kane, accused of sabotaging a wartime aircraft plant and killing his best friend in the process, who winds up on a cross-country chase alongside reluctant heroine Priscilla Lane . SABOTEUR is certainly an  important film in Hitchcock’s body of work for one very important reason: it’s the director’s first film for Universal Pictures, a studio he’d have a long and profitable association with, and where he’d later create some of his finest movies.

SABOTEUR is in many respects a loose remake of Hitchcock’s THE 39 STEPS , transplanted to America and updated to reflect the (then) current global conflict. Like the previous film, the protagonist is hunted by both the police and a dirty gang of Fifth Columnist spies. The heroine is suspicious of him, thinking the worst, but eventually coming around to believe his story. The spies, led by suave Otto Kruger , are all wealthy, urbane types. There’s an isolated cabin in the woods echoing the Scottish farm Robert Donat hides out in, but the gender roles of it’s occupants are reversed. Here, blind Uncle Phillip (Vaughn Glaser) is sympathetic to Kane’s plight, while niece Patricia (Lane) wants to turn him over to the authorities. Kane makes his escape from the law by jumping off a high bridge into the river below, and the scene in a movie theater, with the real saboteur (Norman Lloyd, who also serves as the movie’s McGuffin) causing a panic, is equivalent to the scene in the music hall featuring the unforgettable Mr. Memory (sorry, couldn’t resist the pun!).

Despite these similarities, SABOTEUR stands on its own as a damn good thriller. My favorite scene has Cummings, with Lane forced to accompany him on the lam, hopping on the last truck in a circus caravan. The truck is occupied by a group of sideshow freaks: The Human Skeleton (Pedro de Cordoba), The Fat Lady (Marie LeDeaux), The Bearded Lady (Anita Bolster), a belligerent midget (Billy Curtis ), and a pair of Siamese twins (Jean Romer, Laura Mason). Seeing the shackles still on Cummings’ wrists, with Lane patiently by his side, they debate whether or not to turn him in when the cops pull the caravan over. The midget says yes, the twins are split, and the fat lady sits on both sides of the issue. The Bearded Lady and the Skeleton Man have the deciding votes, and elect to help Cummings hide from the law. The scene is both funny and poignant, as these outcasts of society show compassion toward their fellow humans, and one of my favorites in the Hitchcock canon.

The freaks stand in sharp contrast to the Fifth Columnists, men and women of wealth and stature who wish to do harm to their country for the cause of totalitarianism. Kruger is all Cheshire Cat smiles as Charles Tobin, leader of this rat’s nest. Norman Lloyd’s Frank Fry was the first of a long association between the actor and Hitchcock; he appeared in SPELLBOUND, then served as a producer (184 episodes), director (22), and actor (6) on the Master of Suspense’s long-running TV anthology series. I’m happy to report Norman Lloyd is alive and well as of this writing at the ripe old age of 102! (My favorite Lloyd role was his Dr. Auschlander on the series ST. ELSEWHERE from 1982-88). Alan Baxter , Alma Kruger, Clem Bevans, and Ian Wolfe are among the co-conspirators on the wrong side of history.

The most famous (and probably most discussed) scene in SABOTEUR is undoubtably the Statue of Liberty scene  where Fry, after his escape from the movie theater, hops the ferry to Liberty Island. He’s unknowingly followed by Patricia, who tries to stall him until Kane and the authorities arrive. Fry heads to the viewing platform, pursued by Kane, and they engage in a struggle that finds Fry hanging on for dear life. Kane has him by the sleeve as the cops make their way to the top, but the sleeve rips, hurtling Fry to his doom. Jack Otterson’s art department created a striking replica of Lady Liberty, and actual footage filmed in New York was rear projected and made to look eerily real by Universal’s resident special effects wiz John P. Fulton . The scene is tense, taut, and typically Hitchcockian!

The screenplay by Peter Viertel, Joan Harrison, and Dorothy Parker is humorous and exciting, with plenty of patriotic fervor reflecting the wartime atmosphere. Cummings and Lane, though not Hitchcock’s first choices, make a fine romantic duo, and Kruger has never been slimier as the main villain. And yes, Hitchcock has his traditional cameo in the film; I’m just not going to tell you where or when. For that, you’ll have to watch SABOTEUR for yourselves, and I can guarantee you won’t be disappointed!

Rockin’ in the Film World #3: BEACH PARTY (AIP 1963)

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Finally! The weather here in New England has begun to break, and we’re heading into summer. I even managed to get some beach time in today. TCM beat me to the punch when they aired BEACH PARTY as part of their month-long salute to American International Pictures, a blast from the past filled with sand, surf, teenage sex, and plenty of good ol’ rock’n’roll! BEACH PARTY spawned a series of films and a whole slew of imitators , but AIP did ’em first and best.

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Teen idol Frankie Avalon and ex-Mouseketeer Annette Funicello starred in most of the AIP’s, using the same plot over and over. Frankie wants sex, but Annette wants to wait for marriage. They fight, and try to make each other jealous by dating someone new, but wind up together by film’s end. Simple, and rehashed using gimmicks like bodybuilding, drag racing, sky diving, and skiing to make things seem fresh. Even the old “haunted house” chestnut got used in the series’ last entry, GHOST IN THE INVISIBLE BIKINI (with Tommy Kirk and Deborah Walley replacing Frankie & Annette).

Here, the beach antics involve Frankie & Annette on school vacation, where horny Frank plans to spend quality time alone with her. But not so fast: Annette’s invited the whole gang to join them at their rented beach house. Frankie is pissed, and gets with Hungarian hottie Ava (Eva Six, Miss Golden Globes of 1963), a waitress at the gang’s hang-out, Cappy’s (played by Morey Amsterdam). Cappy’s an overage beatnik who harbors Big Daddy, a mysterious beachfront guru from whom everyone’s waiting to hear “the word”.

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Bearded anthropologist Dr. R.O. Sutwell (Robert Cummings) is on the beach doing research, studying the mating habits of teens. He compares them to Aborigine tribal customs, with their slang talk and wild watusi-ing.  Sutwell’s accompanied by assistant Marianne (Dorothy Malone, Oscar winner for WRITTEN ON THE WIND), who pines for the uptight, clueless professor. Annette uses the older man (who the kids mockingly call “pig-bristles”) to get back at Frankie’s philandering with Ava.

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Enter Eric Von Zipper and his Rats. Arguably the most popular character in the entire series, he’s played by Harvey Lembeck, memorable in Billy Wilder’s STALAG 17 and as costar of Phil Silver’s SGT. BILKO show. Von Zipper’s clearly patterned after Marlon Brando in THE WILD ONE, but this bumbling biker’s dumb as a bag of rocks. With his catchphrase “You stupids!” and exaggerated Brooklyn accent, Lembeck steals the film with his comic zaniness. The best part is when he confronts Sutwell, who gives him the ancient “Himalayan finger”, causing its victims to revert to a state of suspended animation.

Also appearing in the cast and subsequent “beach party” flicks is pushing-30 John Ashley, who was in AIP’s 50’s epics HOT ROD GIRL and MOTORCYCLE GANG, and went on to star Eddie Romero’s Filipino “Blood” trilogy, and later produced TV hit THE A-TEAM. Candy Johnson was the girl in the fringe whose wild shimmying literally knocked the boys off their feet. Jody McCrea, son of Western star Joel, makes his debut appearance as Deadhead, the loveable goofball of the gang (later changed to Bonehead for some strange reason). Andy Romano and Alberta Nelson are the most recognizable Rats, while Meredith McRae, Valora Noland, and Gary Usher represent the surfers. And cult star Yvette Vickers (ATTACK OF THE 50-FOOT WOMAN, THE GIANT LEECHES) has an uncredited bit as one of Cappy’s yoga girls.

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Plenty of music is provided by surf guitar legend Dick Dale and his Del Tones, who perform “Swing’ and Surfin'” and “Secret Surfin’ Spot”. Frankie rocks out to the twist number “Don’t Stop Now”, while Annette sweetly sings “Treat Him Nicely”, and the duo duets on the theme song “Beach Party Tonight”. All these hijinks are ably handled by veteran director William Asher, who directed the bulk of TV’s I LOVE LUCY episodes, and produced and directed the series BEWITCHED for his wife Elizabeth Montgomery. Asher’s flair for comedy is highlighted by  wild brawl that turns into a pie fight at the conclusion.

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Oh, and Big Daddy is finally revealed to be none other than our old friend, Vincent Price, who gives us “the word”: “The Pit… bring me my pendulum, kiddies, I feel like swingin'”. Yep, it’s a plug for Vinnie’s upcoming Edgar Allan Poe flick THE HAUNTED PALACE. AIP may not have been known for highbrow product, but they sure knew how to cross-promote!

Take it away, Candy!!!: