Archive for Dial "M" For Murder

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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Intertitle of 3D Week: The Ninth Day

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on September 20, 2009 by dcairns

Welcome to the Third Dimension!

2_frenchlineThank you, Miss Russell, for that technical demonstration.

(I’ve never seen THE FRENCH LINE, and so I mainly know of it because I’ve heard Jane Russell complain that the studio wanted her to wear a bikini, and she refused such a scandalous wardrobe, opting instead for a showgirl costume that revealed exactly as much skin and looked far kinkier, but was technically a one-piece.)

I haven’t done any themed weeks this year on Shadowplay (Shadowplay Year One Featured Losey Week, Preminger Week, Borzage Week — look ’em up!) because they tend to collide with Hitchcock Year and sometimes with The Forgotten, but since DIAL M FOR MURDER lands on this Wednesday, and 3D is a broad (and deep) enough church to contain many different items of interest, a week spent perambulating in three-dimensional space seemed like a good way to stretch the legs, and enables me to call Shadowplay The World’s First Three-Dimensional Blog with only a moderate degree of dishonesty.

But where will I find a 3D intertitle?

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This is from DIAL M FOR MURDER, but alas I don’t have it in 3D. It exists due to a technical quirk of the process. Normally movies in the 50s could be projected on two gigantic reels, each on its own projector, with the projectionist effecting an almost-seamless changeover midway, if you were lucky. But 3D required the use of two projectors at once, so even though DIAL M was film of absolutely average length, a short intermission was required for the real change.

So far, so uninteresting. I guess the difficulties of projection, coupled with the cumbersome equipment (although Andre De Toth found it no bother, and much easier to deal with than Technicolor) played a role in the medium’s near-extinction. As Hitchcock said, “3D was a nine days’ wonder, and I arrived on the ninth day.”

Now 3D appears to be back, with a backlog of movies waiting to get into the few screens that can handle the gimmick — this is much bigger than the occasional flurries of 3D action that have broken out since the 50s. It’s been pointed out that the third dimension is unlikely to become ubiquitous, since why would audiences want to see a regular rom-com in 3D (well, maybe if the people were attractive enough?) — but I would observe that colour, for years, was reserved for certain genres where it was felt to add something, and plenty of big pictures would be made in black and white. There was a belief, perfectly reasonable, that thrillers and horror movies often worked better in b&w. I think that if it weren’t for the extra ticket cost and the inconvenience of the 3D glasses, 3D might take off the way colour eventually did, and become an aesthetic tyranny. So maybe we should be grateful to those specs — they stand between us and the realist dystopia Erich Von Stroheim espoused: “The cinema of the future will be in colour and three dimensions, since life is in colour and three dimensions.”

frenchlinemWhat life is like.

Film Club: End of the Line

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 9, 2009 by dcairns

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So, Film Club ends its weekly tyranny of our schedules and goes monthly after this…

A psychopath proposes an exchange of murders with a tennis champ he meets by chance on a train. In exchange for strangling the tennis player’s wife, the psycho wants his father done away with…

Picked up a copy of Raymond Chandler Speaking at a library sale. Here he is on STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, a note intended either for Hitchcock or himself ~

“I nearly went crazy myself  trying to block out this scene. I hate to say how many times I did it. It’s darn near impossible to write, because consider what you have to put over:

(1) A perfectly decent young man agrees to murder a man he doesn’t know, has never seen, in order to keep a maniac from giving himself away and from tormenting the nice young man.

(2) From a character point of view, the audience will not believe the nice young man is going to kill anybody, nor has any idea of killing anybody.

(3) Nevertheless, the nice young man has to convince Bruno and a reasonable percentage of the audience that what he is about to do is logical and inevitable. This conviction may not outlast the scene, but it has to be there, or else what the hell are the boys talking about.

(4) While convincing Bruno of all this, he has yet to fail to convince him so utterly so that some suspicion remains in Bruno’s mind that Guy intends some kind of trick, rather than to go through with it in a literal sense.

(5) All through this scene (supposing it can be written this way) we are flirting with the ludicrous. If it is not written and played exactly right, it will be absurd. The reason for this is that the situation actually is ludicrous in its essence, and this can only be overcome by developing a sort of superficial menace, which really has nothing to do with the business in hand.

(6) Or am I still crazy?”

Remarkable, reading Chandler’s  cogently argued deconstruction of the inherent implausibility of the scene, that in the finished film it plays out so smoothly that you can’t imagine it was even difficult.

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After the titles, the opening montage cross-cutting two pairs of feet on a collision course. I’d misremembered this as a title sequence, and I suspect a few years later that’s how they’d have done it. Music by Dimitri Tiomkin — Bernard Herrmann could have done wonders with this one, but then again, nearly all the great moments are accompanied by that scarifying wurlitzer version of The Band Played On, so there wouldn’t have been much for him to do. Amazing how often Hitch does weave the music into the plotline — it’s almost a constant technique.

Farley Granger as the nice young man — perhaps too nice? The more violent Guy feels towards his estranged wife, the better the story works. But I never had any real problem with Farley in the role (this movie is difficult to see, in  a way — what I see is myself as a kid watching it for the first time). Robert Walker is truly impressive. The camp mannerisms are just the right side of overdone, and balanced by the surprising physical strength, and weird flights of fancy to create a believable and unpredictable psychopath. Like Joseph Cotten in SHADOW OF A DOUBT, it’s clinically quite a shrewd portrayal, matching what we know of such types, but the two characters are nevertheless entirely distinct people. While Uncle Charlie occupied his mind with philosophy, charting his separation from and superiority over the world he moved through, Bruno Anthony’s restless brain flits from one crazy scheme to another. It’s not clear how many of them are japes and how many he entertains seriously: he seems to enjoy springing them on the unwary, just to get a reaction.

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Hitching a ride.

As with ROPE, an idea which seems like a gag is taken too seriously by one party… in fact, ROPE, STRANGERS and DIAL M FOR MURDER form a sort of informal Perfect Murder Trilogy. Lots of Hitchcock films feature careful killers, but these three films hinge upon murder schemes that aim for artistry, and which must be explained to an appreciative audience. Brandon in ROPE has his accomplice, and also seems to hope that Jimmy Stewart’s going to catch on to the plot and come to respect its fiendish brilliance; Bruno needs a partner who shares his enthusiasm for the idea of swapping murders (which is where his plan miscarries); and Ray Milland will need to enlist a patsy to do his killing for him, which allows him to enjoy explaining just how clever he is.

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The movie is a noir symphony of lampshades. Cinematographers take note — the solution is to have lots of lamps, with fairly opaque shades, so not too much light gets through.

The first act of STRANGERS plays out entirely in a criss-cross pattern, intercutting Guy and Bruno’s storylines, barely introducing Ruth Roman as Guy’s romantic interest, and leaving her family for later. To put over the jumps from character to character, Hitch has fun linking scenes with audio-visual connections, as when Bruno finishes his first encounter with Guy by murmuring “Criss-cross…” and Hitch cuts to the Metcalf station, the big X of a crossing sign in the centre of frame. Later, he’ll cut from Bruno”s watch, after the killing, to Guy looking at his own watch, fixing the time of the murder and Guy’s potential alibi.

(In counterpoint to this back-and-forth rhythm, Hitch favours long takes in the early scenes, playing a number of them in single sequence shots, which raises no ROPE-style difficulties since he doesn’t make a fetish of it. But there are some beautiful long takes here, marvelously played by Granger in particular, who of course has had practice.)

In fact, Bruno’s plan goes wrong from the start, when Guy can’t establish his whereabouts beyond a doubt. But it’s not a fatal flaw, since the authorities can’t place Guy at the crime scene. This makes the whole story possible. It’s quite ingeniously worked out, although Chandler complained that the story was inane.

“The question I should really like to have answered, although I don’t expect an answer to it in this lifetime, is why in the course of nailing the frame of a film together so much energy and thought are invariably expended, and have to be expended, in exactly this sort of contest between a superficial reasonableness and a fundamental idiocy. Why do film stories always have to have this element of the grotesque? Whose fault is it? Is it anybody’s fault? Or is it something inseparable from the making of motion pictures? Is it the price you pay for making a dream look as if it really happened? I think possibly it is.”

I think possibly it is in the case of Hitchcock…

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Bruno’s murder of Guy’s wife (the viciously effective Kasey Rogers) is one of the more DePalmaesque sequences in Hitchcock, depending on a seedy conjunction of sexuality and violence, and upon an exploitation of the audience’s baser instincts. We’ve been led to dislike Rogers. Bruno is a fun character. And his stalking of his prey is mistaken by his prey for sexual interest. Hitch spoke often about how, in a suspense sequence, the filmmaker should not have the terrible, threatened thing, actually happen, yet here it does. The implication is that it’s not so terrible. Only Guy and Leo G Carroll, the boring moral voice character, think it is. And Guy is pretty conflicted/compromised.

Of course, Hitchcock is always morally aware, and so even the bravura, baroque reflected murder shot is played with an eye to discretion and a kind of restraint. And the aftermath is a slow come-down, designed to slowly calm the audience from their murder-lust and start them thinking about the consequences of Bruno’s indefensible act.

Czenzi Ormonde, a Ben Hecht assistant, tidied the script up when Chandler departed the project, leaving a bit of a mess behind him, and reports seeing first-hand Hitchcock’s fear of the police. And, like STAGE FRIGHT before it and I CONFESS after, much of the action here is based on an apparently innocent character’s persecution by the authorities. Here, as in the early spy movies, the hero is in fact caught between the police and the real villains, leading to those superbly dreamlike shots: the zoom onto Bruno in the stands at a tennis match, staring fixedly at Guy as everybody else swivels their heads left and right to follow the ball; the little figure standing on the steps of the Capitol Building, who somehow we KNOW is Bruno.

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Maybe my favourite Monument Moment in all Hitchcock.

Pat Hitchcock! Her finest hour, maybe? “He spent six hours trapped in the meat locker with the left leg.” Sharing with dad a fondness for the macabre, Pat’s character is a delicious piece of comic relief, while adding value as a trigger for Bruno’s psychotic breakdowns. The track into ECU on her face, with wurlitzer music fading up and superimposed reflections of a lit cigarette lighter reflected in her glasses is the most outrageous moment in the film.

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Daffy old ladies! There are so many of them in this film — why? Bruno’s mom is deeply pleasurable, of course, but there’s also the lady who effects his introduction to Guy’s party at the tennis pavilion, and Mrs Cunningham, the lady he throttles at the drinks soiree, and the woman in the commandeered car at the end — “How exciting!” This movie is like the Revenge of the Old Dears.

By the way, has anybody seen THROW MOMMA FROM THE TRAIN? This is one of many Hitchcocks to throw up not a straight remake but a kind of echo. I have seen THE DESIGNATED VICTIM, with Pierre Clementi even more flamboyant than Robert Walker in the bad guy role. This Venice-set giallo follows the Highsmith plot all too closely, although it has a humdinger of a plot twist stored up for its ending.

Hitchcock, I surmise, has just seen THE THIRD MAN, because his canted angles, not heavily featured elsewhere in his oeuvre, suddenly come to the fore, and are often associated with doorways — like the one Harry Lime stands in in Carol Reed’s 1949 classic. Dutch tilts continue to feature in I CONFESS, also shot by Robert Burks, whom Hitchcock discovered on this film, and with whom he continued to work until Burks’ untimely death in a fire. The cameraman helps make STRANGERS Hitch’s most noirish film — his b&w work is every bit as beautiful as his later lush Technicolor films for Hitch.

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Now we approach the scene that gave Chandler conniptions. In fact, the problem is solved partly by having Guy and Bruno communicate by letters and a phone call. He hangs up before we can question whether Bruno is convinced or not. Since Guy brings his gun along, the expectation that he may be going to kill Bruno’s father, as planned, is planted. The fact that he’s been so reluctant in the past is enough to make Bruno suspicious. The extraneous element of menace is provided by the Anthony family dog: we find ourselves worrying that Guy will not be able to kill Bruno’s dad. The thing works.

Having incurred Bruno’s wrath by trying to warn the designated victim, Guy sets in motion the events of act 3 (from Bruno’s point of view, it’s Guy who causes everything in the story to happen) where Bruno will try to plant incriminating evidence at the crime scene. Guy must finish his tennis match in record time (perhaps it would have been easier for him to deliberately lose, but that would be dishonest), escape the police, and physically stop the incredibly strong psychopath from leaving his cigarette lighter on Lovers’ Island. A very good set of seemingly impossible problems.

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(Meanwhile — as if that weren’t enough — Hitch throws in the gratuitous / absurd / delightful / wicked suspense sequence where Bruno drops the lighter down a drain and must retrieve it by extending his arm, Mr. Fantastic-style, through the narrow grille and into the bowels of the earth. And we’re shocked to find ourselves rooting for the bastard.)

Hitchcock’s deft touch allows us to know part of Guy’s plan but not all of it, so there’s a perfect balance between surprise and clarity. Pat pulls off her part of the plot with aplomb, lunging for Detective Hennessy’s crotch like a bull at a gate, and Guy is OFF — already incriminating himself by running from the cops. We suspect that his plan doesn’t really extend as far as dealing with Bruno, and every step he takes is adding to the authorities’ suspicions, so it’s an excellent set-up for a climax which, when Hitch started shooting, did not exist.

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In some ways, using the merry-go-round for an action climax is an act of desperation, since the whole thing smacks of that element of the grotesque Chandler complained about. Having Hennessy’s partner shoot the carny in charge is a bit cold-blooded, and anyhow, is this ride fitted with an engine from Lockheed? Do fairground hurdy-gurdies really have the ability to accelerate to 90 mph? I’d like to think so, but I suspect the true answer is “Don’t be silly.”

But the sequence is justifiable on every level other than plausibility. The fairground is a key location already established and the return there is central to the plot. The wurlitzer has played during the first murder, and has been fixed in both Bruno’s and the audience’s minds. And the very public nature of Guy and Bruno’s death-brawl signals the moment when the secrets are dragged from the closet and the truth is outed, so to speak.

Surprising that Hitch jeopardizes all these kids and then never really reassures us that they’re all OK. It seems unlikely that Bruno is the only one hurt. I recall as a kid that the extra I was really worried about was the old Manny Farber lookalike who crawls under the spinning attraction to pull the off lever. I wasn’t alone — Hitchcock himself was in an agony of suspense filming the dangerous stunt.

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The single action of Bruno’s hand opening in death to reveal the lighter is maybe the single neatest narrative wrap-up in Hitchcock’s career, considering the number of things it accomplishes all at once. To return to Chandler’s numerical system, it

(1) Shows Bruno’s death.

(2) Clears Guy.

(3) Forces into the open the secret true story.

(4) By extension, frees Guy to marry.

The inscription “From A to G,” originally meaning “From Anne to Guy”, now stands for “From (Bruno) Anthony to Guy,” as he gets it back (except the police  need it for evidence — well, after all this fuss, we kind of hate that lighter, I bet Guy never wants to see it again).

Isn’t Guy still an accessory after the fact? Aren’t they going to hold him partly to blame for the destruction of a funfair? Is Hennessy’s partner, kicked out of the force for shooting an innocent carny (if such a phrase isn’t a contradiction in terms), going to come gunning after Guy? Find out in STRANGERS ON A TRAIN II: MONORAIL OF MADNESS!