Archive for September 23, 2009

Murder in Three Dimensions

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 23, 2009 by dcairns

dialm1Imagine the superimposed title popping out at us, but the “M” sunken into the background…

Hitchcock’s only 3D film… had the “gimmick” not died out, we could have had REAR WINDOW in three dimensions, which could REALLY have worked… VERTIGO in three dimensions, with that exponential zoom literally opening up before our eyes… PSYCHO in three dimensions: a dagger in your chest! A Janet Leigh in your lap!

But alas, DIAL M FOR MURDER is all we have, but nevertheless it may be the best 3D film of the era (IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE actually serves up a remarkable number of nice visual ideas using depth and height and space — Richard Carlson is increasingly isolated — but Hitch’s use is both restrained and typically quirky. Unfortunately, these stills and this clip are all I’ve actually seen in depth.

Yeah, I dunno why this is the two-screen version you have to go cross-eyed to watch (the third version that appears between the two when you cross your eyes will be 3D) but if you double click on it you’ll get a red and green anaglyph version.

Note how the odd low angles set up peculiar perspectives — this seems to be part of Hitch’s strategy to gradually explore this room from every angle. Plus the constant use of foreground objects to add an extra layer of depth and really embed those characters in Hitch’s dollhouse.

In the second part, we get a high angle on Grace Kelly, and then the magnificent glide around her, cutting her adrift in space and suggesting a predatory POV. As the assassin raises the scarf to strangle her, the depth effect helps us appreciate why he can’t strike when her arm is raised with the telephone receiver.

When Grace reaches for the scissors we can identify them more easily in 3D, and not only do we get the great extreme perspective of her hand reaching out at us, but the sensation that, as Shadowplayer Paul Duane pointed out, we could almost reach into the screen, pick them up and hand them to her.

(Incidentally, there are two sets of scissors. One has already been attached to the assassin’s back, to make it look as if he’s been stabbed. These are only revealed when he falls forward, but they’re already there. The other pair is real, picked up by Grace, who then mimes stabbing the guy, before quickly lowering her hand with the scissors still clutched in it. You can just catch a glimpse of them.)

The beginning. Running for cover after the disappointing reception of I CONFESS, Hitch rounded out his Warner Brothers contract by accepting an assignment to adapt a hit play (originally presented on TV). Following his most recent theory on the subject of theatrical adaptation, he starts with a flurry of opening-out (with horrible grainy process shots of London streets) and then dives into the drawing room and shoots the play, with only minimal changes. The art goes into casting and design and presentation. Why buy a sound dramatic structure and then mess with it?

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Happy couple Ray Milland and his wife Grace Kelly are introduced, followed swiftly by happy couple Grace Kelly and her lover Robert Cummings. I’m not sure I follow Grace’s taste in men, but I guess a successful mystery writer, even if he is Bob Cummings, might be more interesting than a retired tennis champ, even if he is Ray Milland.

Tennis makes its first appearance in EASY VIRTUE, and had recently turned up as a subplot of STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, making it the most Hitchcockian sport next to maybe ski-ing. Hitchcock biographer John Russell Taylor offers the amusing idea of Guy in STRANGERS marrying Ruth Roman and enjoying her wealth and status, then starting to feel insecure… slowly he morphs into Ray Milland…

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1950s photoshop!

Some swift and efficient exposition — in a highly artificial  theatrical structure like this, nearly everything is exposition, disguised or otherwise — and then Ray packs Grace and Bob off to a show so he can blackmail Anthony Dawson into offing his erring spouse. Edinburgh-born Dawson, a gaunt and haunted figure, is excellent as the vile Swann, even managing to generate little wisps of sympathy for the haggard blaggard.

Dawson’s low-key performance points to one reason the movie is often undervalued: apart from Grace Kelly, it doesn’t boast a lot of obvious star power. Ray Milland takes the role Cary Grant wanted, because Warners weren’t willing to cough up for his salary, and Milland is terrific but he doesn’t have the same star wattage. Dawson was never a well-known name, although his face crops up everywhere from DR NO to Polanski’s PIRATES. And Hitch favourite John Williams is again somebody who never hogged the limelight or rose to enormous prominence. And Bob Cummings is Bob Cummings — his wide-eyed heartiness is fine here, and helps us forget that his character is an adulterous swine as the story goes on, but he’s no Jimmy Stewart. Imagine Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart with Grace, and maybe James Mason in Dawson’s role and Charles Laughton in Williams, and you can redesign DIAL M as a big starry thing — but I don’t think you necessarily improve it much. These lesser lights all suits their roles perfectly, and shine in them.

With Kelly and Cummings playing love rats, we could actually sympathise with Milland a bit more than is comfortable, but the fact that he’s mainly plotting murder to ensure his financial security robs him of pathos, and his nasty scheme to blackmail another wretch into actually committing the ghastly deed is pretty low. Still, his glee in explaining how cunning he’s been turns a very long, expository scene into a pleasurable experience. Writers are always afraid of exposition, whereas Hitchcock knew fine well that all storytelling is exposition, whether it’s done in dialogue or via action. The trick is to make it GOOD exposition.

There’s one odd shot I love in this scene, when Milland talks about spotting Dawson by chance in a bar. We suddenly get a shot of Dawson’s elbow, and then the camera kind of wobbles up to his face. What it’s just done is re-enact Milland’s discovery of Dawson in that distant bar (rather as the camera re-enacts the first Mrs DeWinter’s death in REBECCA). A lovely, strange moment.

The appeal of a perfect murder scheme is always watching it go tits-up, of course. Grace announces her intention of going out to the movies, forcing Ray to act quite suspiciously to force her to stay in. He manages the hideously complicated business with the key with skill (surely he could just get another key cut for the killer? But that would ruin the third act) and then his watch stops, and he has trouble getting to the phone… (Ray’s scenes are the biggest addition to the play, with Hitch enjoying making us root for the baddie, amping up the suspense, and then having the plan misfire in a totally different way.)

I’m fascinated by the snatches of conversation we get from the club bore who’s droning on at the stag party (world’s worst stag party, I think we can agree).

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Hitch had a very precise colour scheme worked out which involved dressing Grace in a red robe for this scene (her white costuming was only to begin after she survives the murder attempt and goes from adulteress to innocent victim. But Grace wanted to wear the diaphanous nightie (the saucy trout!) and Hitch relented, making this the first really sexualized attack in Hitchcock, prefiguring all that nastiness in FRENZY. Dawson isn’t sexually motivated, but the slow build-up to the scene, the light shining through the gown, and the shot of the bare legs kicking, stress a queasy erotic undercurrent.

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Dawson’s death is pretty unpleasant — the scissors going in is bad enough, but then when he falls on them — ouch. I guess this gruesome detail also serves to make Grace not wholly responsible for his death. She just wounded him, the rest was bad luck. Of course, we don’t blame her for scissoring his spine anyway. I hope we’d all have the presence of mind to do that. And if we all did, he wouldn’t stand a chance. The place would be like a butcher’s window.

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Scheming Ray must now switch from a carefully thought-out scheme, months in preparation, to frantic improvisation, which he does with incredible skill, framing the victim for blackmail and his wife for murder. Hitch beautifully fast-forwards through the trial with what would normally be called a montage, except here it’s only a couple of shots. The shifting coloured backdrop makes for a stylized scene quite different from everything else in the movie, but somehow he gets away with it.

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If a thing is lovely, maybe it stands a good chance of being accepted for that reason alone.

Then we get the grand unmasking. Cummings suggesting that Milland fake a confession is a really nice idea — using his crime-writing prowess he’s come up with a fictional explanation for Grace’s innocence, not realising he’s hit on the truth. The rest of the climax, with detective John Williams (“Highly unorthodox — but my blood was up!”) getting Grace off death row so he can take her home and establish her innocence, is highly implausible, but you just go with it, I think, for the sake of Platonic unity.

Get all the main players back on the stage, and incriminate Ray with a variation on the “Why Mr Rusk, you’re not wearing your tie…” ending. And then Ray, a good sport, offers everyone a drink. Here it might have been nice to end the movie the way Dusan Makavajev ends MONTENEGRO: subtitles appear, word by word:

THE

DRINK

WAS

POISONED

But no, I think John Williams combing his moustache is equally good.

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