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Hitchapalooza 9: Dial M & The Mechanics Of Murder August 23, 2008

Posted by Jim Berkin in Movies.
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Chosen supposedly because Hitch was feeling a dry spell after I Confess & hit stage plays were just the thing to rejuvenate oneself, Dial M For Murder was the last of the “tightly confined” Hitchcock films that mostly took place in a single room (my earlier reviewed Rope and my still-to-be-seen Lifeboat are the others). As basically a filmed stage play, Dial M can be a bit talky at times, but moves along briskly enough and is visually opened up enough so as not to make us feel confined to the apartment where most of the action takes place.

Dial M plays like an Agatha Christie whodunit or even a Columbo episode, in that we are presented an elegant upper class would-be murderer (Ray Milland) outlining what seems to us to be the perfect crime. The idea of the perfect crime and what small unnoticed details can unravel it all become the main plot elements that unfold, mostly as we watch the usual rather unemotional characters (I guess we’re to expect them to be unemotional when they’re so uppercrust and British, after all) go through their respective plotting or unwitting victimhood. There’s really no suspense in the idea that we might think for a moment that Ray Milland will not get caught in the end, the fun is all in watching how he will, especially when the final trap is pulled off with unmistakable Sherlock Holmes-ian Brit charm by the wonderful John Williams as Inspector Hubbard. In this way, the film plays like a parlor game of Clue, and is about as much fun.

This was an early color film for Hitchcock, and color is used well here – especially in how Grace Kelly’s wardrobe mirrors her function with other characters – she wears white around the husband she’s cheating on, bright red with her lover played by Bob Cummings (great casting, since he’s so blah that we catch ourselves identifying far more with the suave and elegant Ray Milland, despite his murderous intent), and in darker shades complete with lighting switching from red to black in a rather economical representation of her railroading at the murder trial. The film was also originally shot in 3-D at the studio’s insistence, and while the only stereotypical 3-D shot of something flying into your lap is when Kelly reaches for the scissors in the murder scene, the rest of the 3-D effects would have been (I say would have since the DVD is in 2-D) quite subtle – merely moving the actors behind various foreground objects to add depth to the scenes, which only serves the purpose of reproducing the effects of an actual stage play – subtle, but effective.

Since 3-D films required both projectors in a given theater to be used simultaneously, there is an intermission in this film despite its 108 minute length! All this does, however, is add to the “stage play” effect by giving us an act break of sorts. And when Williams turns up at the start of Act 2, he becomes the real highlight. Williams was the go-to guy, it seems, whenever Hitchcock wanted a dogged no-nonsense British cop. He’d play similar roles mostly on the Alfred Hitchcock Presents television show (along with a murderer in one of the dozens of episodes involving a husband killing his wife & burying her down in the basement – it’s amazing how often the theme of a dysfunctional marriage winds up as a key element in so many of Hitchcock’s films). You might also remember Williams from that series of commercials he did in the 1970s selling records with the “Did you know how many of today’s popular tunes are based on the classics?” bit.

Ah, that gentlemanly air of authority! That’s why he’s perfect to play (both in the film and in the original stage production) the Inspector that OF COURSE knows who the real murderer is and sees to it that the guilty are punished and the innocent freed in a film that Hitchcock opens and closes with a shot of a bobby officer watching protectively over passersby? Police and governments, at least in Hitchcock’s world, always work towards finding the truth and protecting the deserving protagonists. Just another one of those recurring themes to look for, along with the dysfunctional marriages, elegant talking killers, and wrongly accused everymen on the run. Yeah, they turn up over and over, but why mess with success?

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