The case for “Dial M for Murder”

November 7, 2007

It’s no secret that Alfred Hitchcock is the master of suspense. And really, anyone who can make a flock of birds, a shower, and even a bouquet of flowers absolutely terrifying, for many, many years, is clearly not someone to be trifled with. Of course, what Hitchcock is most known for is his complex, often dizzying, psychological thrills of horror (or at least some sort of terror), such as Psycho, Rear Window, or Vertigo – plus North by Northwest, certainly dizzying in its own right but not really “scary,” although it’s possible that some people may have nightmares about being chased in endless corn fields, I can’t really say.

Nevertheless, sometimes his other films get left behind, Dial M for Murder among them. Certainly a famous title, and yes, it was remade as (the critically disliked: 55% on Rotten Tomatoes – ouch!) A Perfect Murder in 1998, but not often listed among his true classics. In fact, upon its release, Variety said in a review that:

Dial M remains more of a filmed play [the movie is based on a stage play by Frederick Knott] than a motion picture, unfortunately revealed as a conversation piece about murder which talks up much more suspense than it actually delivers… There are a number of basic weaknesses in the setup that keep the picture from being a good suspense show for any but the most gullible.

If that is the case, then, well, I’m not afraid to admit that I do in fact believe that gullible isn’t in the dictionary, finding the film made up more of the “elegant coils of murder drama,” as the New York Times said in its 1954 review, than drooping waves of lackluster suspense.

In fact, in today’s Lost age of hyper-convoluted stories, and seriously overwhelming numbers of characters and plot lines (Wait, what happened in Syriana again? And I really have no idea what happened in The Number 23 – see Cracked’s article), it’s soothing, in a Zen sort of way, to watch a well-acted, well-thought out, basically bloodless, complicated but not labyrinthine, and just plain enjoyable movie of edge-of-your-seat suspense. Think Law and Order: Criminal Intent via Sherlock Holmes and Murder on the Orient Express, but with less detective and more murderer.

Taking place for the most part in just one apartment (it was based on a play after all), the film tells the story of, as I say in the Hitchcock cheat sheet:

[…an] ex-tennis player Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) and his extremely carefully planned plot to kill his wife, wealthy Margot Wendice (Grace Kelly), for her money and because of an old (now ended) affair with Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings). Of course, the best laid plans of mice and men…

And to be completely honest, I literally was on the edge of my seat during much of its hour and 45 minute run. My friends even started bouncing up and down in their chairs (whether or not they would admit it later on) in the excruciatingly anticipatory climax – where all the different moments and setups lock thrillingly into place. Like Ocean’s Eleven and The Sting, it has the very satisfying adrenaline rush from plans gone very well (and very awry). True, it’s not Ocean’s Eleven in the sense that there’s no glitz and glamor here (apart from Grace Kelly, of course, who brings, well, grace with her wherever she goes), no Las Vegas lights, and it’s all talk and not much dramatic action. But, as anyone can tell you who’s heard Verbal Kint speak, talk can be a powerful and riveting tool in the story of a criminal.

So if you like elegant murder mysteries with evolving dénouements, then get some popcorn now and watch one of Hitchcock’s best, without having to turn on all the lights.

As Hitchcock once famously said, “As you have seen on the screen, the best way to do it is with a scissor.”

(Trust me, that’ll be meaningful once you watch the film.)

Click here to go to CNN’s nice little “Celebration of Alfred Hitchcock” article. And here to go to the Alfred Hitchcock cheat sheet, which covers all of his classics.

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Alfred Hitchcock cheat sheet

September 25, 2007

Sure, you know he’s famous, and you know his name is associated with some movie involving a shower, a knife and a crazy guy in a motel, but what else do you really know about Alfred Hitchcock and his movies?

And so Buttercups and Ravenwood presents… Alfred Hitchcock.

Alfred Hitchcock Presents

Bitty bio: Actually born before the turn of the century (1899), Alfred Hitchcock truly witnessed the entire evolution of cinema – from silent films, to talking black and white, to color. The British son of a Roman Catholic greengrocer, he first entered the film industry through art design and directed his first complete film in 1925, the commercial flop, The Pleasure Garden. He then went on to direct (and produce) more than 60 feature films. He also appeared in uncredited roles in many of his own films and ran a successful television show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents / The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (remember that silhouette?), for a decade.

As a classic director, he naturally never won an Academy Award for Best Director, although his film Rebecca did win the Oscar for Best Picture (he did not produce that film and thus, did not get the Oscar for it). He did, however, get that popular consolation prize, the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, from the Academy for his efforts in 1968. He died in 1980. And by the way, that’s Sir Alfred Hitchcock to you.

Here (what I believe anyway) are his most classic and/or famous films, in chronological order:

For those who want to keep the ending a mystery…

The Man Who Knew Too Much – And you thought the title of that Bill Murray film was just a clever invention. This 1934 film (remade in 1956 by Hitchcock himself and with Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day starring) concerns a vacationing couple (Bob and Jill) who are passed valuable information about an assassination plot from a dying spy. To prevent the couple from revealing what they know about the plot, the people behind it kidnap the couple’s daughter, Betty. The movie follows the couple’s attempts to get her back.

The 39 Steps – Based on a novel by John Buchanan, this is a classic tale from 1935 of espionage and an innocent man on the run from the law (no, not “The Fugitive”). It involves a Canadian man (Richard Hannay, played by Robert Donat), essentially an innocent bystander, who is swept up in a world of spies and assassins after witnessing a fight at a London theater. He is accused of killing Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim), a spy who was murdered while she was in his apartment, but not before she told him of an organisation called “The 39 Steps” that was out to get her.

Rebecca – Starring Laurence Olivier as Maxim de Winter and Joan Fontaine as the new Mrs. de Winter, this 1940 adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s gothic novel tells the story of a young woman who meets and soon marries the rich Maxim de Winter only to find his house haunted (figuratively but perhaps also literally) by the spirit of his late wife, Rebecca. The housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, in particular, loved Rebecca and does everything in her power to make Mrs. de Winter feel unwanted and, essentially, to drive her mad. As noted above, it won Best Picture (and Best Cinematography).

Shadow of a Doubt – Supposedly Hitchcock’s own favorite, this film noir from 1943 concerns Charlie Newton (short for Charlotte), played by Teresa Wright, who receives a visit from her favorite Uncle, Charlie Oakley (short for Charles), played by Joseph Cotton. After a detective reveals that her uncle is a suspected serial killer (the ominous-sounding “Merry Widow Murderer”), Charlie begins to become suspicious of her uncle’s increasingly condemning behavior.

Notorious – From 1946, this dark romance / spy film starring Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman and Claude Rains concerns the wild daughter of a German spy (Bergman as Alicia Huberman) who is asked by a government agent (Grant as T.R. Devlin) to spy on her father’s Nazi friends in Brazil. Alicia falls in love with Devlin, but he needs her to marry one of the Nazis, Alex Sebastian (Rains). Agony ensues.

Strangers on a Train – Not just a CSI episode, this 1951 film (yet another literary adaptation, this time from Patricia Highsmith) tells of two, uh, strangers who meet on a (you guessed it!) train and discuss murder. Guy Haines (Farley Granger) will murder the father of Bruno Antony (Robert Walker) and Antony will murder Haines’s unwanted and unfaithful wife, thereby allowing them both to committ murder without getting caught (because neither one actually has a connection to their respective victims, get it?). Haines thinks it was just “idle” talk (yes, I can see how he would make that mistake…), but then his wife is murdered. Hmm.

Dial M for Murder – From 1954 and based on a play, this tale of suspense concerns ex-tennis player Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) and his extremely carefully planned plot to kill his wife, wealthy Margot Wendice (Grace Kelly), for her money and because of an old (now ended) affair with Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings). Of course, the best laid plans of mice and men… The movie was remade in 1998 as A Perfect Murder, starring Michael Douglas, Gwyneth Paltrow and Viggo Mortensen (pre-Lord of the Rings, Mortensen actually also appeared in a remake of Psycho with Vince Vaughn later that same year).

Rear Window – The classic voyeur film, this 1954 movie (yes, based on a short story) stars Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly. While spying on his neighbors, Stewart as photographer Jeff (stuck in a room due to a broken leg) begins to think that a murder has occurred in one of the neighboring buildings. Kelly plays Jeff’s girlfriend, the model Lisa. For you trivia/remake people, this movie was remade in 1998 with Christopher Reeve as the friendly neighborhood peeping tom, and also inspired 2007’s Disturbia starring Shia LaBoeuf.

To Catch a Thief – Pretty light-hearted for a Hitchcock film, this romantic intrigue from 1955 is set on the French Riviera and deals with an ex-jewel thief, John “the Cat” Robie (Cary Grant), who doesn’t want to get blamed for a recent string of jewel thefts. To catch the actual culprit, he gets to know the people he suspects are the next victims, wealthy Jessie Stevens and her (surprise!) beautiful daughter Frances Stevens (Grace Kelly).

Alfred Hitchcock Presents… – Arguably one of the things Hitchcock is most famous for, the opening credits of this long-running show (the silhouette, the music, the somber “Good evening”) are iconic. Starting in 1955, the show was renamed The Alfred Hitchcock Hour in 1962 and extended to a full hour. It ended in 1965 (but lives on through iTunes!). Each episode was a different story of mystery or drama, and featured many famous (or soon-to-be-famous) guest stars, such as Dick Van Dyke, Bette Davis, Steve McQueen, Robert Redford (who just loves his classic mystery TV shows with famous opening sequences by the show’s creator – he also had a main role in an episode of The Twilight Zone a year later), and yes, William Shatner. You can listen to the show’s theme music, Funeral March of a Marionette, by playing the video below.

Vertigo – A head trip of a movie, this 1958 thriller with Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak tells of retired, and acrophobic (really, really afraid of heights – in other words, someone who has height “vertigo”), detective John “Scottie” Ferguson and the favor he does for an old college friend, Gavin Elster. Elster believes that his wife Madeleine is possessed by the spirit of her dead great-grandmother, Carlotta Valdes, (yes, you heard right) and asks Scottie to follow Madeleine to confirm his suspicions. Scottie does, but gets a little too involved in this case. If you know what I mean. Which I’m sure you do.

North by Northwest – You’ve probably all seen that scene of a guy running from a low-flying plane through a corn field at some point or another (or you’ve seen one of the many imitations of it). Well, that scene is from this iconic 1959 thriller starring Cary Grant as ad exec Roger Thornhill and Eva Marie Saint as the mysterious Eve Kendall (trivia: Saint won an Academy Award for her role in On the Waterfront and, yep, that was her as Martha Kent in Superman Returns). As a suspense thriller, this movie naturally has many twists and turns, but essentially it tells the story of Thornhill and his unfortunate escapades after being mistaken for government agent George Kaplan. Thornhill travels all across the country, pursued by policemen (who believe he has murdered someone), in an effort to find the real George Kaplan.

Psycho – Showing the lengths to which someone will go to win the coveted “Best Costume” award, someone actually dressed up as the “Shower Scene” from this classic Hitchcock horror film at a Halloween costume party I attended. I won’t go into the details, but let’s just say that fake blood, a shower curtain and a skin-colored body suit were involved. Although you may not have seen the film, almost everyone has heard of the fateful (and fatal) meeting between the owner of the Bates motel, Norman Bates as portrayed by Anthony Perkins, and Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane. This 1960 film was, naturally, based on a Robert Bloch novel, who actually based his own work on the real life of Ed Gein, a serial killer. The movie follows the investigation into the mysterious circumstances behind Marion’s and other disappearances at the Bates Motel.

The Birds – Continuing on his horror streak, this 1963 film is another (albeit loose) adaptation of a Daphne du Maurier story (see Rebecca for the other). Rich Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) encounters attorney Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) at a pet shop – they’re both, surprise surprise, buying birds – and ends up following him to his family home on the coast. Soon, the small town is being viciously attacked by flocks of birds. Trust me, it’s scarier than it sounds.

For a complete list of Hitchcock’s many titles, go to IMDB.com.

Alfred Hitchcock

SPOILER ALERT

SPOILER ALERT

…and those who don’t.

The Man Who Knew Too Much – (1934) The assassination attempt (of a diplomat, as it turns out) at Albert Hall in London is prevented by Jill, who screams, thereby distracting the shooter. The shooter escapes to his hideout, but is followed by the police, who lay siege to the place in a gunfight modeled on a real gun battle in London in 1911. Jill, an excellent shooter, kills one of the kidnappers holding Betty, the police breach the building, and Betty is saved.

The 39 Steps – Hannay, after a cross-country chase, ends up back at the same London theater watching the same show with Pamela, a woman he met while on the run (she doesn’t want to be with him and betrays him repeatedly to the police). He discovers that the man headlining the show (“Mr. Memory”) is actually part of the “39 Steps” organization, and gets him to reveal what the organization is and what their plans are (building a silent aircraft). One of the men behind the organization, Jordan, shoots Mr. Memory and tries to escape, unsuccessfully.

Rebecca – Maxim de Winter tells the story of the “real” Rebecca, a manipulative and unfaithful wife whom he did not love. Telling de Winter she was pregnant with someone else’s child, he wanted to kill her, but she fell and hit her head, dying by accident instead. Later it is discovered that she was not pregnant, but instead had learned she had cancer and wanted to provoke de Winter into killing her. After learning about Rebecca’s illness and that de Winter and his wife will be returning to the house, Mrs. Danvers sets fire to the mansion. The last shot is of the mansion, with the married couple outside and safe, being burned to the ground.

Shadow of a Doubt – Uncle Charlie is the serial killer. He attempts to kill his niece several times, eventually trying to throw her from a train bound for San Francisco. They fight, and Uncle Charlie is the one who falls off the train and dies under the wheels of a train coming from the other direction.

Notorious – Sebastian finds out about Alicia and gradually begins to poison her. However, Devlin discovers what he is doing and takes Alicia out of Sebastian’s house, warning him about what will happen if Sebastian’s friends find out what was going on (Alicia a spy and so on). As Devlin takes Alicia away, Sebastian is left to his fate at his friends’ hands, who would not hesitate to harm him.

Strangers on a Train – Antony stalks Haines, incessantly reminding him to keep up his part of the bargain. Eventually, Antony confides what’s going on to Anne, the woman he loves, as Antony tries to turn the police onto Haines as the murderer of his wife. In the end, Antony and Haines struggle and Antony dies, crushed by a merry-go-round. However, in his hand is a lighter, a piece of evidence that implicates him in the murder of Haines’s wife. The last scene is Anne and Haines on a train together, walking away from a stranger who is attempting to make conversation.

Dial M for Murder – Margot manages to kill Swan, the attacker hired by Tony, by stabbing him with scissors. To cover everything up, Tony then tries to make it look like Margot planned to kill Swan, rather than killing him in self-defense. However, the inspector on their case (Hubbard) discovers that Tony is the one behind it all when Tony accidentally reveals that he knows the hiding place of the key Swan used to get into the apartment.

Rear Window – Jeff was right and he did see a murder. The murderer throws Jeff out the window, attempting to kill him, and is then arrested by the police. Jeff doesn’t die, but breaks both of his legs, and lives happily ever after (or so I assume, but this is Hitchcock after all) with Lisa.

To Catch a Thief – Yes, John “catches the thief,” a young girl named Danielle. John is cleared and ends up together with Frances at his vineyards in the south of France.

Vertigo – Madeleine commits suicide from a bell tower and dies. Scottie tries to save her but can’t, due to his vertigo. Scottie goes into despair, and eventually becomes obsessed with a woman, Judy, who looks just like Madeleine. However, it is revealed that it was all a scam – Judy was actually hired by Gavin to pretend to be his wife and convince an esteemed detective, Scottie, that she was possessed and had committed suicide (when in fact, Gavin pushed the real Madeleine from the tower), so that Gavin could literally get away with murder. Scottie confronts Judy with the truth at the bell tower itself, and frightened by the appearance of a third person at the top of the tower (who turns out to be a nun), Judy stumbles and falls to her death. Scottie looks down at her body, his vertigo now gone.

North by Northwest – Oh dear. It’s very complicated. Essentially, Eve (revealed to be the bad guy’s girlfriend and then revealed again, this time for real!, to be a government agent) helps Thornhill get national secrets away from the bad guys. There is a struggle on Mt. Rushmore, the police shoot the bad guy, Thornhill saves Eve’s life, and they end up together.

Psycho – Although the murders seem to have been committed by Bates’s mother, it is revealed in a famous twist that it is in fact Bates, dressed up as his mother, who has committed them. His mother, whom he murdered, is now a preserved corpse in his basement. Nice and creepy, right? The movie ends with Bates in a prison cell, now totally crazy (as if he wasn’t already crazy enough).

The Birds – After several deaths, panick ensues. Mitch, Melanie, Mitch’s sister Cathy, and his mother Lydia board themselves up in a house and survive a massive bird attack, but Melanie is severely injured after they think the attack has ended. Mitch, Cathy and Lydia drive Melanie to the hospital, surrounded by a sea of birds. The birds do not attack and they drive off safely.