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Dial M For Murder (1954)

dialmformurderposterBecause Dial M For Murder is an unusually close adaptation of a successful play, it does not seem to garner the same attention that other Hitchcock films do. There is simply less to say about Hitchcock as auteur. But as a masterful film of suspense, red-herrings, and the overlooked little things that trip one up, it cannot be topped. I never tire of watching it; there seems to be something new to see each time.

The film begins with Margo Wendice (Grace Kelly), sitting in white at the breakfast table and enjoying a demure kiss with her husband, former tennis star Tony Wendice (Ray Milland). Next, it is evening and she is in a flaming red dress and enjoying a passionate kiss with mystery writer Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings), who is her former lover. They have broken off the relationship and believe that Tony knows nothing about it. He’s changed, Margo tells Mark. He’s a more attentive husband now.

And for good reason. In fairness, I should warn that this post is rife with plot spoilers. If you have never seen it before, it is a stimulating experience to watch the story unfold without prior knowledge. My only warning is that it’s a film you have to pay close attention to. There are a lot of red-herrings.

Tony, it turns out, knows everything about Margo and Mark’s affair. He married Margo for her money and when he realized that she could leave him flat, he concocted a scheme that was a year in the making. He’s going to blackmail an old school fellow from Cambridge, Swan (Anthony Dawson) – a man constantly skating “on thin ice” – into killing his wife for him. He has everything planned down to the last detail and it is a marvel as he calmly unfurls his plan to Swan, a man who is no slouch himself when it comes to criminal scheming, but has nothing on Tony.

But as mystery-writer Mark discusses with Tony and Margo, murders are only perfect on paper. People do not always behave exactly as you expect them to. Owing to a small change in the behavior of Margo earlier in the evening, instead of being murdered by Swan, she manages to kill him in self-defense with a pair of scissors. Tony’s year of planning is a shambles, but he quickly contrives a second plan, which seems to work much better. With the judicious planting of a few telling objects, he make it look like Margo deliberately murdered Swan. The police, lead by Inspector Hubbard (John Williams), seem to fall exactly in line and she is convicted of murder.

Robert Cummings, Grace Kelly, Ray Milland

Robert Cummings, Grace Kelly, Ray Milland – an insincere lot of people in this moment

To me, the most fascinating part of this film is watching people think, especially Ray Milland as Tony. There are moments when he realizes that he has miscalculated, but everything still seems to fall his way. Will he succeed? Will he not? What is going to finally trip him up? The film is full of red-herrings. For example, part of Tony’s original plan was to call his wife on the phone while Swan kills her. But he’s late and we, as the audience, are convinced that his lateness is what is going to save her life. But ironically, it is something that happened earlier, that we’ve already forgotten about, that saves her life.

Earlier in the evening, she didn’t want to stay home alone while Tony and Mark went to a stag party and he had to convince her, suggesting it was an ideal time to paste his press clippings into an album. He persuades her, but as a result her scissors are on the desk instead of in her mending basket, providing her an ideal weapon.

Even Mark Halliday is a red-herring. Because he’s a mystery writer, one keeps expecting him to be the one to bring Tony down. But in what is the finest twist, the police actually turn out to be rather good at their job. As Inspector Hubbard says, “The saints preserve us from the gifted amateur!”

John Williams played the role of Inspector Hubbard on Broadway and reprised it for the film. He initially seems like your stereotypical British officer, conscientious, following his own line of reasoning and apparently missing the important details. The first time I watched this movie I maligned him twice. I thought he was a stupid policeman, began to rethink it as he seemed to be getting at something important and then impugned him again when he appeared to drop it. Williams is perfect, lending the character sympathy and kindness towards Margo, impatience with Mark and complete satisfaction when he gets his man. He even gets the last shot of the film, brushing his mustache with pleased self-congratulation.

John Williams as Inspector Hubbard during the play's Broadway run

John Williams as Inspector Hubbard during the play’s Broadway run

Grace Kelly and Robert Cummings are perfectly fine in the film, but it really belongs to Ray Milland (with Williams coming in second). He’s smooth, sophisticated, and believes he has all the answers…which largely he does. But as much as he might feel like he owns people (as he says he feels about Swan), he doesn’t. He’s awfully good at it, though. He says he puts himself in the place of others to see what they will do.

But everyone does that to a certain extent, which is another part of the fascination of the film. Everyone thinks, realizes, and put themselves in each other’s shoes to arrive at the exact same conclusion at the end. Sherlock Holmes would be proud at how they logically arrive at the only possible solution.

Given all the red-herrings, this last time I was finally able to isolate the three things that undid Tony. They are the scissors, the latchkeys and the money. Three things that seem innocuous and – in the case of the money and the scissors especially – things we completely forget about.

 
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Posted by on April 27, 2016 in Movies

 

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The Chalk Garden (1964) – Deborah Kerr, Hayley Mills, John Mills

download (2)1964-65 was a good year for governesses. Julie Andrews accounted for two of them, Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, but Deborah Kerr does very well in her own, less known, 1964 governess role in The Chalk Garden. Of course, the film is not very like Mary Poppins and Kerr’s Miss Madrigal is not very like Fraulein Maria. She has a secret. And the child she must care for, Hayley Mills, makes Julie Andrew’s charges look like haloed little saints.

The film stars Deborah Kerr, Hayley Mills – in a brief departure from her Disney films – and Hayley Mill’s father, John Mills. The film opens with Miss Madrigal (Deborah Kerr) applying for the job of governess at a large home near the coast. She has no references and no experience. However, the child she is supposed to take care of, Laurel (Hayley Mills), is a positive terror and scares away the other applicant for the job with outrageous behavior, statements, and tales of horror about governesses being eaten by sharks. But the butler, Maitland (John Mills) rather likes Miss Madrigal. She meets Laurel’s grandmother, Mrs. St. Maugham (Edith Evans), who is at first not willing to hire Miss Madrigal until she discovers that she is extremely knowledgeable about gardens. Miss Madrigal makes the observation that the reason the flowers won’t grow for Mrs. St. Maugham is because the soil, chalk, is all wrong for those particular flowers and mentions what sort of soil she would need. On a whim, and because she has been unable to keep any other governess around for long, Mrs. St. Maugham hires Miss Madrigal.

Laurel is no ordinary problem child. The reason she is living with her grandmother is that several years previously her mother Olivia, (Elizabeth Sellars) had had an affair, divorced her father and remarried. The entire series of events set off something in Laurel, who became convinced that her mother did not love her and is obsessed with the notion of her mother living in sin, a notion reinforced by her grandmother. She feels abandoned and rejected. She is also obsessed with arson, murder, crime and is a chronic liar who likes to make outrageous statements to get a reaction from people. She speaks of having a desire to burn the house down, a desire channeled by her grandmother into simply burning large bonfires. Her grandmother comments wryly to Miss Madrigal that little by little they are making it smaller. “Laurel hasn’t noticed yet. One day it won’t be there.”

Laurel is attempting to scare away the governess while Miss Madrigal, on the right, is unmoved

Laurel is attempting to scare away the governess while Miss Madrigal, on the right, is unmoved

But Miss Madrigal sees something in Laurel. She sees something of herself when she was that age (it is amusing to try to imagine Deborah Kerr, young and wild and screaming). She sees herself as a liar, unable to appreciate that she is loved, filled with rage at the world and other people and she longs to to help Laurel.

The key, as she sees it, is to get Laurel away from her grandmother and back to her mother. It’s not that Mrs. St. Maugham is evil, but she “does not have a green thumb,” either for children or flowers, as Miss Madrigal tells her. Besides, she suspects that Mrs. St. Maugham is using Laurel to hurt Laurel’s mother, whether consciously or not.

Like Laurel, or perhaps Laurel feels this way because of her, Mrs. St. Maugham feels betrayed by her daughter. She and Olivia have a fraught relationship and the man Olivia left was the man Mrs. St. Maugham had chosen for her to marry. But Olivia desperately wants to take Laurel back with her.

But meanwhile, Miss Madrigal has to deal with Laurel, who specializes in investigating her governesses, snooping in their possessions (she can pick locks), finding out their secrets, or inventing secrets, and generally exposing them and sending them packing. Miss Madrigal is an especially interesting subject. She arrives with all new clothes, still in their wrappings, still with the tags on them. She paces the room at night. And she definitely has a secret, something definite in her past. What occurs is a kind of game of cat and mouse between Laurel and Miss Madrigal, though Miss Madrigal does not put up with half the nonsense that her grandmother does.

Edna Evans. John Mills, Haley Mills, Deborah Kerr

Edith Evans. John Mills, Haley Mills, Deborah Kerr

It partially makes me think of an English Country House murder mystery. Mostly because of the setting in a English home by the sea, the eccentric people (Mrs. St. Maugham and the butler, Maitland, who has rare privileges and feels free to make cheeky comments), and also the game of wits played out between Laurel and Miss Madrigal. Laurel is trying to find out who she really is, while Miss Madrigal deflects her inquiries and is trying to reach past Laurel’s lying and outrageous exterior to the wounded child within. Also, Maitland has a great, though healthy, interest in crime and detective stories. Ironically enough, a crime is discovered in somebody’s past, but it is not an indictment of that person and does not come as a huge surprise the the viewer, either.

Deborah Kerr does a marvelous job. She plays it both humorously – at moments she is enjoying this game of wits – but also deeply passionate, initially hidden behind her blank exterior. Ironically, she is hiding something, but must lose her secret and expose her heart to win Laurel. Hayley Mills also does a great job in a role quite different from anything she did at Disney. Underneath, there is a very vulnerable child playing games, until she realizes that she’s stumbled on something that is not a game at all.

HayleyMillsandDeborahKerrinTheChalkGarden-1The Chalk Garden is an adaptation of a play by Enid Bagnold and Edith Evans played Mrs. St. Maugham in the play as well as in the movie. She’s quite an interesting character, because she is not a villain, nor does she play her like a selfish harpy. She strikes me as one of those ladies who was probably a flapper in her day, witty and, as we learn, with a host of admiring men in her past, some of who she still knows (like the judge played by Felix Aylmer, who she wants to help her keep Laurel from Olivia). But she obviously does not have it in her to raise children. She is kind to Maitland, however, who has sad story in his past.

This trailer makes the film look quite melodramatic, which it is in a way, but not quite as hysterical as all that! I really enjoyed it. There is warmth and real feeling, learning to open up the heart to accept love, wry wit. Maitland, especially, has some good dialogue (he and Miss Madrigal are talking in the library when he notices that Laurel is spying on them and he closes the door, commenting “Laurel is not at her best through mahogany”), though he is not the comic relief. He is almost the heart of the film, though he does not seem to do much. He is the solid, kind presence that balances them all.

 
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Posted by on April 1, 2015 in Drama

 

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