Saturday, January 21, 2017

Stubs - Dial M for Murder

Dial M for Murder (1954) Starring: Ray Milland, Grace Kelly, Robert Cummings, John Williams. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay by Frederick Knott. Based on the play Dial M for Murder by Frederick Knott (London, 19 Jun 1952). Produced by Alfred Hitchcock. Runtime: 105 minutes. U.S.A. Color 3-D Mystery, Crime, Suspense

While 3-D is now a fairly common medium, last year over 30 films were released with either real or fake 3-D, the process really dates back to the 1950s, when the Hollywood studios were looking for anything to put people in theater seats after the emergence of television. Then it was used more as a novelty and the experimentation was short-lived.

But following the success of House of Wax (1953), studios like Warner Bros. were eager to jump on the bandwagon. While you wouldn’t think of Alfred Hitchcock as a prime candidate for making a 3-D film, the studio saw it differently.

The film is based on the very successful stage play by Frederick Knott, which originated on BBC television in 1952 before moving to a West End stage and eventually to Broadway. But before the stage version opened, Sir Alexander Korda bought the rights for $2800 and later resold them to Warner Bros. for $75,000. There was a provision in the contract that delayed any film version’s release until after the stage plays had closed. Dial M for Murder did not close until February 27, 1954, which forced Warner Bros. to delay some of their press previews.

Hitchcock had just finished I Confess (1953), a film noir starring Montgomery Clift, Anne Baxter, and Karl Malden and was planning to make The Bramble Bush, based on the 1948 novel by David Duncan.

At the time, Hitchcock was in a partnership with Sidney Bernstein called Transatlantic Pictures. But there were problems with the script (aren’t there always), problems with the budget and problems with the partnership. After Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) and Under Capricorn (1949), neither of which were big successes at the box office, a third film, Stage Fright (1950), was planned as a Transatlantic film, but was taken over by Warner Bros. When The Bramble Bush couldn’t get off the ground, the partnership was dissolved.

Even though the playwright is credited with the screenplay, there were some subtle changes made. As an example, one character’s name was changed from Max to Mark. However, for the most part, the film stays very faithful to the play.

While Anthony Dawson and John Williams were retained from the Broadway production to reprise their roles, the main leads were changed. Replacing Maurice Evans as Tony Wendice was Ray Milland, an actor best remembered for his role as an alcoholic writer in The Lost Weekend (1945), for which he would win an Academy Award.

Rather than Gusti Huber, the role of Margot Wendice would be played by Grace Kelly. Kelly was an actress who had only appeared in three prior films including High Noon (1952) and Mogambo (1953) but had already garnered an Academy Award nomination. While 1954 would be a breakthrough year for her as she would appear in five films, including two for Alfred Hitchcock, Dial M for Murder and Rear Window, it would also be one of her last. She would only appear in three more films before marrying Prince Rainer III of Monaco and gave up Hollywood as a result.

And finally, Max Halliday, renamed Mark Halliday, would be played by American actor Robert Cummings, who had already starred in Hitchcock’s Saboteur (1942). A year after this film, Cummings would star for four seasons in The Bob Cummings Show, also known in syndication as Love That Bob.

For those unfamiliar with the concept, the dial of a phone is shown behind the title.

The film never seems to shake the feeling of a stage play with almost all of the action taking place in the front room of the Wendices’ apartment in London. The film opens with Tony (Milland) kissing his wife Margot (Kelly). Over breakfast, Margot reads a notice in the London Times stating that American Mystery writer Mark Halliday was one of the passengers arriving that day aboard the ocean liner the Queen Mary.

Things look to be better between the Wendices, Tony (Ray Milland)
and his wife Margot (Grace Kelly), than they really are.

After some shots supposedly showing the liner arriving in port at South Hampton, Mark (Cummings) disembarks. Next time we see him, he’s involved in a passionate kiss with Margot. So far not a word of dialogue has been spoken. One of the strengths of Hitchcock is his ability to use visuals to help tell the story. After breaking off their kiss, Margot discusses with him why she changed her mind about leaving her husband, Tony.

Over drinks, Margot tells her former lover, Mark Halliday (Robert
Cummings), why she decided to stay with her husband.

Several months ago, when she had decided to leave him, Tony suddenly became more affectionate. He quit playing tennis and settled down. She never told Tony about Mark and doesn’t plan to. Now she’s convinced that Tony cares for her and won’t leave him even though she has a deep love for Mark, an American mystery and TV writer.

While they share a drink, Margot tells Mark that she’s burned all the letters he has sent her except one. “You know the one I mean,” she tells him. She tells him that she had kept that letter in her purse, that was until it was stolen one weekend in Victoria Station. While she was able to get the purse back after a couple of weeks, the letter was gone. But that’s not the end of her story. She tells Mark that she received a blackmail note with very specific instructions, but never got the letter back. Mark asks for, and she gives him, the two letters she’d received just ahead of Tony’s return from work.

Tony is aware of Mark’s visit but supposedly doesn’t know the relationship. They had made plans for the evening, including the theater and dinner, but now Tony tells them that he has to back out. His boss is going out of town and Tony has to complete a report before he does. As a consolation of sorts, Tony invited Mark to attend a stag party the following evening at his Club for a former tennis player. Mark is non-committal, but Tony insists and even tells Margot of their plans. Margot tries to encourage Tony to join them later and he tells her to call him and he’ll see.

Mark and Margot head out for a night on the town while Tony has to stay behind to work.

Once he’s alone, Tony calls a Captain Lesgate on the phone to inquire about a car that he has for sale. Tony invites Lesgate over under the guise of trying to negotiate a lower price for the car.

When Lesgate (Anthony Dawson) arrives it becomes clear that the two of them had been schoolmates at Cambridge. Tony even shows him a photo he has framed on the wall from a reunion where they shared the same table. (Also sitting at the same table is the director making his usual cameo.) Then known as C.A. Swann, Lesgate had been accused of stealing money from a dance treasury but managed to get the school’s handyman blamed for the theft. But Tony tells him he knows that Swann has become a petty thief and confidence man.

CA. Swann, now called Captain Lesgate (Anthony Dawson), thinks he come to sell a car to Tony.

Tony tells Lesgate that he married Margot for her money and retired from tennis when he feared that he might otherwise lose her. He became aware that she was keeping a letter from him in her purse. When he saw the opportunity to steal her purse, he did. After reading the letters, he sent her a couple of blackmail notes, but never followed through on them.

When Tony takes out the letter, which he carries in his own billfold, under the guise of showing it to Lesgate, he lets it fall to the floor. Being the gentleman, Lesgate reaches down to pick it up, but Tony is careful not to touch it himself.

Tony seems very proud of himself after getting Lesgate' fingerprints on Mark's love letter to Margot.

After reading the letter’s contents, Tony tells Lesgate he knew that he could lose out on his wife’s money and the lifestyle he had become accustomed to, so he decided to kill her. He further adds that he might have done it, too, but sitting in a pub in Knightsbridge, he saw something that changed his mind. When Lesgate asks “What did you see?”, Tony responds, “I saw you.”

Knowing about Lesgate’s shady past, Tony began to follow him around and found out of his many affairs and unpaid rents around town. Tony knows enough to manipulate Lesgate into committing the murder for him.

When Lesgate considers going to the police with Tony’s proposal, Tony tells him it would be Lesgate’s word against his. With Lesgate’s past, things could get dicey for him as landlords will come forward and Tony even tells him that he could make it look like Lesgate had stolen the handbag and was trying to blackmail the couple to get back the letter.

Tony has been setting aside money in small amounts for nearly a year and has £1000 in small untraceable notes. He offers Lesgate £100 now and the rest when the job is done. He’s worked out the mechanics and tells Lesgate when to arrive (three minutes before 11pm) and how to get in (Tony will leave his latchkey under the carpeting over the fifth step in the hallway). Tony will leave his party under the premise to call his boss, but will instead call the house at 11. His wife, who will be in bed, will get up from the bedroom and cross over to the phone. After Lesgate has killed her he should whistle into the phone and then Tony will hang up and call his boss. Lesgate is then to take a suitcase and throw some of Tony’s trophies in it to make it look like an interrupted robbery, but to leave instead.

Lesgate thinks about it, finally picking up the £100 to show he’s in on the plot, sealing his fate.

The next night, when the crime is supposed to happen, Margot nearly derails things when instead of listening to a Saturday night show on the radio she wants to go see a movie. Tony can’t have that and guilts her into staying home and putting his tennis clippings into a scrapbook. Before he leaves, he manages to steal her latch key from her purse. On the way out, he manages to sneak it into its hiding place on the stairs.

Later, following orders, Lesgate uses the key to unlock the door and puts it back where he found it. He enters the apartment and waits. And waits. And waits.

Meanwhile, at the banquet, Tony looks down at his watch and he has about twenty minutes to go before he needs to make his call. But unbeknownst to him, his watch has stopped. He doesn’t figure this out until he looks again and the time hasn’t changed.

Tony wonders about the time so he can set his alibi in motion.

Back in the apartment, Lesgate is getting anxious and is starting to rethink the circumstance. When Tony does figure it out, he is delayed further by someone else using the phone. Several minutes late, he manages to make the call. Lesgate hears the phone and gets back in place behind the drapes to wait.

Margot, as planned, comes out of the bedroom to answer the phone. But Tony doesn’t say anything at first. Lesgate is apprehensive and waits until he has a clear shot. Then he wraps his scarf around her neck and tries to strangle her, while Tony waits on the other end of the phone. It is the last thing that goes according to plan.

Lesgate waits for the right moment to strangle Margot.

Margot puts up a terrific fight and struggles. When she is forced down on the desk she reaches back for anything to thwart her attacker. Finding the scissors she’d been using with the clippings, she drives it into Lesgate’s back. It stops the attack as Lesgate struggles to find the handle. But instead he falls on his back, driving the scissors further into his back and killing him.

In the struggle, Margot stabs her assailant in the back with her scissors.

Margot picks up the phone and implores whoever is calling to call the police. Finally, Tony speaks. She tells him that she’s been attacked and the man is dead. Tony tells her to stay calm and not touch anything; he’s on his way home. Back at the table, Tony tells Mark that he needs to leave, saying Margot is not feeling well.

When he arrives at the apartment, Tony pretends to be protecting her from the police and sends Margot to bed before calling the police. While he’s waiting for them to arrive, he goes through Lesgate’s pockets and puts that key into his wife’s purse. He also puts the love letter from Mark where the police will find it. Then after finding the scarf, he lights it on fire in the fireplace. In its place he uses one of Margot’s hose which have been in her mending kit. It’s matching pair he hides under the plotter on the desk.

When Tony gets home, he rethinks his plan.

While the police are investigating the murder scene, Tony makes sure to expose the hidden hose when he puts out tea for the detectives. This leads to an investigation led by Chief Inspector Hubbard (John Williams). Tony instructs Margot to hide the fact that he didn’t tell her to call the police, to say she thought he would have called from the Club.

Chief Inspector Hubbard (John Willaims) is on the case.

During Hubbard’s interrogation, Margot makes what sound like conflicting statements. When it is determined that Lesgate must have entered through the front door, Tony claims to have seen Lesgate at the time Margot’s purse disappeared and that he must have made a copy. But Hubbard doesn’t believe this investigation because no latch key was found on the body. Hubbard concludes that Margot must have let him in and killed him over the blackmail.

In a Hitchcockian trial montage, which consists of a close up of Margot with varying light effects, she is found guilty and sentenced to death.

Margot's trial for murder is shown in minimalist fashion.

Several months pass and it is the eve of Margot’s execution. Mark shows up with a wild suggestion in order to save her; he confess to hiring Lesgate to murder her, that would make Lesgate’s murder one of self-defense. Mark tries to convince Tony that he would not be convicted for an uncommitted crime, but at the worse would have to serve a few years in prison. Tony refuses to play along, but Mark continues to weave a more involved story which mirrors the real events of the crime, including the idea that Tony was the one who stole her purse and took the letter. But Tony refuses, saying the police would never believe his story.

Just then, Hubbard shows up unexpectedly and Mark goes to hide in the bedroom. While he’s in there, he overhears Hubbard following up on some of Tony’s recent spending habits, which involve larger than normal payments. While he’s listening, Mark finds a briefcase Tony has hid in the bedroom. Inside, Mark finds the money Tony had intended to pay off Lesgate with and the source of the money he is now spending.

Just when it looks like Tony has convinced Hubbard he has nothing to hide, Mark comes forward with the briefcase, but Hubbard appears to be unconvinced that there is anything to the story. But before he leaves, Hubbard makes the point of telling Tony that he should pick up Margot’s things from the precinct, including her purse and some other possessions. He then exchanges his raincoat for Tony’s and leaves.

Later, when the apartment is vacant, Hubbard enters using Tony’s key. He is followed quickly by Mark. Hubbard tries but cannot get rid of Mark before plainclothesmen escort Margot inside. Hubbard makes her try her key in the door, but it doesn’t work. She is perplexed, asking if the lock has been changed. Hubbard intimates that he still needs proof of his suspicions and has the purse returned to the precinct. The three of them and the plainclothesmen wait for Tony to arrive.

Margot can't understand why her latch key doesn't work.

As they wait, Hubbard admits that he got the Home Secretary to let Margot out of prison, but intimates that he needs proof of his suspicions about Tony. He has one of his men return Margot’s handbag to the station. Later, Tony arrives, but has no key to get in; the key in his raincoat won’t work and he becomes aware that he has the wrong one. Hubbard watches from inside the apartment as Tony pieces everything together. Tony then goes to the police station and soon returns with Margot’s effects, including her handbag. When this key fails to open the door, Tony realizes that he took the wrong key off Lesgate on the night of the murder. He then checks under the carpet on the stairs, retrieves the key he took from Margot’s handbag and unlocks the door.

The 3-D effects in Dial"M For Murder are far from being over the top.

When he enters and finds Hubbard, Mark and Margot waiting inside, Tony acknowledges that Hubbard has correctly solved the case. Hubbard, rather proud of himself, goes to call the station.

Mark and Margot are reunited.

The film rarely gets beyond its play setting. Like the play, most of the action takes place in the front room of the Wendices’ apartment. While that can sometimes be claustrophobic, this film manages to avoid that by showing scenes at the Club where Tony and Mark are attending a banquet as Tony’s alibi.

While the film was shot in 3-D, there really is very little to show for it. The most noticeable use was when Hubbard finds Margot’s key still hidden under the carpeting on the staircase and holds it out for Mark to see. It seems like an odd mix of medium and director. On the surface, it doesn’t make sense now, but back then Warner Bros. was no doubt hoping to get as many miles as it could out of combining a top director with what was supposed to be the hottest technology. Hitchcock didn’t like the format and worked with it reluctantly. He found working in stereoscope limited his ability to exploit camera placement and angles.

But the 3-D boom was short-lived and by Dial M For Murder was released, the fad was practically over. Even the theater that premiered the film on May 18, 1954, the Randolph Theatre in Philadelphia, Kelly's hometown, switched to the flat 2D format the next evening, in what it said was a response to a low turnout and negative audience response to the 3-D print. Hitchcock was quoted as saying of 3-D, "It's a nine-day wonder, and I came in on the ninth day."

The acting for the most part is very good. It helps that two of the supporting actors, John Williams (Chief Inspector Hubbard) and Anthony Dawson (C. A. Swann/Captain Lesgate), had already played these roles on stage. While the leads may have been new to the roles, they were three very good actors.

Welsh-born Ray Milland had proven himself to be a more than capable actor in a career which dated back to 1929’s Piccadilly and had already won an Academy Award for his acting. He’s quite believable here as the husband who wants his wife dead, underplaying the role makes it so. Tony comes off as a cool character whether he’s planning her murder or giving up to authorities when he gets caught.

Grace Kelly may have been relatively new to the screen, but had begun her career at the age of 20, with appearances on the New York stage and on more than 40 appearances on live-TV back in the 1950s Golden Age of Television. Her move to film seems almost a natural progression given all the actors and actresses who had come before her. She garnered a lot of attention from one of her first screen appearances in High Noon (1951) and an Academy Award for her role in The Country Girl (1954).

Alfred Hitchcock liked working with Grace Kelly.

Kelly was a favorite of Hitchcock’s, appearing in two more films, Rear Window (1954) and To Catch a Thief (1955). The quintessential Hitchcock blonde, he would try, but never really find, a replacement for her in his future films, though he would try. Outrage in her principality over Kelly playing a kleptomaniac prevented her from starring in a fourth film for the director, Marnie (1962), a role which would ultimately go to Tippi Hedren.

Robert Cummings, a native of Joplin, Missouri, sort of got into acting as a second choice. His first love was planes and he had gone to the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh to study aeronautical engineering, but was forced out of school when his parents lost heavily in the 1929 Stock Market Crash. He went to study at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City because they paid their male actors $14 a week.

While he studied dramatic acting in school, Cummings was best known for his comedic acting both on the screen in such films as Three Smart Girls Grow Up (1939), The Devil and Miss Jones (1941), Moon Over Miami (1941), and The Bride Wore Boots (1946); and on television in his own sit com. But Cummings was also a capable dramatic actor as he demonstrates here. His character Mark almost borders on comedic relief as he makes up a story that exactly reflects how Tony had planned out the murder as if life were no stranger than fiction.

Dial M for Murder may not be one of Hitchcock’s most memorable films, but it does show that he’s capable of adapting someone else’s work. Usually the stories he made were his own or ones that he worked closely with a writer or writers on. While the mystery, suspense and the idea of committing the perfect murder are hallmarks of his work, it is missing the high concept that seemed to be a prominent feature of his films like Rear Window and North by Northwest (1959). The film sort of feels like a big screen version of the type of stories he would popularize on his own television show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which ran from 1955 until 1962. 

But even less than great Hitchcock means the film can be entertaining and that is the case with Dial M for Murder. Very much worth watching, but no need to watch it in 3-D.

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