Tag Archive: Robert Burks


TO CATCH A THIEF (1955) – Paramount – ★★★★

Color – 106 minutes – 1.85:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Principal cast:  Cary Grant (John Robie), Grace Kelly (Frances Stevens), Jessie Royce Landis (Jessie Stevens), John Williams (H. H. Hughson), Brigitte Auber (Danielle Foussard).

Screenplay by John Michael Hayes, from the novel by David Dodge

Cinematography by Robert Burks

Edited by George Tomasini

Music by Lyn Murray

Costumes by Edith Head

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   Alfred Hitchcock entered 1955 riding a hot streak, with the back-to-back smash hits Dial M For Murder and Rear Window, and that streak would continue with To Catch A Thief.    The movie opens with one of Hitchcock’s typical vignettes.  A black cat creeps on a rooftop.  Cut to a woman screaming; her jewels have been stolen.  Cut to the same black cat, slinking by a windowsill.  Then another woman screaming.  Finally we cut to a black cat sleeping comfortably on Cary Grant’s sofa, as he reads a newspaper article about a jewel thief named “the cat”.   A simple but effective story set up.

 To Catch A Thief is often cited as Hitchcock lite:  a good-looking movie that offers little of the subtext or dark undercurrents to be found in many of his best movies.  Actually, all of Hitchcock’s favorite themes are on display here, and while the tone is light, the movie is always entertaining, and pleasing to the palate.

First of all, we have the innocent man falsely accused, in the form of Cary Grant’s John Robie.  A man who was once a jewel thief, but who now just wishes to live quietly in his villa near the French Riviera (don’t we all?)  But now, someone has begun stealing jewels, using his methods, and the police want to arrest him.  The difference between this movie and the many others with this theme is that the action is more static here;  this is a chase movie of sorts, but without constantly changing scenery and set pieces.  This all plays out in the same locale.   So there is not the same sense of menace that we feel in movies like North by Northwest or The 39 Steps.  One never truly feels like Grant is in any real danger.   (And yet, having said that, the rooftop finale is thrilling.)

Next we have the icy maiden as leading lady.  Grace Kelly’s character has a cool demeanor, but inside she is about to bubble over.   She is Frances Stevens, travelling in Europe with her rich mother, whose jewels are a target for the thief.  Observe the transformation of Kelly’s character as the movie progresses, and she becomes more overtly sexual.  Interestingly she is also turned on by the thought of Cary Grant’t character being a thief.  She wants him to be a thief; as a matter of fact, she is willing to help him steal.    Kelly had quickly become Hitchcock’s favorite leading lady, this being their third consecutive film together.  And her performance here is outstanding.

How about the domineering mother?  Grace Kelly’s mother is perfectly played by Jessie Royce Landis, who would later play Cary Grant’s mother in North by Northwest.  Her level head and straight talk make her a polar opposite of her daughter, and provide many of the best moments in the film.

And subtle (or not so subtle) sexual humor?   This film contains more double entendres than any film Hitchcock ever made.  Special acknowledgment goes to John Michael Hayes, who crafted a screenplay that is full of more quotable lines than five average movies.  His dialogue is witty, flirty, breezy, and never boring.

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And a great climax, occuring in a high place?  John Robie unmasks the real cat thief, and clears his name, on the rooftop of a French villa, which has just hosted a lavish costume party.  The entire party sequence is a lovely set piece, with gorgeous costumes designed by Edith Head (of course) who once said this was her favorite movie to work on.

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Above you can see the gorgeous set from the film’s finale,  on a sound stage at Paramount.

Some people have delved deeper into this movie, examining themes of guilt and trust, but since Hitchcock himself said the movie was not meant to be taken seriously, we will take him at his word.   But just because it is not serious does not mean it is not worth watching.  It is expertly made, gorgeously shot, well acted, with a memorable and funny screenplay.

Performances:  As is usually the case in Hitchcock movies, some of the most interesting performances are in the supporting cast.  Of course the two leads are great, as I’ve already mentioned.  But equally great is John Williams as insurance man H.H. Hughson.  And Jessie Royce Landis steals every scene she is in.   Her part is very well written, but she elevates the character beyond the written word.  And Brigitte Auber, as the second love interest for Cary Grant, is quite good as well.

Source material:  The movie is based on a novel by David Dodge.   Considering it is over 60 years old, the novel reads very well today.  It’s tone is light, and it breezes along, much like the movie.  The main plot points were all transferred from the book directly to the movie.  There are some minor changes.  In the novel, Robie actually dons a physical disguise after fleeing from the police at his villa, so they will not recognize him.  Robie also has a friend named Paul, a character that is eliminated from the movie altogether.  This friend falls in love with Danielle, the jewel thief, which complicates things at the ending.  Although screenwriter John Michael Hayes kept much of the plot, he did bring a lot of original dialogue to the movie.  Dialogue was Hayes’ specialty, and this screenplay features many gems.   As mentioned before, he packs the screenplay with double entendres;  it’s amazing that they all passed muster with the censors.

Academy awards:  Robert Burks won a much-deserved Oscar for Best Color Cinematography.  The movie was also nominated in the Best Costume and Best Color Art Direction-Set Decoration categories.

Robert Burks, cameraman:  Rather than a full scene deconstruction, we are going to take a look at one sequence in the movie, with particular attention paid to Robert Burks Oscar-winning cinematography.  Burks was the director of photography on 12 of Alfred Hitchcock’s films.  In addition to this movie, he shot Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest, and 8 other titles.  One could argue that he was the most important technical collaborator of Hitchcock’s career.

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This is the scene where Frances Stevens (Grace Kelly) attempts to seduce John Robie (Cary Grant).  She is attempting to lure him with both her body and the necklace she is wearing.   In the shot above, Kelly’s face is in the shadows, forcing Robie’s (and the viewer’s) attention to the objects of desire. The green light on the curtains is a great touch as well.

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The two are drawn closer together, with Grace Kelly’s character being the aggressor, while Cary Grant’s Robie is on the defensive.  Look at the above shot.  First, the two characters frame the window.   Grant stands rigid, while Grace Kelly is relaxed, seductive.  The fireworks are on display behind them.  Next observe the color composition.  Out the window is a deep blue.  The streak of green runs through the center of the frame, with the actors standing just inside it.  You can see that Grace Kelly’s hair appears green.  The light has almost a pinkish tint on the right, and there are deep shadows in the top left of frame, and bottom right.

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The characters are slowly drawn together, then they part.  Grace Kelly sits down on the couch, and now we are seeing her from Grant’s point of view; she is bathed in a brighter, natural light, finally showcasing her absolutely breathtaking face.

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Back to a two-shot as Grant joins her on the couch.  Now they are surrounded again by that ethereal green light as they draw into a kiss and recline ontocatchathief6

Next, a cut to the fireworks out the window.  This may be the on-screen birth of the now-trite fireworks as sex metaphor.

 

Where’s Hitch?  Alfred Hitchcock’s cameo appears at about the 9:38 mark of this movie.  It is one of the most self-aware cameos of his career.  Cary Grant boards a bus outside his villa, and takes a seat in the very back.  On the seat to his right sits a birdcage with some birds in it.  He then looks to his left, and the camera pans over to show Hitchcock sitting right next to him, stoically looking ahead.

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Recurring players:  Cary Grant had appeared in Suspicion and Notorious, and would later appear in North by Northwest.  Grace Kelly had earlier starred in Dial M For Murder and Rear Window.  Jessie Royce Landis would appear with Cary Grant again (as his mother!) in North by Northwest.  The inimitable John Williams had already been in The Paradine Case and Dial M For Murder.  Lewis Charles (man with milk saucer in Bertanis) would later appear in Topaz.  Steven Geray had earlier appeared in Spellbound.  Gladys Holland (woman at roulette table), Edward Manouk (kitchen helper), Louis Mercier (croupier) and Donald Lawton (police detective) would show up briefly in The Man Who Knew Too Much remake.  Barry Norton had earlier had a bit part in Strangers on a Train, and Loulette Sablon had a bit part in Foreign Correspondent.  And lets not forget Bess Flowers, the most prolific extra in Hollywood history, who was an extra in this and seven other Hitchcock movies.

Cary Grant and the stalwart John Williams

Cary Grant and the stalwart John Williams

What Hitch said:  Alfred Hitchcock had very little to say about this movie, over the years.  He did call it “a lightweight story” and say “it wasn’t meant to be taken seriously.”

 Definitive edition:  Paramount released this movie on blu ray in 2012.  This print of the movie is breathtaking.  Edith Head’s beautiful costumes, and Robert Burks’ Oscar-winning cinematography are on fine display.  The blu ray contains a dry-but-informative commentary track by Drew Casper, and numerous featurettes:  A Night With the Hitchcocks, Film Censorship in Hollywood, Writing and Casting, The Making of, Behind the Gates, Alfred Hitchcock and To Catch A Thief, Edith Head:  The Paramount years, and Interactive Travelogue.  Also included are photo galleries and the original theatrical trailer.  It’s a shame Paramount did not port over the commentary track from the earlier DVD release, featuring Peter Bogdanovich and Laurent Bouzereau.  Their lighter tone was more suited to this movie than Drew Casper’s scholarly dissertation.

I CONFESS (1952) – Warner Brothers – ★★★

Black and White – 91 minutes – 1.37:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Principal cast:  Montgomery Clift (Father Michael William Logan), Anne Baxter (Ruth Grandfort), Karl Malden (Inspector Larrue), Brian Aherne (Willy Robertson), O.E. Hasse (Otto Keller), Dolly Haas (Alma Keller).

Screenplay by George Tabori, William Archibald

based on the play Our Two Consciences by Paul Anthelme

Cinematography by Robert Burks

Edited by Rudi Fehr

Music by Dimitri Tiomkin

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In 1947, while still finishing production on The Paradine Case, Alfred Hitchcock acquired the rights to an obscure 1902 play called “Our Two Consciences.”  Hitchcock had seen the play at some point in the 1930’s, and the subject matter (and inexpensive price for purchasing the rights) appealed to him.  This play would eventually become the movie I Confess.  It would take several years, and multiple screenwriters, before the film would come to fruition.   Hitchcock kept the idea simmering on the back burner, while he made four other films.  Warner Brothers did not mind, because the subject matter made the studio uneasy.   Finally he convinced the studio that he could make the movie and appease the censors.

The studio had reason to be concerned.   The screenplay that Hitchcock submitted involved a priest who hears a late-night confession to a murder.  Over time, the priest becomes the prime suspect in the killing.  But he cannot tell the police that he knows who the killer is without breaking the seal of the confessional.  Ultimately the priest is convicted of murder, and hanged for the crime!  This was too much for Jack Warner, who insisted that the ending be changed, and the priest’s innocence revealed.    So once again we have Hitchcock’s favorite theme:  the innocent man, falsely accused.  Let’s look at how he went about making this film.

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The Hitchcock touch:  One thing that Hitchcock always did well is opening sequences.  He loved to set the story visually, and creatively, often without dialogue.  This movie begins with wide shots of the city of Quebec.  The shots begin to zoom in, highlighting some of the gorgeous architecture of the city.  Tighter and tighter the shots get, until we see a street sign:  “Direction” written on an arrow, pointing to the right.  Now we cut to another direction sign, seen in a tighter close-up.  Finally, one                                                                                  last direction arrow, filling the screen, and a pan to an open window.  As

Iconfess8the camera moves through the window, we see a body lying on the floor.  We realize now that this montage of street signs has been pointing the way to a murder.   This is one of Hitchcock’s most clever opening sequences.  Following is a sequence of the presumed murderer leaving the scene of the crime, and being observed by two young girls.  This section of the film is very expressionistic in tone;  lots of long shadows on cobblestone streets.

Finally, we meet Father Logan, played by Montgomery Clift.  He sees and hears someone in his parish church, and goes to investigate.  It is Otto Keller, who is a caretaker at the church.  Distraught, Otto asks Father Logan to hear his confession.   He claims that he was planning to steal money from an attorney named Villette, but was caught in the act, and killed the man.

As the next day passes, Otto (played by the German O.E. Hasse) is worried that Father Logan will tell the police what he knows;  but he comes to realize that Logan will not tell, so he becomes more enboldened, actually going out of his way to frame Father Logan for the murder.  And Logan is the prime suspect, because Otto was wearing a priest’s cassock when he committed the crime.  And also because the dead man, Villette, was the keeper of a secret involving Father Logan and a woman named Ruth, played by Anne Baxter.   We meet Inspector Larrue, who is investigating the murder.  Larrue (played wonderfully by Karl Malden) soon questions both Father Logan, and then Ruth.

Flashback failure:  The next section of the movie is the weakest by far.    It involves Ruth narrating the backstory that she shares with Father Logan.  It is told in flashback, with voiceover narrative.  Flashback is not a technique that Hitchcock employed frequently, and when does use it (e.g. Vertigo, Spellbound) it often weakens the narrative, rather than strengthens it.   Why is this?  Personally I believe it is because Hitchcock was always interested in advancing the narrative, moving the story, and he didn’t believe in going backwards to go forwards.   At any rate, this flashback sequence opens with some very dreamlike, expressionistic shots that tell us that Logan and Ruth were in love.   The rest of the sequence is one of the most conventional in Hitchcock’s entire career.  We learn that Logan, prior to becoming a priest, was in love with Ruth.  He went off to war, she married another man.  When he returned,  they spent a night together.  They insist that they did not sleep together, but they were observed together by Villette, who was going to use this information to bribe Ruth.  So Villette’s death was very convenient for both Ruth and Father Logan.  How could Hitchcock have introduced all of this (necessary) expository dialogue without employing flashback?  Perhaps he couldn’t, but there is no denying that the story lags during this sequence.

The final third of the movie, which involves the trial of Father Logan, and the aftermath, is always powerful, and often brilliant.  Logan is found innocent of murder by a court of law, but the people outside the courthouse reject him, because of his association with a woman (even though he was not a priest when it happened!)  Well, Jack Warner got the ending he wanted;  Otto, the true murderer, is killed in the end, even dying in the arms of Father Logan.

Performaiconfess11nce:   Hitchcock was not generally fond of method actors;  he was much more interested in an actor standing where he wanted him to stand, and looking where he wanted him to look, than he was in the character’s “motivation”.  And although they did have some minor differences, Montgomery Clift gives an outstanding performance, one of the best that Hitchcock would ever get from a leading man.  Clift does not have a lot of dialogue in this movie;  most of his performance is in his magnificent, expressive eyes.  And he so clearly shows his emotions, as he battles with the knowledge he has, and his obligation to the church, even though his silence could mean his life.  Anne Baxter (not Hitchcock’s first choice) comes off rather cold, and although her performance is adequate, one gets the feeling that Hitchcock was not enamored of her.  As a matter of fact, Dolly Haas, who plays the wife of the killer, comes off as a much more sympathetic female character. She almost steals every scene she is in.   And Hithcock cuts to her frequently in the trial sequence.  Karl Malden, fresh off of his Oscar-winning performance in A Streetcar Named Desire, is superbly cast as the police inspector.  Brian Aherne makes the most of a small part;  one gets the sense that Hitchcock liked him, because Aherne is the center of attention in his few scenes.

Hitchcock and Catholicism:   This movie, along with the 1956 film The Wrong Man, are what I refer to as Hitchcock’s Catholic double-feature.  Hitchcock’s faith imbued every scene of this, his most Catholic film.   The movie is redolent with rich religious imagery, and it is not only visually stirring, but is central to the story as well.

As Clift’s character is walking around the city, debating whether to disclose the information he learned in confession, we get this spectacular shot:

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A statue of one of the stations of the cross is in the foreground.  In the background, between the arm of the cross and the tip of the Roman soldier’s spear, can be seen Montgomery Clift.  He is walking slowly, head forward, shoulders slumped, bearing his own emotional and spiritual cross.

Later, when he is being questioned in court, he has an opportunity to tell what he knows, and save himself.  But there on the wall, behind him, is a reminder of the higher law to which he must hold firm.

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Later, the judge gives his instructions to the jury.  There is a 13th member of the jury box, however, unmistakable on the wall above the box.

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And finally, when the jury finds Father Logan not guilty of the crime of murder, we get this shot of the jury foreman issuing the verdict.   The jury, and more importantly Christ on the cross, are giving Father Logan their benediction.

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Earlier, when the murderer Otto is becoming more bold in his plan to frame Father Logan, his face is obscured by the cross.

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As you can see, this movie is replete with religious symbolism, and none of it appears by accident;  rather, it is all part of a deliberate visual scheme on the part of Alfred Hitchcock.

Source material:  This film is based on the original play “Our Two Consciences”, by French author Paul Bourde (written under the pseudonym Paul Anthelme).  The play, now over 100 years old, just does not hold up very well.  In the original play, it is the wife of the caretaker who confesser to the priest, not the caretaker himself.  Also, the priest is found guilty, and hung for the crime that he did not commit.   This is certainly a much bleaker ending, and the ending that Hitchcock originally wanted.

Where is Hitch?  Hitchcock’s cameo comes very early in the proceedings, at about the one minute 33 second mark.  His unmistakable form can be seen, in long shot, walking right to left, at the top of a flight of stairs.

What Hitch said:  When discussing this movie with Truffaut, Hitchcock said “the final result was rather heavy-handed.  The whole treatment was lacking in humor and subtlety.  I don’t mean that the film itself should have been humorous, but my own approach should have been more ironic…The only question then is whether one should always have a sense of humor in dealing with a serious subject.”  Hitchcock actually asks Truffaut “Do you feel that there’s a connection between my Jesuit upbringing and the heavy-handedness of I Confess?”  Unfortunately, Hitchcock himself dances around this subject.

Definitive edition:  Warner Brothers finally released this movie on blu ray in 2016, and the film looks and sounds quite good.  Included with the movie are a twenty-minute making-of documentary, the original theatrical trailer, and a one-minute newsreel clip from the film’s premiere in Quebec City.

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TORN CURTAIN (1966) – Universal Pictures – Rating:  ★★ 1/2

Color – 128 mins. – 1.85:1 aspect ratio

Principal cast:  Paul Newman (Professor Michael Armstrong), Julie Andrews (Sarah Sherman), Lila Kedrova (Countess Kuchinska), Hansjorg Felmy (Heinrich Gerhard), Tamara Toumanova (Ballerina), Wolfgang Kieling (Hermann Gromek), Ludwig Donath (Professor Gustav Lindt), Mort Mills (Farmer/Pi).

 Directed Torn1and produced by Alfred  Hitchcock

 Written by Brian Moore

 Cinematographer:  John F. Warren

 Editor:  Bud Hoffman

 Original Music:  John Addison

 

 

Torn Curtain begins with one Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite techniques:  a brief montage of images, with no dialogue, that perfectly sets the scene.  Hitchcock used this type of wordless opening montage in numerous films, including Sabotage, Dial M For Murder, and Rear Window.  So three minutes into the movie, we know we are on a ship that is hosting an assembly of scientists;  we know the ship is freezing cold;  and we know a certain pair are missing from breakfast, because they are in bed together.  And these of course are the stars, Professor Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman), and his assistant and fiancee Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrews).   This set-up is quite good;  Hitchcock is on familiar ground.  Unfortunately, the movie soon begins to labor under the weight of its own plot.

Of the film’s structure, Hitchcock said  “…the first third of the film is more or less from a woman’s point of view…”, meaning that the audience is seeing things as Julie Andrews’ character sees them.  This is perhaps the weakest part of the movie.  After a solid set-up, we learn that Michael is keeping something from Sarah.   Michael receives a mysterious telegram on the ship.  Later, in Copenhagen, he receives a book that contains a coded message.  He then tells Sarah that he must leave Copenhagen that night, alone.  He is terse, uncommunicative, and dismissive.  Later Sarah learns that he has a plane ticket to East Berlin, to which she utters the almost laughingly trite line “But – that’s behind the Iron Curtain.”  Oh, brother!   Screenwriter Keith Waterhouse later called this “an immortally bad line” and despite his and his partner’s pleading “…Hitchcock steadfastly refused to modify the line, not even to the extent of getting rid of the superfluous ‘but’ and its hesitant dash.”

Julie Andrews utters the worst line of dialogue in the movie.

Julie Andrews utters the worst line of dialogue in the movie.

She buys a ticket on the same plane, without Michael knowing about it, and follows him to East Berlin, where he announces his intentions to defect to the communist bloc and share his knowledge of American rocketry.  It is abundantly clear to the audience at this point that Newman’s character can’t be a real defector.  I’m not sure which is more implausible:  that his fiancee and confidante would not be able to see this, or that he would keep such a secret from the most important person in his life, especially now that she is in jeopardy.   This lapse in logic causes the whole early portion of the film to suffer.  Fortunately though, the middle third of the movie is the strongest portion by far.  It shifts to Paul Newman’s point of view.  Now the viewer will see the action from his point of view.

First, the couple has a discussion in an East Berlin hotel room.  This is shot from a distance, all in one take;  the staging is rather like that of a play, and makes the viewer feel like an interloper in the characters’ private lives.  It is gorgeously shot, as described by Hitchcock:

“There was one very effective sequence in the film that I purposely played entirely in long shot.  It took place in that East Berlin hotel room where we had the evening sun shining in – just a faint yellow shaft of warm sunlight; the rest was that awful heavy brown, a mood effect.  That sequence represents very close coordination between the visual conceptions of the production designer and the cameraman.  The lighting, and the color of the light, work in relationship to the somber tones of the room.”

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A shot from a masterfully constructed sequence. The beautiful lighting makes this look almost like a painting.

Professor Armstrong has been assigned a security detail named Gromek, played by the German actor Wolfgang Kieling.  Gromek is the most interesting character in the movie;  he makes the most of every moment he is on screen.  Armstrong wants to give Gromek the slip; he leaves his hotel with the German agent in pursuit.  Armstrong goes to an art museum, where we see a silent chase through vast rooms displaying works of art, the only sound the clopping of shoes on the tiled floor.    These scenes were filmed by shooting the actors walking, while most of the walls and works of art were added in later as a matte painting done by the masterful Albert Whitlock.  These shots hold up very well today;  overall the sequence is quite good.

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Armstrong exits out a side door and takes a taxi to a farm in the countryside, where he meets with an American agent (played by Mort Mills) nicknamed Pi.  Unfortunately, he was followed by Gromek, and is trapped in the small farmhouse with Gromek and the wife of the agent.  Here follows the best sequence in the movie.  Now Gromek knows that Armstrong is a double agent, so Gromek must be killed.  But it must be done quietly, because the taxi driver is outside the window.  Hitchcock describes the sequence:

“In doing that long killing scene, my first thought again was to avoid the cliche.  In every picture somebody gets killed and it goes very quickly.  They are stabbed or shot, and the killer never even stops to look and see whether the victim is really dead or not.  And I thought it was time to show that it was very difficult, very painful, and it takes a long time to kill a man.”

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The killing of Gromek, the best sequence in the movie.

 

After Gromek is killed, Armstrong knows is time is limited.  The final third of the film focuses on Armstrong meeing with a German scientist in Leipzig to pry some information from him;  then on his and Sarah’s attempt to escape East Germany and get to Sweden and safety.  This last section of the film is inconsistent.  While the first third of the film was marred by implausible plot points, it is technical details that help to weaken the final third.  There is a scene in which Armstrong finally tells Sarah that he is not really defecting, that he is a double agent working for America.  This scene is shot on a hilltop, and we don’t hear the dialogue.  Hitchcock used this effective technique in a few movies;  when the audience already has the knowledge that the character doesn’t, he lets the expository dialogue play out of earshot;  we more or less know what is being said.   Unfortunately, this otherwise well-constructed sequence is marred by set design.  It is painfully obvious that this “hillside” was shot on a soundstage.  Had he chosen to shoot this scene at an exterior location, it would have been one of the most powerful, moving scenes in the movie.  Julie Andrews is quite good here. For most of his career Hitchcock was the master of special effects and trick shots;  he was an innovator even in the silent film days.  How could he let a shot like this stand?  Did the artificiality not bother him?  It tends to take the audience out of the film.

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The artificial setting detracts from an otherwise well-constructed scene.

 

After this the couple are secreted away on a bus to meet a contact in East Berlin.  The bus is a fake city bus, running just moments ahead of the real bus, and the passengers all Germans with anti-communist sentiment, risking their lives.  This sequence should have been one of the highlights of the movie;  it is certainly written and structured in a way designed to build tension over several minutes.  Unfortunately, the tension is lessened again for a technical reason.  The bus is so obviously on a soundstage, with screens outside the windows projecting images of passing countryside and vehicles.  Hitchcock explains:  “I’m not happy with the technical quality of the transparencies for that scene.  For economy reasons I had the background plates shot by German cameramen, but we should have sent an American crew over.”

Again, how did Hitchcock let this slip by?  Shouldn’t he have looked at the footage sooner, while there was time to shoot replacement film?  The clearly artificial quality of these shots deflates the tension from what would have been a great sequence.

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Later the couple meet a bizarre lady who calls herself Countess Kuchinska (played by Lila Kedrova, who had recently won an Oscar for her role in Zorba the Greek).   Hitchcock really enjoyed working with Kedrova, and the sequence is somewhat effective but longer than it needed to be.  Eventually our couple are sent to a ballet, from which they will be secreted out of the country on a ship bound for Sweden.  They find themselves trapped in a crowded room, another favorite Hitchcock motif used in several movies, from The 39 Steps to Saboteur to North by Northwest.  They just manage to evade capture and make it to Sweden.  We leave them as we found them, snuggled under a blanket.

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Lila Kedrova as the Countess Kuchinska, with our hero and heroine.

Performance:  Paul Newman and Julie Andrews are both solid in their own way, but lack a strong screen chemistry.  At times they seem to be characters visiting one another from different movies.  Early in production, Newman sent Alfred Hitchcock a three-page memo outlining some ideas and concerns he had about the script.  This was really off-putting to Hitchcock, who never replied to the memo, and had a very reserved relationship with the actor.  Many of the supporting characters, most of them European actors, were quite good, adding some needed life and vibrancy to the movie.

A lost scene (Gromek’s brother):  Alfred Hitchcock shot a sequence for the movie which would have occured shortly after the killing of Gromek.  Professor Armstrong stops at a German canteen and meets a man who looks a lot like the man he just killed.  This man is Gromek’s brother, and the part is played by Wolfgang Kieling, the same actor who played Gromek.  He asks Armstrong to deliver some sausage to his brother, which he proceeds to cut with a knife very like the one that Gromek was stabbed with.    This scene, rife with Hitchcock’s typical dark humor, sounds fantastic.  Hitchcock said of it:  “It’s quite effective.  In fact, very good.  I dropped it from the final film because the film was too long…the actor who played Gromek was very good.  I had him completely transformed for the brother’s role.”  Once again, Hitchcock’s judgment went awry;  he cut a scene which by his own admission was “very good” because the film was “too long”?  Why not cut a sequence that was not “very good”?  The Countess Kuchinska sequence definitely could have been trimmed.

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A shot from the deleted scene featuring Paul Newman as Professor Armstrong, and Wolfgang Kieling as Gromek’s brother.

Farewell, Bernard Herrmann:  Hitchcock began this movie having lost two of his most important collaborators,  editor George Tomasini and cinematographer Bob Burks.  He would lose another one during post production.   Bernard Herrmann, who had composed the film score for seven Hitchcock movies, was hired to score this film as well.  Hitchcock told Herrmann he wanted something different, explaining in a telegram “This audience is very different from the one to which we used to cater it is young vigorous and demanding.”  It seems to me that Hitchcock should have heeded his own advice;  nonetheless, Herrmann promised to deliver the type of score that Hitchcock was asking for.  But when it came time to hear it, Hitchcock didn’t like it at all.  Herrmann stormed off;  he later claimed he quit, while Hitchcock claimed he was fired.  Whatever the reason, one of the greatest parternships between film composer and director was ended;  they would never speak again.

Recurring players:  Because Hitchcock recruited many European actors for this movie, he did not employ many people that he had previously worked with.  William Yetter, Sr. had also been an extra in Foreign Correspondent.  And Mort Mills, who plays the agent named Pi, had earlier appeared in Psycho as the highway patrolman who follows Marion Crane early in the movie.

Where’s Hitch?  Alfred Hitchcock wrote a memo detailing his cameo for this movie:  “I should be seen sitting in an armchair in the lounge with a nine month old baby on my knee and I’m looking around rather impatiently for the mother to come back.  This impatience could be underscored by shifting the baby from one knee to the other, and then with the free hand, surreptitiously wiping the thigh.”  This is exactly how the cameo was shot, and begins at about the 8:18 mark, early in the movie.

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Hitchcock on the set, providing direction during the Gromek killing.

The resolution:  Alfred Hitchcock began shooting this film with a screenplay that was not up to his usual standards.   Everybody recognized this (Paul Newman later said “We all knew we had a loser on our hands”), but they all soldiered on.  Despite the flaws in the screenplay, the film could have been better than it is.   Hitchcock could have recognized and corrected some of the technical faults in the picture.  He could have trimmed a couple of overlong sequences, and left intact a scene that by his own admission was “very good.”   How could Hitchcock be so right in some instances, and so very wrong in others?  It would make more sense if the whole film was a disaster;  it most certainly is not.   This film is ultimately a mix of a few very good moments, and many forgettable ones.   Losing so many important collaborators had to impact him; he was reeling from numerous losses.  The film made a meager profit of $1.5 million, which was a bona fide flop, especially considering the director and the two stars.  The reviews were harsh;  some suggested that Hitchcock had lost his touch.  Unfortunately for Hitch, things would get worse before they got better.

Definitive edition:  Universal’s 2012 blu-ray is the best looking and sounding version of this movie available.  John Warren’s cinematography looks quite good.  The blu-ray contains a 32 minute documentary called “Torn Curtain Rising”, which is rather poor.  Unlike most of the other documentaries on the Universal Hitchcock movies, this one features no interviews with cast or crew members.  I have heard Julie Andrews discuss this movie many times, as recently as last year;  surely she would have participated if asked?  Instead we get some bland narrator taking us through the film and offering an apologist’s view of its faults and strengths.  Also included are 14 minutes of Bernard Herrmann’s musical cues, which he wrote before leaving the project to be replaced by John Addison.  Again, Universal dropped the ball here.  Herrmann scored much more of the movie than 14 minutes.  Why not include all of his cues, which I personally feel are better suited to the material than Addison’s.  Also included are production photographs and the theatrical trailer.

 

 

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The three-act structure is a basic tenet of screenwriting.  Most films generally follow the template:  setup, confrontation, and resolution.     Torn Curtain is a movie where the three acts are clearly delineated through a shifting narrative focus.  As Hitchcock himself said “…the picture is clearly divided into three sections.  The story worked out very naturally in that way…”

So our examination of this problematic Hitchcock movie will attempt to follow the same structure.  This blog entry will be the setup:  how did this movie come to be?  It will also introduce the confrontation:  what went wrong in preproduction.  A second entry will continue with the confrontation and onto the resolution, with a focus on the film itself and its aftermath.

After the release of Marnie in July of 1964, Alfred Hitchcock took some time choosing his next project.  For the majority of his directing career, Hitchcock had worked on multiple projects at one time;  while completing the filming of one movie he would already be involved in the writing of his next movie, and was often looking beyond that.  Those days were over.  Hitchcock, now sixty-five years old, was increasingly conscious of his health.  He also seemed unsure of his next step.  Several months passed, during which time Hitch screened some movies at home, read some books, but seemed no closer to choosing a prospective film.   Two of the films he had screened and enjoyed were The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May, and he actually talked to Richard Condon (the author of The Manchurian Candidate) and Rod Serling (who penned the screenplay for Seven Days in May). Whether Hitchcock hoped to work with these writers, or just wished to share his admiration is unknown, but nothing came of the discussions.   One of the books Hitchcock read during this period was John Buchan’s The Three Hostages, one of Buchan’s sequels to The 39 Steps.  Several times since the success of Hitchcock’s film version of The 39 Steps he had planned to  film one of Buchan’s sequels, but it never happened.

Then suddenly, in November, he tried to start three different projects, almost simultaneously.  This sudden creative burst could be interpreted in a couple of ways.  In the first place, it is clear that he was firing on all cylinders, creatively speaking.  But it also appears that the master of suspense was casting about, not sure which direction to proceed.   The younger Hitchcock of the 1940’s and 50’s never vacillated to this degree.

One of Hitch’s three ideas was for a movie that could function as a sort of prequel to Shadow of a Doubt, detailing the exploits of a man who murders several wealthy widows.  He brought in Robert Bloch, the author of the novel Psycho, and asked him to write a novel that Hitch could then turn into a movie.  Bloch was intrigued, but the project was short lived, in part because of monetary disputes,  also because Hitchcock simply felt no rapport with Bloch.

Hitchcock’s next idea involved a family of crooks that run a hotel as a cover for their criminal activities.  This was a premise that Hitchcock had first thought of decades before.

His third idea involved an American spy.  Hitchcock envisaged a movie as far removed from James Bond as possible; he felt that the new spy movies were outlandish, and also borrowed a little too freely from his own North by Northwest.  He thought it was time to make a very realistic, down-to-earth story about a spy who defects to the Communist bloc.

Hitchcock jettisoned the first idea after the talks with Robert Bloch went nowhere, and proceeded with the other two ideas simultaneously.  He actually approached famed writer Vladimir Nabokov about writing a treatment for these two ideas.  Apparently they met in person, and had phone conversations as well.   The specifics of these talks are unknown, but their correspondence by letter has survived.  On November 19,  1964, Hitchcock wrote to Nabokov at his residence in Switzerland, sharing his two ideas for movies:

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Hitchcock and Nabokov? An intriguing partnership that never came to fruition.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Now the first idea I have been thinking about for some time is based upon a question that I do not think I have seen dealt with in motion picture or, as far as I know, in literature.  It is the problem of the woman who is associated, either by marriage or engagement, to a defector…the type of story I’m looking for is an emotional, psychological one, expressed in terms of action and movement…”

Hitchcock then outlined his second idea:  “I wondered what would happen if a young girl, having spent her life in a convent in Switzerland due to the fact that she had no home to go to and only had a widowed father, was suddenly released from college at the end of her term.  She would be returned to her father, who would be the general manager of a large international hotel.  The [father’s] family are a gang of crooks, using the hotel as a base of operations.  Now into this setting comes our 19-year-old girl.”

Nabokov responded in a letter dated November 28, 1964.  He said in part:

“I find both your ideas very interesting.  The first would present many difficulties for me because I do not know enough about American security matters and methods…Your second idea is quite acceptable to me.”  It’s interesting that Nabokov rejected the first idea, which would become Torn Curtain, in favor of the second.

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George Tomasini, superb film editor.

Before Hitchcock received Nabokov’s reply, however, he was faced with a  personal and professional tragedy.  On the 22nd of November, George  Tomasini,  who had edited Hitchcock’s last nine movies, died suddenly of a  heart attack while on a camping trip.  Tomasini, an avid outdoorsman, was  only 55 years old, and in apparent good health.    Tomasini was a very  important part of Hitchcock’s team, one of the most important collaborators  of his entire career, and someone whose company he enjoyed.  As Tomasini’s  wife, actress Mary Brian explained many years after his death “Mr. Hitchcock  wanted George to go with him on every location…because he liked his  company, aside from any input that George could give him.  Mr. Hitchcock  always gave George first cut.  He wanted to see his interpretation.  Then they  got down to the fine work.”

This was the first of many losses and setbacks that Hitchcock would face during the preparation and filming of Torn Curtain.   In my next blog entry, we’ll take a look at how all of this loss impacted the final product.

 

By the end of the year, Hitchcock was in a bit of disarray.  His creative spark had been briefly muted.  After losing George Tomasini, he also lost Nabokov, who had backed out of both projects by Christmas.  But in the first week of the new year Hitchcock forged ahead on both projects.  He hired the Italian screenwriting duo of Age and Scarpelli to write the hotel story, tentatively titled “RRRR”.  This project would eventually be scrapped, because, as Hitchcock rather bluntly stated “…Italians are very slipshod in matters of story construction.  They just ramble on.”

Hitchcock brough novelist Brian Moore to Hollywood, to try and entice him into writing Torn Curtain.   Moore had no interest in writing a screenplay, but was convinced by his lawyer to accept, because the money offered was too good to pass up.   After Tomasini’s death, this was the second indication that Hitchcock was in trouble.   Reluctant screenwriters do not make great movies.  But Hitchcock forged ahead.

In the matter of casting,  Universal wanted him to use Paul Newman and Julie Andrews.  Hitchcock admired Newman’s early work, and thought he would do well.  He pushed back a little on Andrews, but the studio, and Hitchcock’s agent, said she was “great box-office.”   Hitchcock agreed to both actors well before the first draft of the screenplay was ready.   Their combined salaries (around $1.5 million) was more than the rest of the film’s budget.  And this for a screenplay that had yet to be completed.

Brian Moore’s initial draft was submitted in April of 1965.   Hitchcock cajoled him into writing a second and third draft, with additional rewrites, all done by the first week of August.  Hitchcock asked Moore to do an additional “polish” on the screenplay. By this time, Moore was exhausted, and frustrated with the screenwriting process.  He dropped out of the project, preferring to return to his novels.  Further, he told Hitchcock that the screenplay needed a complete rewrite, not just a polish.   At this point, Hitchcock’s production schedule was already locked in.  Julie Andrews was only available for a limited window in the fall, so he had to proceed.   So Hitchcock hired the British writing team of Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall, who stayed on during production, often rewriting scenes only hours before they were shot.  

Now Hitchcock would suffer another devastating loss.  Julie Andrews was scheduled to shoot some test footage at Universal in September of 1965, with Hitchcock and cinematographer Robert Burks.  The following is a production memo from Hitchcock’s assistant Peggy Roberts:

Friday September 17, Bob Burks “was terribly sick with nerves…and could not shoot the tests with Julie Andrews.”

“On Saturday Sep. 18, in the morning [Burks] called Mr. Hitchcock and it was decided that it would be too risky for him to do the film.”

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Alfred Hitchcock and Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Burks prepare a shot on the set of “North by Northwest.”

Bob Burks had been the cinematographer on twelve Alfred Hitchcock movies, dating back to 1951’s Strangers on a Train.  He was arguably the most important technical collaborator in Hitchcock’s entire career.  And now he would be unable to shoot Torn Curtain, due to “nerves”.  Apparently the last decade and a half of nearly non-stop filmmaking had caught up with him.  Hitchcock was disappointed, but certainly did not express any ill will towards his long-time friend.  Hitchcock merely hoped that after taking a breather, they could work together again on future Hitchcock movies.  Unfortunately, they would never have that opportunity, because Burks and his wife would die in a house fire in 1968.

  What had happened to Alfred Hitchcock?  The man who had always been so sure of himself; the man who had worked with almost complete autonomy in the waning days of the studio system; the man who, as recently as 1959, could stand up to the studio heads at MGM and refuse to cut a scene from North by Northwest?  Three years earlier, he could do no wrong.  Now nothing seemed to be going right.

So, the setup:  Alfred Hitchcock can’t decide on a topic for his movie.  He devolops several ideas simultaneously, hoping to find one that sticks.  And he proceeds with the last idea standing.

The beginning of the confrontation:  He had leading actors he wasn’t altogether pleased with; a screenplay that was not ready to be shot;  a shooting schedule that was locked in; and was missing two vital members of his collaborative team in Tomasini and Burks.

This is where we leave Hitchcock as he steps before the cameras on October 18, 1965 to begin principle photography on Torn Curtain.  To be continued…

 

 

  As promised in my previous coverage of Dial M for Murder, here is a more detailed look at one specific sequence in the film.  This is the sequence involving Tony Wendice’s conversation with Swan.  This portion of the film corresponds to Act I, Scene ii in Frederick Knott’s original play.  In Hitchcock’s movie, it is just over 22 minutes in length, comprising slightly more than 20% of the film’s total running time.  So how does Alfred Hitchcock manage to sustain interest and suspense,  for such a long period of time, with only 2 actors in one room?  There are approximately 121 editorial cuts in this 22 minute sequence, averaging one cut every 11 seconds.  This seems like a lot of editing for Alfred Hitchcock, but of course the specifics are much more interesting than mere mathematics.

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First off, Tony Wendice (played by Ray Milland) opens the door for Swan (Anthony Dawson), and they engage in introductory remarks.  Wendice pours Swan a drink.  This happens in one unbroken two-shot, lasting just under a minute.  Both actors then take a seat, facing each other.  Then Hitchcock goes into a very “standard” back and forth as Wendice and Swan converse.  The camera is on Wendice, then Swan, then back to Wendice, etc.  This back-and-forth cutting happens over 20 times in a couple of minutes.  The camera is usually trained on the actor who is speaking, but not always.  Occasionally the camera will cut to the listener, so we can read his reaction to what the other person is saying.  This is one way of breaking the monotony of the standard “two-shot conversation” sequence.   Then, just as the conversation is starting to take a turn, Hitchcock does something unique with the camera:

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As Wendice joins Swan on the sofa, the camera pans left so that we are behind the sofa, and the actors, with a lamp in between the two actors.  The camera has moved almost 90 degrees clockwise, and rather than cut to the new set-up, we observe the camera movement.  This is slightly off-putting.  Every time the viewer might start to get complacent, Hitchcock quickly changes the setup, keeping us off guard, and hopefully ensuring that we are paying attention to the very important dialogue.   After this dramatic camera movement, the scene continues in one uninterrupted take for about a 1 minute and 45 seconds.  During this time, Tony Wendice will get up and sit down twice, all without cutting.

DialM4Wendice ends up where he began, opposite Swan, and after an establishing two-shot Hitchcock goes back to the standard “back-and-forth”, cutting between the two men as Wendice slowly reels in Swan.   It is worth noting the Asian porcelain figurine behind Tony Wendice in this photo.   This figurine appears in various camera angles, and in a couple of instances appears to be staring directly at the camera, almost as if she is listening in on the conversation.   (I never noticed this detail myself, even after multiple viewings, but read about it on the wonderful site alfredhitchcockgeek.com.)  After almost 3 minutes of  rather standard back-and-forth cutting, Tony gets up and moves to the desk.

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Look at him sitting on the edge of the desk, arms crossed, both confident and comfortable.  He exudes power.  By this time he knows that he has Swan, and he is charming as ever.  Now when the camera cuts to Tony, it is on the opposite side of the room, near the fireplace.  Our view has moved 180 degrees from where we were when the two men sat on the sofa together, with the lamp between them.  Now the lamp is to the left of the frame, providing counterbalance to the figure of Wendice.  Tony Wendice will move back to the other side of the room, sitting now in the deep chair to the right of the one he sat in previously.

dialMtonychairThis is an interesting camera angle;  before we were looking at eye level, more or less.  But now the camera is in a lower position, looking up at Wendice, whose body fills the frame.  His position of strength has grown.  His tennis trophies can be seen just above his head on the mantel.  Now Tony stands up, and we are presented with an entirely new camera angle:

DialM5Now we can see bookshelves behind Tony.  These shelves are opposite the door.  Once again the camera has swung around the room.  We are seeing furnishings that we haven’t seen before.   But there is our familiar anchor, that green lamp, more or less dead center in the room.  We’ve seen it center frame, left of frame, and now it is right of frame, providing balance in the scene’s composition.   Tony walks back to the desk, to get Swan’s “carrot”, his money.  As he walks, we see the only part of the living room that we have not yet seen:

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There behind Tony’s head is a framed work of art, in between two bookshelves.  As he walks to the right, we see the second bookshelf, as well as some sort of china cabinet in the corner of the room.   Now we see the smaller, more ornate yellow lamp on the desk.  It enters this scene frame right.  Tony tosses the money across the room to Swan.  This is as far apart physically as they will ever get in this 22 minute sequence.  There is a gulf between them, as Swan appears to hesitate.

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We can now see another ornate piece of furniture, and another art print on the wall.   Alfred Hitchcock has made a complete circuit of the room, in a span of about 15 minutes, showing us every wall, every door, every unique furnishing.  Most viewers will make no notice of this, because they will be focused on the dialogue between Wendice and Swan, but it is the shifting camera angles that keep the dialogue interesting.   Some fans of this film have said that Hitchcock has done away with the “fourth wall” in this scene, through his constantly shifting camera.    This isn’t strictly true;  unlike the staged version of this play, Alfred Hitchcock has the luxury of shifting the location of the “fourth wall”, not only moving the players around the “fixed point” of the green lamp, but moving the audience as well!  But he is not done yet.

Swan moves to join Wendice at the desk, and at this point is is clear that they have reached an agreement.

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Look at the perfect framing of this shot.  The two men are not directly facing one another, but look at each other at a slightly oblique angle.  The telephone, which is to be the instrument of murder, is dead center frame, and directly between the men.  And the “new” lamp, which appears to be of Asian design as well, is now frame left.

Alfred Hitchcock leaves his best camera work for the end of the sequence.  All of a sudden, as Wendice begins to give the specifics of the murder to Swan, the camera cuts to a high overhead angle.

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I call this Hitchcock’s “God’s-eye view” shot.  He employed it in a majority of his films, usually only for a matter of seconds, and usually at a moment of extremely heightened tension.  (In Shadow of a Doubt, the camera pulls upward at the moment when niece Charlie discovers that her uncle’s gift of a ring came from a murdered woman.  In the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much, the camera moves overhead when the McKennas are talking to their kidnapped child on the phone.)  Removing the viewer from the action in this way is startling, because unexpected.  It also makes the characters, and the viewers as well, feel more helpless.   Hitchcock uses this angle a little differently here.  We stay in this overhead shot for two-and-a-half minutes, as we observe the plotting of a murder.   So why did Hitchcock employ this high angle here?   Could it be as simple as the fact that he had already shown us the room from every other conceivable angle?  Possibly.  It also serves to ensure that the viewer is aware of the layout of the room, and exactly where everything is, so that when the murder comes we know exactly what is supposed to happen.

After this the camera returns to an eye-level two shot, and finally we fade to black over 22 minutes after the sequence began.  The success of the film hangs on this sequence;  not only is Wendice hooking Swan, but Hitchcock is hooking the audience, and his innovative camera movements make this sequence wonderful, and a prime example of his masterful directorial eye.

 

 

 

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 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 in 3D since a brief theatrical 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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