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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 Lodger (1944)

220px-Thelodger1944Marie Belloc Lowndes’ 1913 novel The Lodger is about a man suspected of being Jack the Ripper and has been turned into film multiple times, most famously by Alfred Hitchcock in 1927. I haven’t yet seen Hitchcock’s silent film or read the book, though I know that in the book the identity of the lodger is left ambiguous and in Hitchcock’s film the lodger turns out to be innocent. However, in Brahm’s 1944 film – starring Laird Cregar, Merle Oberon and George Sanders – there is little question that the lodger is indeed the murderer.

Ellen (Sara Allgood) and Robert Bonting (Cedric Hardwicke) are a financially strapped middle-class family obliged to let rooms to a mysterious man (Laird Cregar) who claims to be a pathologist. He needs a room in the attic to conduct his experiments, keeps irregular hours, and is out most nights. His name, he says, is Mr. Slade, which ironically is the name of the street near the Bonting’s house.

Meanwhile, there is mass panic in London. There has been a series of murders by an unknown assailant, who the papers are calling Jack the Ripper. Police are practically blanketing London and still the murders continue. Scotland Yard, lead by Inspector John Warwick (George Sanders), have noticed that all the victims have so far been women who have been on the stage at one point or other. And troublingly, the Bontings have a niece living with them who is on the stage, Kitty Langley (Merle Oberon). Kitty is working her way up the ranks from cabaret to musical theater.

Mr. Slade is a soft spoken man, but he is definitely a bit odd. He expresses dislike of actresses – calling them women  who are “subtle of heart,” which is a reference in Proverbs to harlots – and is besotted by his deceased, sensitive artist brother. He is polite and Kitty thinks he must be a very lonely man, but he also radiates mystery and menace (and Laird Cregar is a huge man who towers over everybody, including George Sanders, who is over six feet tall). Mr. and Mrs. Bonting (especially Mrs. Bonting) begin to suspect that Mr. Slade is really Jack the Ripper. Mr. Bonting initially pooh-poohs his wife’s suspicions as irrationally founded without facts, but gradually begins to join her in her suspicions. In fact, Mr. Bonting is a bit of an armchair detective, absolutely fascinated by the mystery, reading the morning papers and the evening papers in an attempt to stay always current.

Laird Cregar

Laird Cregar

There is a lot of newspaper reading in The Lodger: early in the morning, in the evening, always catching the very latest news the moment it hits the streets in the kind of sensationalist immediacy found today.

It’s not exactly a mystery that Mr. Slade is really Jack the Ripper and the plot is not particularly well-developed. What it does have and one of the reasons I like it so much, is atmosphere. There is fog everywhere on the cobblestones of London. It’s not quite like the fog described by Charles Dickens in Bleak House, which is almost a living substance, thick, murky, and polluting. However, it is still all-pervasive and would give the film a cozy feeling if there wasn’t so much menace. There are the buskers singing their songs while people wait to enter the theater where Kitty Langley is performing, the warm pub where people sing and drink with the fog outside, making the inside look all the more inviting. Policemen are reassuringly positioned on every corner of every street, giving the appearance of safety and solidity. But it doesn’t do any good and somehow Jack the Ripper continues to find his victims, practically under the noses of the police.

What also makes the film stand out is Laird Cregar as Mr. Slade. He is the ultimate alienated anti-hero. He reeks of alienation, with his puppy-dog eyes that can also threaten with a fanatical light. As DVD Savant describes the film and Cregar’s performance: “Once again teamed with cinematographer Lucien Ballard, Brahm’s camera cranes over shiny cobble-stoned back lots and isolates characters in dingy rooms. Cregar’s alienation and weirdness is accentuated by dramatic accent lighting on his tortured eyes.”

PHOTO_17381111_66470_9229404_apThere is also a Phantom of the Opera-like ending, with a confrontation in the theater dressing room and a chase backstage on the catwalks.

George Sanders seems a bit under-used as the solid Scotland Yard inspector, much taken with Kitty, and solidly groping his way towards solving the mystery and trying to protect Kitty. Still, one never objects to the presence of George Sanders in a film, even when he doesn’t have much to do.

Kitty is actually a rather unique character, though not a complex one. She has just returned from Paris, where she learned the new Parisian dances, and has brought a company of French girls back with her to London, making her way in a very calm, business-like manner, like she was running a business and not a “saucy” show. She practically makes the cancan respectable. Even her respectable aunt and uncle seem to have no qualms about her chosen profession. She’s such a sympathetic person that it doesn’t seem to click for her how odd Mr. Slade really is. Perhaps it’s because, as my sister suggested, she’s used to meeting odd people in the theater or simply because she’s so busy recognizing the loneliness in him that it doesn’t register how dangerous he is or that he is in fact threatening her.

The Lodger can currently be found on youtube.

 
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Posted by on October 19, 2015 in Movies

 

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