DIAL M FOR MURDER (1954): “That’s the trouble with these latchkeys. They’re all alike.”

DIAL M FOR MURDER (1954) – Warner Bros. – Rating:  ★★★★

Color – 105 minutes – 1.33:1 aspect ratio

Principal cast:  Ray Milland (Tony Wendice), Grace Kelly (Margot Wendice), Robert Cummings (Mark Halliday), Anthony Dawson (Lesgate/Swann), John Williams (Chief Inspector Hubbard).

Produced and Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Written by Frederick Knott, based on his play

Director of Photography:  Robert Burks

Film Editing:  Rudi Fehr

Original Score:  Dmitri Tiomkin

We open on an idyllic marriage scene, in a small but well-furnished London flat, the happy wedded couple locked in a kiss.  Cut to the same married couple, eating breakfast.  The wife is reading a small notice in the newspaper, about an American author due to arrive in England on the Queen Mary that day.  Cut to attractive man disembarking from the Queen Mary.  Cut to this attractive man, locked in a kiss with the wife, in the same London flat we just witnessed a moment ago!  Alfred Hitchcock, who got his start in silent films, and never lost his flair for visual storytelling, has given us a complete set-up to the story in two minutes, with no dialogue.

The wife, Margot Wendice, and the author, Mark Halliday, had a fling the previous year, when Mark was last in London, and Margot’s marriage was in turmoil.  Now, Margot tells Mark, her husband Tony is a changed man.  She won’t leave him, because he has become the perfect husband.  She also tells Mark that she destroyed all of the letters he wrote to her, except one, which was stolen from her purse.  After the theft she recieved two anonymous letters of blackmail, and even after she paid the requested sum she never recieved the letter back.

At this moment Margot’s husband Tony returns to the flat, and his wife introduces Mark as a friend of hers.  Tony sends the couple off for an evening on the town, saying he is too busy with work to accompany them.  He then makes a phone call summoning a man to the flat, on the pretext of buying a used car.  This man, named Swann, was an old college schoolmate of Tony’s, and Tony uses a very subtle and charming method of blackmail to convince Swann to murder his wife, for the sum of one thousand pounds.  It turns out that Tony knew about the affair all along.  He is the one who stole the letter from his wife’s handbag, and he wishes to dispense with her and inherit her considerable fortune.

The murder is to take place the following evening,  when Tony and Mark will be at a stag party, and Margot will be home alone.  Tony will hide a key outside the flat so Swann can let himself in, then at an arranged time Tony will make a phone call to the flat, summoning Margot from bed to the phone, where Swann will finish her off.  There is a very suspenseful build-up to the moment of the phone call, and as it happens Margot is able to grab a pair of scissors from the desk and stab Swann in the back.  He falls to the floor, impaling himself and dying instantly.  Margot summons Tony home, who, instead of despairing at seeing his plans foiled, sends Margot to bed, then rather adroitly manipulates the scene so it will appear that Margot wilfully murdered Swann.

Now Chief Inspector Hubbard (played by the always solid character actor John Williams) arrives on the scene.  It is established rather quickly that Margot is indeed convicted of murder and sentenced to death.  It seems that Tony’s plan will succeed, but Inspector Hubbard is a very cool character, and knows more than he lets on.  The climax of the plot hinges on something as simple as a key, with Hubbard playing a hunch that turns out to be correct.

Why does this film work as well as it does?  It is 80% dialogue, 20% action.  It takes place all in one small flat.  It is considered a “minor work” of Hitchcock, and justifiably so.  And yet it is thoroughly entertaining.  For me it is Ray Milland that saves the day.  The wrong actor in the Tony Wendice role would send the film irrevocably off the rails.

Performance:  The performances are all solid, with the exception of Robert Cummings, who seems a little soft in his role as the boyfriend, and fails to generate any sympathy.  Ray Milland really carries the movie, as yet another sympathetic Hitchcock villain, charming from his first scene to his last.  John Williams is fantastic as Inspector Hubbard.  (Film lovers may recognize Williams as Audrey Hepburn’s chauffeur father in the movie Sabrina, also released in 1954.)  Both John Williams and Anthony Dawson reprised their roles from the original New York stage production of the play.  And then there’s Grace.  Has any woman ever looked as gorgeous on screen as Grace Kelly?   Although she had an other-wordly beauty, she always created characters that female moviegoers could identify with.

Hitchcock in 3D?  Yes, this film was initially released in the 3D format.  Alfred Hitchcock did not wish to use  3D in the way it was typically employed at that time, with lots of very obvious moments of long narrow objects poking and jabbing at the audience.  He only employed that twice in the film, once with scissors and once with a key.  Rather, in anticipating the way 3D is used today, he framed the scene with objects along the proscenium, like a lamp, or a bottle, that gave added depth to the scene.  The film has not been available to view theatrically in 3D since a brief  re-release in 1982, but is just as visually compelling in the 2D format.

Source material:  Frederick Knott adapted the screenplay from his own successful stage play, and changed very little.  All of the major plot elements are in place in the play, and many lines of dialogue are lifted directly from it as well.

Hitchcock moment:  The scene in which Tony Wendice outlines his plan for murder to his old schoolmate Swann would be enough to derail most movies, but here it works brilliantly.  For 22 minutes of screentime (that’s 1/5 of the entire movie!), we have two characters in one small room, talking.  The camera does move, as do the characters, and the staging and filming are perfect.  But the scene is entirely dialogue driven, and not only the dialogue but the acting could not be better.  Ray Milland does a vast majority of the talking, and he is completely charming, winning over not only Swann but the audience as well.  If Milland does not succeed in doing so, the rest of the movie does not work.  This scene alone makes the film worth watching. (I will attempt to do a deconstruction of this scene, as a separate entry, at a later time.)

Keep it closed:  In the Truffaut interviews, Hitchcock talked about directors adapting movies from stage plays, and how they would frequently “open up” the play, taking it beyond its original setting.  He felt this was a big mistake; it was the original story and setting that made the play successful, so he felt one should not mess with success, but rather keep it in its original setting.

Guilty as charged:  Since the theme of guilt and innocence seems to be the most prominent throughout Hitchcock’s works, it may be worthwhile to look at how the concept applies to the characters in this film.  Tony Wendice is guilty from a criminal respect; he first plots to murder his wife, then works to have her hanged for murder.  Yet there are many moments in the film when the audience sympathizes with Tony.  Certainly Margot and Mark are guilty of infidelity, and while this is not an act deserving of murder, it certainly colors the way that viewers feel about them as characters.  Mark is never a sympathetic character.  Lesgate, or Swann, is also criminally guilty.  It would appear he has had the makings of a thief for many years, and he rather quickly agrees to commit a murder for a fairly small sum.  Many would argue he gets what he deserves.  Yet once again, Hitchcock manipulates the audience in such a way that we feel a bit sorry for Lesgate, who is really just a pawn in Tony Wendice’s grand plan.  Even Inspector Hubbard carries a guilt, for he manipulates the Wendices as well, in order to prove his theories.  So on a psychological level, there are no innocent people in this film.  And Hitchcock, primarily through the story and brilliant cutting, has the audience shifting its sympathies almost from moment to moment.

Recurring players:  Robert Cummings had earlier starred (in much more convincing fashion) in Hitchcock’s Saboteur.  John Williams had appeared in 1947’s The Paradine Case, and would later become the go-to guy for the Alfred Hitchcock Presents television show, appearing in numerous episodes.  Harold Miller was also an extra in Saboteur.  Sam Harris (man in phone booth) was also an extra in Foreign Correspondent, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Saboteur  and The Paradine Case.  Forbes Murray, (the judge) would later appear as an extra in Vertigo.   Grace Kelly would go on to star in the unforgettable Rear Window, and she would have the pleasure of sharing the screen again with John Williams in To Catch A Thief.   And let’s not forget Bess Flowers, “the Queen of the Hollywood extras.”  She appeared (primarily as an extra) in over 700 films, far and away the most of anyone in movie history.  In addition to being “woman departing ship” in this movie, she was also an extra in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Notorious, Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Vertigo and North by Northwest.  

Legacy:  This movie would be remade twice for television, in rather forgettable versions.  It was also updated for the big screen in 1998’s A Perfect Murder, directed by Andrew Davis and starring Michael Douglas, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Viggo Mortensen.  This version has the husband (Douglas) convincing his wife’s lover to commit the murder for him.  It does not share too much in common with the original film, and while the plot twists are somewhat clever and original, it does not have the dramatic intensity of the earlier film.

Where’s Hitch?  How would Alfred Hitchcock insert a cameo into a film which takes place almost exclusively in one room, with a very small cast? No problem!  In the school reunion photo hanging on the wall, in which we see Tony Wendice and Swann sitting side-by-side, there is a familiar face on the near side of the table, turning to look at the camera.   This very clever and effective cameo comes at about 13:11 into the film.

What Hitch said:  Alfred Hitchcock was very dismissive of this film, saying that he was just “coasting, playing it safe.”  On the surface this is understandable as there really isn’t much to this film.  And yet it works; for a dialogue-driven movie in an enclosed space,  it is completely compelling and entertaining.  All Hitchcock would ultimately say was:  “I just did my job, using cinematic means to narrate a story taken from a  stage play.  All of the action in Dial M For Murder  takes place in a living room, but that doesn’t matter.  I could just as well have shot the whole film in a telephone booth.”

Definitive edition:    Warner Brothers released a 3D blu-ray version of this movie in 2012, and it is well worth the extra expense to pick it up.  Even if you do not have a 3D TV, you can still play the movie in 2D.  The 2004 DVD version was a decent print, but it was also in standard format.  Apparently it was easier (and cheaper) to project 3D movies in the standard screen format.  I always assumed that was the aspect ration in which Hitchcock shot the film, so imagine my surprise when the blu-ray began playing and the movie was in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio!   It is like watching an entirely different movie.  The widescreen, the colors, the depth of focus are all quite good.  Many techies have complained about the quality of this transfer, but I can assure you that Dial M has never looked this good on home video.   Not even close.   Why on earth did Warner release the DVD in standard format?  At least they have corrected that mistake.  The blu-ray also includes a ho-hum 21 minute-documentary, not so much a making-of as it is contemporaries lavishing praise on the movie.  You hear from Peter Bogdanovich, M. Night Shyamalan and others.  Also included is the theatrical trailer (also in widescreen.)

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SHADOW OF A DOUBT (1943) : “We’re no ordinary uncle and niece.”

SHADOW OF A DOUBT (1943) – Universal Studios – Rating: ★★★★½

B&W – 106 mins. – 1.33:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Principal Cast:  Teresa Wright (Charlotte “Charlie” Newton), Joseph Cotten (Charlie Oakley), MacDonald Carey (Jack Graham), Henry Travers (Joseph Newton), Patricia Collinge (Emma Newton), Hume Cronyn (Herbie Hawkins), Wallace Ford (Fred Saunders), Edna May Wonacott (Ann Newton), Charles Bates (Roger Newton).

Produced by Jack H. Skirball

Written by Thornton Wilder & Alma Reville & Sally Benson, from a story by Gordon McDonell

 Director of Photography:  Joseph A. Valentine

 Film Editing:  Milton Carruth

 Original music:  Dmitri Tiomkin

Charles Oakley lies on his bed in a nondescript boardinghouse.  He is a picture of ennui, and everything about him suggests carelessness, from the recumbent way he smokes his cigar to the money scattered on the floor.  He stirs from his lassitude when the landlady informs him that two gentlemen asked about him;  he then gathers his things and leaves, giving the “gentlemen” the slip.  Suddenly a man of determination, he sends a telegram to his sister and her family in Santa Rosa, California, informing them of his intention to visit.

Dissolve to Santa Rosa, a picturesque American town.  Oakley’s niece, “Charlie”, is lying on her bed, in much the same state as her uncle.  She is in the dumps, and wants to do something to shake up the family.  Suddenly an idea occurs to her, and she rushes to the telegraph office to invite her Uncle Charlie to visit.  She arrives just in time to receive the telegram from her uncle announcing his impending arrival.  It’s almost as if they were reading each other’s minds, speculates Charlie.   

Soon thereafter Uncle Charlie arrives, descending from the train under a plume of dark smoke that presages the arrival of something sinister in sleepy Santa Rosa.  At first the family is delighted to see him, from sister Emma Newton, to brother-in-law Joseph and the three children.  Uncle Charlie brings fine gifts for everyone, including an emerald ring for his favorite niece, his namesake Charlie.  The ring inexplicably has in inscription, initials that Uncle Charlie insists were not put there by him.  She does not care, saying that makes the ring more precious, because somebody happy had worn it before her.

Two men arrive at the Newton home who claim to be conducting a survey.  They wish to ask questions of the household and take photographs.  Uncle Charlie is evasive, refusing to be involved and bordering on rudeness when he encounters the two men in the home.  Could these be the same “gentlemen” who were inquiring after Charlie at his boardinghouse?  Soon enough niece Charlie learns from one of the men that they are police, and are indeed on the trail of her uncle, who may be involved in some pretty nasty crimes, namely the murder of several widows and the theft of their money.  Charlie does not want her mother to know, for it would break her heart.  She begins an investigation of her own, and soon discovers the answer to the question of her uncle’s guilt or innocence.   This portion of the story involves a cat-and-mouse interplay between uncle and niece, with the rest of the family ignorant of the  situation and implications.  At the same time Charlie begins an awkward romance with the detective who had tipped her to her uncle’s situation.

The contest of wills between the two Charlies seems to be won by niece Charlie, and her uncle agrees to leave Santa Rosa.  On the train that will take him away, he tries to silence his niece’s suspicions, with deadly consequences.

Performance:  This is arguably one of the best casts in any Hitchcock film, from top to bottom.  Joseph Cotten is perfect as Uncle Charlie, creating one of Hitchcock’s greatest villains.  Teresa Wright as niece Charlie has the most difficult part in the movie, as her character undergoes a dramatic transformation when she learns several truths about her uncle, and the world.   Henry Travers, who will forever be known to movie lovers as Clarence the angel in Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, is pleasant and likeable as the Newton family patriarch.  His primary job is to provide occasional comic relief.  But the most memorable, and most moving performance in the film belongs to Patricia Collinge as Uncle Charlie’s sister Emma.  Emma’s fondness for her younger brother is palpable, as is her fondness for childhood recollections.  If there is one performance that is not entirely perfect it is that of MacDonald Carey as Detective Graham.  He seems out-of-place in some of his onscreen interplay.

Writing:  Thornton Wilder, who wrote the quintessential American idyll Our Town, was the principle screenwriter.  Hitchcock charged Wilder with creating another slice of small-town American life, and introducing menace into it.  And Wilder’s writing is pitch perfect. His tone ranges from the charming and occasionally comic portrait of the Newton family, to Uncle Charlie’s almost shockingly dark monologues about modern big-city life.  Hitchcock was so impressed that he gave Wilder a special acknowledgment in the opening credits, in addition to his screenwriting credit.

The doppelgänger effect:  The central relationship in this movie is that of the two Charlies, uncle and niece.  The idea of the characters as doubles appears frequently.  First as they both appear sprawled on a bed in their respective opening scenes.  Later in several lines of dialogue.  Teresa Wright as Charlie tells her uncle “We’re sort of like twins, don’t you see?”Later Uncle Charlie accosts his niece outside a bar called “Til Two”, finally taking her inside.  There are no overt incestuous signals in this relationship, but it is a very odd relationship for an uncle and niece.  She gazes at him longingly in their opening scenes together, and when she walks through town with him, arm in arm, she is delighted when her friends look at him in awe, almost as if she wants them to think he is her beau.  What Uncle Charlie doesn’t foresee is that his niece has an inner mettle that has remained hidden, and it only comes to the forefront as she is forced to confront him.  They are indeed very much alike, and it is this that allows her to best him in their game of wits.

“Shadow of a Doubt” house as it appears today, Santa Rosa, CA, photo by author.

The precocious girl:  Women in Hitchcock movies are often the dominant partner in a relationship.  They are often more intelligent and resourceful than their male counterpart.  This also applies to young girls.  In this film, the younger daughter Ann Newton, (played delightfully by Edna May Wonacott) is wise beyond her years.  She is constantly reading and repeating things she has learned in her books.  She is also the only member of the Newton family that is never taken in by Uncle Charlie.  She is suspicious of him from the first moment she lays eyes on him, and although she never learns the nature of his crimes, she is not fooled.  Wonacott gives the best performance by a child in the entire Hitchcock canon, in my opinion.  Meanwhile the young boy Roger (played by Charles Bates) is a typical boy child, who does have one great reaction shot, played for comic effect, when Patricia Collinge says the youngest child is always spoiled.

Merry widow waltz:  This waltz plays over the opening credits, along with footage of waltzing couples, which looks like stock footage but Hitchcock said he filmed specifically.  The waltz features prominently in a dinner table scene, and Hitchcock uses the dancing couples footage as a transitional shot at a couple of key moments in the film.  This is a very interesting expressionistic touch.

Dark humor:  Hume Cronyn provides some dark humor as Herbie Hawkins, friend to Joe Newton.  Hawkins and Newton read whodunits, and discuss the best way to kill each other, not realizing that they are only a few feet away from someone with practical experience!  There is also perhaps a subtle indication that Herbie would like to do away with his mother, yet another charming mother/son relationship.

Emma Newton as Emma Hitchcock:  Alfred Hitchcock’s mother Emma passed away during production of this film.  There is much speculation that the character of Emma Newton (the name can be no coincidence) was inspired in part by the director’s own mother.  Certainly Emma Newton, as played so wonderfully by Patricia Collinge, is allowed a sentimentality that is seldom if ever seen in Hitchcock films.   Her emotional response to the news that her brother will be leaving is so genuine, that it almost moves the viewer to tears, particularly because of the things we know about her brother Charlie that she does not.

What Joe said:  Joseph Cotten, in his 1987 autobiography Vanity Will Get You Somewhere, said of this film that “it is certainly mentioned to me as often as Citizen Kane and The Third Man.”  He also complimented Thornton Wilder’s screenplay, saying “I cannot remember any shooting script that suffered so few alterations during production.  All the actors agreed that the author’s words were not only easy to learn, but a pleasure to speak.”

Academy awards:  Gordon McDonell received a nomination in the now defunct “Best Writing, Original Story” category.

Recurring players:  Joseph Cotten would star later in Under CapricornHume Cronyn would appear in Hitchcock’s next film, LifeboatWallace Ford would turn up in Spellbound, as would Irving Bacon. Frances Carson appeared in Foreign Correspondent and Saboteur.  Edward Fielding was also in Rebecca, Suspicion and Spellbound.  Constance Purdy also appeared in Spellbound.   Byron Shores was in Saboteur.   And Eily Malyon, the perfect spinsterish librarian, had earlier played the perfect spinsterish hotel desk clerk in Foreign Correspondent. 

Where’s Hitch?  Alfred Hitchcock’s cameo appears at about 16:26.  He is seen from a right rear profile as a passenger on the train.  He is playing cards with a doctor and his wife, and the camera shows that his hand is the entire suit of spades!

 

Legacy:  Universal remade this movie in 1958, as a noirish B-movie called Step Down to Terror.  It was also remade for TV in 1991, with Mark Harmon in the Uncle Charlie role.

Hitchcock moment:   For the most part this movie was shot in a very straightforward manner, with Hitchcock’s usual economy of shots.  The shot in the library where the camera pulls back from a close-up looking over Teresa Wright’s shoulder, high up to the ceiling, is impressive.  Production designer Bob Boyle said that Hitchcock wanted the camera movement to be almost like a gasp, or sudden intake of breath.  There is also the shot of Teresa Wright coming downstairs with her hand on the bannister, as the camera slowly zooms in on her hand, and the emerald ring plainly visible on it.

What Hitch said:  Numerous critics say that this was Hitchcock’s favorite among his own films.  His daughter Patricia states it unequivocally:  “It was my father’s favorite picture.”  One would think she would know.   When pressed on this point by Truffaut, Hitchcock answered:  “I wouldn’t say that Shadow of a Doubt is my favorite picture; if I’ve given that impression, it’s probably because I feel that here is something that our friends, the plausibles and logicians, cannot complain about.”  (In referring to the “plausibles” Hitchcock was talking about people who dismissed the plots of his films because they were not plausible).  “But that impression is also due to my very pleasant memories of working on it with Thornton Wilder.”

Definitive edition:   The best edition of this movie available for purchase today is Universal’s 2012 blu-ray release, (also available as part of the Masterpiece Collection box set).  The picture quality is not quite as sharp as the blu-ray remaster of Saboteur, being a little grainy at times, but it still looks spectacular for a movie that is over 70 years old.   The audio track (2-channel mono) also sounds quite good.  Extra features include a 35-minute making-of documentary, which has interview footage with Hume Cronyn, Teresa Wright, Patricia Hitchcock, Robert Boyle, and Peter Bogdanovich.  Also included are production drawings, production photographs, and the original theatrical trailer.