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 2 – Rear Window – A Classic Movie Review

Rear Window is not Hitchcock’s best film.  There are any number of things to complain about.  But it’s my favorite summer Hitchcock film.  It’s possible to actually feel the heat and humidity even if you’re watching it in New England February.  But watching it in July or August just after the sun goes down on a sweltering humid day is absolutely perfect.  The mid-century middle-class New York City apartment with all the adjoining backyards spread out in front of the panoramic rear windows of the protagonist Jimmy Stewart who sits in a wheelchair with his leg in a cast provides the correct claustrophobic and uncomfortably hot environment for an irritable murderer and the amateur sleuth stalking him.  Sweat drips off the actors and overheated residents try to beat the heat by sleeping on fire escapes or drinking cold drinks.  Even the torrential rain doesn’t “cool things off it just makes the heat wet.”

The set-up is Jimmy Stewart as L.B. ‘Jeff’ Jefferies, a famous magazine photographer who is convalescing with a broken leg that he earned by stepping in front of a racing car crash to get a great photo.  Thelma Ritter is Stella, the nurse sent by his insurance company to watch over him.  Grace Kelly is Jeff’s upper class, Upper East Side girlfriend Lisa Fremont who wants Jeff to settle down to a sedentary existence with her.  Jeff also has an old Air Force buddy, Police Detective Lt. Thomas J. Doyle (played by Wendell Corey) who comes in really handy once murder is suspected.  And finally there is the murder suspect and neighbor across the yard, Lars Thorwald  played with a minimum of spoken lines by Raymond Burr.

The movie resembles a stage play with well-defined scenes and breaks.  Each character is added to the mix in sequence and even the various parading neighbors are introduced and given their little scenes and acknowledgements.  There’s the newlywed couple, the married couple with the little dog who sleep on the fire escape, the dancer “Miss Torso,” “Miss Lonely Hearts,” the composer, and the slightly crazy old sculptress.  We even briefly meet Mrs. Thorwald early on in the show, but that doesn’t last.  She’s the alleged victim.

The two plot elements that get twisted into a knot are Lisa attempting to solve the riddle of tying down Jeff and Jeff trying to prove that Thorwald killed his wife.  In both of these endeavors Stella acts as a helper and Doyle seems to be a hindrance.  Whenever the amateurs try to coax the real detective to bust in on Thorwald and gather up the evidence that they are sure must be “knee deep,” he reminds them of a silly house rule known as “due process” and of the New York State penal code in all eleven volumes that a judge would throw at him if he attempted to get a search warrant based on Jeff’s suspicions and Lisa’ feminine intuition.

I won’t spoil the story because it’s worth watching but I’ll just comment that the story moves along in a pleasant fantasy of mid-century New York City life filled with urban stereotypes and tropes even while the main characters perform the Hitchcock detective pantomime.  It’s a lot of fun.  And the actors are a pleasure to watch and listen to.  I always especially enjoy Thelma Ritter’s quintessential working-class New York City accent and attitude.

Now for the down side.  Biggest problem with the movie is trying to pretend that Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly are close in age.  At one point, Jimmy Stewart takes off his shirt for an alcohol rubdown from his nurse and destroys any illusion that he is a young man, whereas Grace Kelly was a remarkably beautiful twenty-five-year-old at that time.  I guess if they’d owned up to it in the story it wouldn’t be so jarring but at one point, Stella actually calls him a young man and that just explodes the suspension of disbelief for me with a snide snort.  The other story element that jars for me is the subplot with Miss Lonely Hearts.  I won’t go into the details but the whole subplot is a little too affected for my taste.  And finally, there’s a song that becomes kind of the background theme for the romance aspect of the film and is finally played over the end of the last scene.  I think it’s terrible.  It’s so saccharine sweet that it almost turns my stomach when it plays us out.  But those are the only faults.  And they don’t amount to much compared to the fun that this movie provides.

See Rear Window the first time on a hot summer night.  That should be like some kind of multi-sense version of surround sound.  Highly recommended.