The Films of Alfred Hitchcock – Part 7 – Dial M for Murder – A Classic Movie Review

The same year (1954) Grace Kelly starred in Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” she appeared in another Hitchcock film “Dial M for Murder.”  This one is also a claustrophobic apartment centered drama.  This one takes place in London and Kelly is Margot Wendice unhappily married to Tony played by Ray Milland.  She has an American boyfriend Mark Halliday played by Robert Cummings.  Tony is aware of the affair and has a plan to eliminate his wife but keep her money.  He plans her murder to occur at their apartment while he is at a party with Mark thus providing himself with a strong alibi.  He blackmails an old acquaintance of his from college, Charles Swann, who is a small time criminal, to commit the murder for him.  He gives Swann the key to the apartment and designates a time when he will call his wife to lure her into the darkened living room where Swann can strangle her.

The machinations around the crime and the details of its failure make for the complexity of the second act.  While being strangled Margot manages to grab a pair of scissors and plunge them in Swann’s back.  After Swann expires, Tony recovers from the failure and without missing a beat tells Margot over the phone to wait until he gets home to call the police.

Tony manages to tamper with evidence and clue in the police to blackmail evidence that paints Swann’s death as Margot killing her blackmailer.  She is subsequently charged with murder, tried, convicted and sentenced to death.  The third act involves Chief Inspector Hubbard’s investigation of the facts of the crime and his clever trap for the real killer.

So, this sounds like a pretty standard British murder mystery story.  It is.  But the thing that elevates it is Ray Milland’s work.  He is extremely entertaining as the clever, manipulative and thoroughly affable Tony Wendice.  In every scene, except those with John Williams’ Inspector Hubbard character, Tony dominates the screen and the atmosphere.  He manipulates the other characters easily and expertly.  They don’t even realize after the fact that he’s been working against them.  Grace Kelly and Robert Cummings do a competent job of performing their parts.  John Williams does a slightly over the top portrayal of a senior British police detective with his Oxbridge accent and proper mustache brush.  But it is Ray Milland that makes this movie so much fun for me.  He is delightfully evil, a suave friendly devil.  And Hitchcock did his best to make the staging enhance the choreography of the crime and also the crucial finale that completes this filmed play.  And finally, once again I think Hitchcock’s English roots allows him to stage American actors as Brits but to still capture the essence of the British drawing room murder mystery.  And all this without even a butler to be framed for the crime.

Well done Sir Alfred.  I give this my highest rating for excellent entertainment value.

The Films of Alfred Hitchcock – Part 1 – A Classic Movie Review

American movies of the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s have been hyped by generations of film lovers to the point where if you only go by reputation you may be deceived about the quality and entertainment value of any particular movie.  But without a doubt there are a number of deservedly admired works.  From time to time I will give my decidedly biased and idiosyncratic opinion and remarks on the movies I’ve watched and try to pass along useful information for those who haven’t seen some of these films.

Last year when I was looking at horror movies I reviewed “Psycho.”  But I am a fan of Hitchcock in general and in the summer, I always indulge in a good cross section of his best.  So, I’ll make some general remarks followed by more specific comments about the various Hitchcock films I’m familiar with.

Hitchcock had a long career as a director that stretched from the silent film era all the way to the 1970s.  He started out in England and some of his earlier, lesser known films were excellent.  But what is noticeable in these earlier British films are the more primitive special effects and other technical aspects.  What isn’t primitive is the skill with which the plot and dialog are constructed.  The three best of these earlier British films from my point of view are “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” “The 39 Steps” and “The Lady Vanishes.”  All three of these are spy stories and are colored by the tense political environment in pre-World War II Europe.  The Man Who Knew Too Much was later remade by Hitchcock in Hollywood starring Jimmy Stuart and Doris Day but I much prefer the original.  In general, they involve civilians getting caught up in espionage and fighting for their lives while the world around them is completely unaware of their plight.

As the ‘30s ended Hitchcock moved to Hollywood.  His first big picture was “Rebecca” starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine.  It’s sort of a mystery-suspense story with the feel of one of those Bronte sister novels.  It won the Best Picture Oscar and several others but I’ve always hated the movie.  I guess it’s a chick flick and bores me to tears.  But during the ‘40s he had a string of excellent movies.  My favorites are “Shadow of a Doubt,” “Lifeboat,” “Notorious” and “Rope.”  Now, other than Notorious, which is indeed a masterpiece, all of these other movies, especially Rope have their quirks.  Rope is a claustrophobic story adapted from a stage play that takes place completely inside a Manhattan penthouse apartment and is a sort of a fictionalized version of the Leopold and Loeb thrill killings murder story.  To say it is creepy is an understatement.  And equally claustrophobic is Lifeboat which takes place, you guessed it, completely on a ship’s lifeboat.  Hitchcock loves to put his characters together in close quarters and irritate them.  Sort of like a little boy with a bottle full of bugs.  I guess that’s his special gift.

During the ‘50s Hitchcock continued to produce critically and financially successful films.  I like “Strangers on a Train,” “Dial M for Murder,” “Rear Window” and “North by Northwest.”  Each of these is an entertaining movie but Strangers on a Train is the most original.  Hitchcock really loves strange and this one delivers that in spades.

In the ‘60s the only two Hitchcock movies I can recommend are “Psycho” and “The Birds.”  Psycho is rightly famous for launching the whole “Slasher” genre but more than that it blazed a trail for every movie that explored the psychology of murderers.  And think of how large that field is at this point.  Hannibal Lector and every other serial killer showcased in the movies, and on television are the direct descendants of Norman Bates.  The Birds is a horror story based on a sort of environmental backlash where birds turn on the human race.  It is weird and sometimes compelling but by the end of the movie I felt that Tippi Hedron’s character deserved all the grief she got just because of how annoying she was.

So that’s my Hitchcock list.  I’ll dig into the list in the follow ups and rate the movies and describe what makes them worth watching.