Sunday, January 29, 2017

Yu-Gi-Oh!: The Dark Side of Dimensions

Note: This review contains unmarked spoilers relating to the events of the original Yu-Gi-Oh! anime/manga.

In celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Yu-Gi-Oh! franchise, a new movie, The Dark Side of Dimensions, was announced at San Diego Comic-Con 2016, set to take place after the original Yu-Gi-Oh! series. I happened to attend the panel at which this was announced, which featured a special appearance by Yu-Gi-Oh! creator/mangaka Kazuki Takahashi, who would have heavy involvement in story and designs for the movie (he even did a special live drawing of Yugi just for that panel). In anticipation of this, Takahashi also created two special Yu-Gi-Oh! chapters called TRANSCEND GAME, bridging the gap between the original series and the new movie; these chapters have since been translated to English by Viz Media, distributed in the English version of Weekly Shonen Jump (the December 19th, 2016 and January 2nd, 2017 issues in particular, for those who are curious).

Though the movie was released in Japan in time for the 20th anniversary, it was not until recently that the movie began a limited theatrical run in the US; due to circumstance, I had to view this movie at the rather luxurious iPic theater, though this did not affect my thoughts on the movie itself. There was also a special card handed out to movie-goers, a (tournament-legal) Gold Rare Obelisk the Tormentor. Overall, I thought the movie was a good expansion on the original story and a worthy celebration of the franchise.

One year after the events of the original anime (six months after the original manga in the Japanese version), Seto Kaiba (Eric Stuart) is working on a new design for the Duel Disk, while at the same time looking for a way to once again duel Atem. Meanwhile, Yugi Muto (Dan Green), Joey Wheeler (Wayne Grayson), Tristan Taylor (Greg Abbey), Téa Gardner (Amy Birnbaum) and Bakura Ryou (Ted Lewis) are contemplating their plans after graduating High School. At school, they meet a boy named Aigami (Daniel J. Edwards), whom they simultaneously do and do not remember meeting before. It isn’t long before Aigami begins using the power of a mysterious artifact to further his desire to reshape the world and prevent the re-awakening of Atem.

L-R: Téa Gardner (Amy Birnbaum), Yugi Muto (Dan Green), Bakura Ryou (Ted Lewis),
Joey Wheeler (Wayne Grayson), Tristan Taylor (Greg Abbey) discuss their graduation.

For what it is, the story is actually pretty easy to follow, though it generally assumes you are already a Yu-Gi-Oh! fan who is familiar with the original story. Seto Kaiba seems to be the one actually taking central focus this time, rather than Yugi Muto, although Yugi’s contributions to the story show that he is certainly not forgotten. Those who are fans may need to explain the story for uninitiated viewers, though the 10-minute extra included with the Bonds Beyond Time Blu-ray does an effective job of explaining some of the major canon events prior to the Millennium World Arc.

The new character and main antagonist Aigami gets more of a fleshed-out backstory than some prior movie-exclusive villains, a result of his increased screen time in the 2-hour feature, which also includes back-stories of a handful of other new characters. Some other new characters only exist in the movie as a form of cannon fodder for Aigami’s abilities, and so we do not really get to know that much about them aside from some very basic information. In spite of any shortcomings, the movie can get really funny in places, both in dialogue and in some visual aspects, and it can also get a little emotional at some points for longtime fans of the series.

Though the movie is stated on the official Yu-Gi-Oh! website to take place after the anime by Studio Gallop, fans of the manga can get a bonus out of being able to spot some minor cameos from characters who never appeared in said anime, which is evidence of the original intention of taking place after the manga. A running element is Joey’s attachment to his Duel Disk, which seems to take more after the design of the Duel Disk in the manga, where it was one solid piece, although this is muddied a little by an appearance from the anime-style Duel Disk, which had the ability to fold into a more compact shape. This, however, is only a minor tidbit in the grand scheme of things.

Seto Kaiba (Eric Stuart) will go to great lengths to get another
chance to Duel Atem.

The Duels in the movie are presented spectacularly, especially since the cards are actually translated into English, similarly to the Yu-Gi-Oh! movie Pyramid of Light, except with card text closer to that of the wording style in the real-world Trading Card Game as of the movie’s release. The only way to get a good look at the card text, though, would be to be able to pause the movie in any future home video release, though this I felt was a nice touch, as was the fact that Duelists start off with 8000 Life Points (LP) like in the real-world game, as opposed to the 2000 or 4000 LP rule used in most iterations of Yu-Gi-Oh! fiction. While the normal style of Dueling is still present, a new style of Dueling is introduced known as Dimension Dueling, which is used exclusively in Duels involving Aigami. While the concept is interesting, the pacing of a Dimension Duel admittedly gets a little muddy at times, especially on Aigami’s part.

The animation is some of the best ever seen in Yu-Gi-Oh!, making the Duels themselves a true spectacle. The CG used for some monsters is also improved over what can be seen in the anime or Bonds Beyond Time, blending in better with the traditionally-animated elements. A highlight is also Kaiba’s new Duel Disks, at times seeming influenced by and improving upon the designs seen in the Yu-Gi-Oh! Zexal spin-off series. Kaiba’s new Duel Disk in particular, featuring virtual cards, is animated amazingly well, standing out against all other Duel Disks seen in the series thus far (as of the Yu-Gi-Oh! Arc-V spin-off).

The sound design is really good, particularly with the sounds made during Duels. Returning characters share the same voice actors they had in the 4Kids dub of the original anime, which works well for consistency, and they put out great performances that display a refined experience with their characters, especially Dan Green and Eric Stuart as Yugi and Kaiba respectively. Daniel J. Edwards does a good job voicing antagonist Aigami, displaying a good range with the character and capturing his emotions throughout the course of the feature. The background music is also good, although a highlight would be the new mix of the English Yu-Gi-Oh! Theme that plays during the credits.

Yu-Gi-Oh!: The Dark Side of Dimensions is a well-executed continuation of the original story, though it was definitely made with Yu-Gi-Oh! fans in mind. The film has one of the best examples of Yu-Gi-Oh! animation to date, and the plot and action are relatively straight-forward, with the exception of the Dimension Duel concept. The callbacks to the original manga provide an interesting touch, plus the returning voice actors do a good job in reflecting how much their characters have changed in the intervening period of time in-universe. Those who are uninitiated may get lost, especially during the actual Duels, and so may need a short explanation of preceding (original series) Yu-Gi-Oh! lore before going in. Those who are longtime fans of the series should definitely check out the two TRANSCEND GAME chapters as well, as they provide some insight into the exploits of Seto Kaiba preceding the events of the movie proper.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Yu-Gi-Oh! 3D: Bonds Beyond Time

For those who are unaware, Yu-Gi-Oh! is a popular anime and manga series created by Kazuki Takahashi in 1996 which follows a boy named Yugi Muto on his journey to uncover the mysterious past of an ancient Egyptian pharaoh who resides within the Millenium Puzzle, an artifact which hangs around his neck. Throughout the course of the series, Yugi fights a number of villains through the Duel Monsters card game, with each duel bringing new challenges to overcome. Since the conclusion of the original Yu-Gi-Oh! series, a number of spin-off series were produced in an effort to continue promoting the official Trading Card Game: Yu-Gi-Oh! GX, Yu-Gi-Oh! 5D’s, Yu-Gi-Oh! Zexal and, currently, Yu-Gi-Oh! Arc-V.

Yu-Gi-Oh! is also no stranger to film. The first film, known as Yu-Gi-Oh! The Movie, was exclusively released in Japan in 1999 and based on a Japanese-only Yu-Gi-Oh! series animated by Toei Animation, a series nicknamed “Season 0” by fans. The second film, Yu-Gi-Oh! The Movie: Pyramid of Light, released in 2004 and marketed in the US as Yu-Gi-Oh!: The Movie, was based on the more well-known Yu-Gi-Oh! anime produced by Studio Gallop and Nihon Ad Systems and remains ambiguously canon. In 2010, a third movie subtitled Bonds Beyond Time was released in celebration of the 10th anniversary of the Yu-Gi-Oh! anime adaptation and serves as a crossover between the first three Yu-Gi-Oh! series. In the US, the film received a limited theatrical release in 2011 with 10 minutes of additional footage to give some backstory on the three main characters and an exclusive Malefic Red-Eyes Black Dragon card distributed to theatergoers. We had first seen Bonds Beyond Time in 3D during this run and, in anticipation of a screening of a fourth Yu-Gi-Oh! movie, The Dark Side of Dimensions, decided to view it again, this time at home on a Blu-ray.

As Yusei Fudo (Greg Abbey) contemplates the state of New Domino City, two of his friends, Jack Atlas (Ted Lewis) and Crow Hogan (Tom Wayland), challenge him to a duel to cheer him up. While the three of the them ride on a bridge, a mysterious man named Paradox (Sean Schemmel) shows up and steals Yusei’s ace card, Stardust Dragon, before disappearing into the past. Using the power of the Crimson Dragon, Yusei travels back into the past and rescues Jaden Yuki (Matthew Charles) from Paradox before the two of them travel back further to rescue Yugi Muto (Dan Green) from a dark fate. The three duelists then face off against Paradox in a duel to determine the fate of both the Duel Monsters card game and the world.

L-R: Yami Yugi (Dan Green), Yusei Fudo (Greg Abbey) and
Jaden Yuki (Matthew Charles) about to face off against Paradox.

Since the movie is short, clocking in at about 50 minutes, the story is pretty simple and the plot is fairly easy to follow. However, it does rely heavily on viewers already having familiarity with the three main duelists and their adventures, though mainly Yu-Gi-Oh! 5D’s, to make the most sense. As such, viewers who are not familiar with the Yu-Gi-Oh! franchise may get easily lost in trying to understand the character relationships and the unnecessarily complicated card game, the latter of which a seasoned fan will more easily be able to follow. An additional ten minutes of footage explaining Yugi, Jaden and Yusei’s backstories can be viewed as a bonus feature on the Blu-ray, but it still may not help the uninitiated that much.

Fans of the Yu-Gi-Oh! franchise may also want to know that this movie is actually canon, specifically to Yu-Gi-Oh! 5D’s, as Paradox and his exploits are relevant to a future arc of the series. For those who are wondering, the movie takes place between episodes 80 and 86 of 5D’s.

As for the actual duel, it’s a rare opportunity to see characters from across multiple series duel with each other, much less with the fate of the world at stake at the same time. However, the main heroes seem to fairly easily retain control over the duel despite the best efforts of Paradox. Despite this, it’s entertaining and a good chance to see fan-favorite cards interacting with each other. In addition, the interactions between the heroes occasionally produces some good humor.

Due to the increased budget of this movie, it has higher quality animation compared to the anime series it’s based on. Character and card animations and movements are much smoother and the quality is more consistent. While most of the movie uses traditional animation, there are some moments when CG animation is used, though it is pretty obvious when placed against the traditional elements, particularly when applied to the monsters. This creates a temporary visual contrast that can take one out of the moment, but fortunately these moments are infrequent enough they don’t detract from the overall experience.

As for the voice acting, the dub uses the 4Kids voice actors that viewers have come to associate with their respective characters. Whatever one’s opinion of 4Kids may be, the four most prominent voices, Greg Abbey as Yusei Fudo, Sean Schemmel as Paradox, Matthew Charles as Jaden Yuki and Dan Green as both Yugi Muto and Yami Yugi, do a pretty good job with their respective characters and display their chemistry with each other well. At the same time, since I personally had watched each season of Yu-Gi-Oh! for several years, I can’t imagine the idea of anyone else doing these voices.

Sean Schemmel voices the villainous Paradox.

The music choice is also pretty interesting. While there does appear to be an original score in places, the dub makes a pretty neat choice with incorporating music from the Duel Monsters, GX and 5D’s seasons of the show whenever the character from that series is most prominent in a given scene. For instance, when Jaden attacks with a monster during his turn, music from Yu-Gi-Oh! GX plays in the background. The music during the credits even consists of the dub themes from each of the three versions of the series, which can double as a nostalgia bomb for anyone who grew up watching these characters in action.

On a final note, I remember the 3D version during the limited theatrical run having a pretty effective use of the technology. Unfortunately, a 3D copy on home video is hard to come by, so we had to view it through a 2D Blu-ray. On the upside, it also includes the original Japanese version with subtitles, which some people may find attractive.

Yu-Gi-Oh! 3D: Bonds Beyond Time is an enjoyable movie for fans of the Yu-Gi-Oh! franchise. Its straightforward plot and dramatic duel make for a decent addition to the canon of the spin-off material and is excellent fanservice for fans who have wanted to see their favorite characters and cards interact with each other against an original, though not very fleshed out, villain. While it is easy to recommend to fans, it would be very difficult for the uninitiated to follow along with the central duel, let alone care about the story or characters. In that case, it may be worth trying to view the bonus feature on the Blu-ray for some semblance of an explanation as to who Yugi, Jaden and Yusei are, but its effectiveness is not guaranteed.

Stubs - The Girl From Mexico

The Girl From Mexico (1939) Starring: Lupe Vélez, Donald Woods, Leon Errol, Linda Hayes, Donald MacBride, Edward Raquello, Elisabeth Risdon, Ward Bond Director: Leslie Goodwins. Screenplay by Lionel Houser, Joseph Fields Producer: Robert Sisk Runtime: 71 minutes USA Comedy

If you’re a friend of the TV show Fraiser or have read Hollywood Babylon by Kenneth Anger, you have no doubt heard of Lupe Velez, but not for her acting. Rumor has it that with her career waning, Lupe wanted to commit suicide in such a way that she would be forever remembered, you know, make an impression on the way out. She took seconal and then, in her best dress, lay down on the rose petal covered bed and waited for death. But the spicy Mexican meal that she had chosen for her last meal didn’t agree with her. She managed to get out of bed, but on the way to the bathroom, she tripped, hit her head and was found dead in the toilet. While it might make for a great story, that is all it is.

Still, having heard the story made me interested in seeing her act and when The Girl From Mexico played on TCM, I got my chance to see Lupe in action.

The Girl From Mexico has B-movie written all over it. A low-budget offering from RKO, the film is just one more example that not every film released in Hollywood’s Golden Year was up to the standards of Gone With The Wind or The Wizard of Oz or even Gunga Din.

The story revolves around Dennis Lindsey (Donald Woods), an advertising executive who is sent to Mexico to find a singer for one of his company’s client's radio shows. He is not the first one sent down and he is anxious to please his boss, L. B. Renner (Donald MacBride), even if his fiancée, Elizabeth Price (Linda Hayes), is not happy about it.

But things don’t go as planned. On his way to see one singer, Dennis’ car breaks down in a small town. Without parts to fix his car, Dennis is stuck. That night, at a local festival, he hears the hot-tempered Carmelita Fuentes (Lupe Velez) sing and offers to take her to New York and fame and fortune. But Carmelita doesn’t want to leave. Finally, Carmelita, after several incendiary confrontations with Dennis, accedes to her family's wishes and signs a singing contract with him. After Dennis promises to look after her welfare in New York and puts up a $10,000 bond, she accompanies him back home.

He invites her to stay with him as well as his aunt Della (Elisabeth Risdon), who has moved in with him to help get him ready for the upcoming wedding. And along with aunt Della comes uncle Matt (Leon Errol), a rather shiftless sort who makes fast friends with Carmelita. Meanwhile, Carmelita has decided to steal him from his fiancée.

Although Dennis tells her to stay home on the day before her audition, Carmelita persuades Uncle Matt to take her to a baseball game and a wrestling match, where she loses her voice cheering on wrestler Mexican Pete (Ward Bond). During the match, Mexican Pete ends up sitting in her lap at ringside and a newspaper photographer snaps a photo.

Carmelita cheers on Mexican Pete (Ward Bond) at a wrestling match.

The next day at her audition, despite uncle Matt’s attempts to help, Carmelita’s voice croaks, causing the sponsor to cancel the show and Dennis great embarrassment. When the photo of Mexican Pete and Carmelita comes out, Dennis questions her about it. To cover for Uncle Matt, Carmelita tells Dennis that she was out with an unnamed man, prompting Dennis to threaten to send her back to Mexico.

Uncle Matt (Leon Errol) tries to help Carmelita get her voice back before her big audition.

Angry Carmelita blames Mexican Pete for her bad luck and goes to a restaurant that the wrestler owns. But Mexican Pete offers her a job in his nightclub as compensation.

Meanwhile, Renner and his wife and Dennis and Elizabeth are out entertaining a new and divorced client, Tony Romano (Edward Raquello), at the same club. Romano is so impressed by Carmelita's performance that he hires her to advertise his perfume. As the night progresses, Elizabeth becomes jealous of Dennis' attention to Carmelita and Dennis becomes jealous of Romano's attention to Carmelita.

Dennis (Donald Woods) pays too much attention to Carmelita at Mexican Pete's cantina.

After the performance, Carmelita escapes with Uncle Matt and the two of them stay out all night at the six-day bike races then going on in New York. (An NYC six-day bike race was also featured in 1933's International House, so it was a real thing.) When they get home the next morning, Dennis has been waiting up for her. Carmelita leads Dennis to believe that she was out with Romano, so as not to implicate uncle Matt and to make Dennis jealous.

Carmelita uses Romano's perfume in prep for Dennis' arrival.

While at a photo session for the perfume at Romano's house, Carmelita calls Dennis and tells him that she is thinking of moving in with Romano. When Dennis decides to leave his own wedding rehearsal to rescue Carmelita, Elizabeth breaks off their engagement. Dennis rushes to Romano's house to defend her honor, and after an altercation with Romano, Dennis scoops up Carmelita and carries her to the altar.

Dennis breaks off his own engagement to save Carmelita.

When the film was released on June 2, 1939, it was a surprise hit. At the time the film was made, RKO had no plans to make a series out of it, but its success led to a sequel, Mexican Spitfire (1940) and a series of films starring Lupe: The Mexican Spitfire's Baby (1941), Mexican Spitfire at Sea (1942), Mexican Spitfire Sees a Ghost (1942), Mexican Spitfire's Elephant (1942) and Mexican Spitfire's Blessed Event (1943).

Having seen the film, it’s hard to imagine why it was a hit. While Lupe Velez may have had talent, the character she played was loud and annoying and hard to take. It’s hard to know how much of it was the actress or the script, but no matter, I can’t see why anyone would want to see more of the same.

The story is also as bad as it is predictable. This is one of those films, and there are many, where the couple falls in love only because it is in the script. There is no chemistry, no development or obvious attraction that would lead them to the altar. While Elizabeth is no real prize herself, she's rather a cold fish, she and Dennis do seem to have some history that Dennis is all too quick to throw away for a woman he barely knows and who is wildly annoying. But the script says he falls in love with Carmelita, so he does.

To call Donald Woods bland would be doing a disservice to plain yogurt. His uninspired acting is the perfect blank slate for the vivacious Velez to dance all over. He doesn’t add much more than a fairly good-looking actor who had blood in his veins and was available. He would be gone from the Mexican Spitfire series after Mexican Spitfire Out West.

It is interesting that the relationship with Uncle Matt would be the best one in the film, which isn’t saying much, and would eventually become the focus of the Mexican Spitfire series. The actors playing her husband Dennis would change, but Leon Errol would become a staple.

The Australian-born Errol has Vaudeville routine written all over him in this film, so it’s no surprise that he had spent time on the circuit. After moving to America, he got involved with not only performing but also management, giving an early boost to a young comedian, Roscoe Arbuckle.

His flirtation with movies began in the silent era, but it wasn’t until 1930 that he gave up Broadway for films, working for Samuel Goldwyn, Columbia Pictures, Warner Bros. and RKO, where he would make six shorts a year from 1934 until his death in 1951. While he’s not as off-putting as Velez is, a little Errol seems to go a long way.

The teaming of Leon Errol with Lupe would last
 through the run of  Mexican Spitfire movies.

Lupe Velez, born María Guadalupe Villalobos Vélez in 1908, had been a fixture in the Pre-Code party days of Hollywood. She was a regular at the Garden of Allah, a famous hotel known for having the same sort of reputation the Chateau Marmont has today. She had begun on the Mexican stage performing in revues. The recommendation of Frank A. Woodyard to stage director Richard Bennett, brought her to Los Angeles to appear as a Mexican cantina singer in his play The Dove. But she arrived too late and was replaced in the role.

But while in Los Angeles, she made the acquaintance of comedian Fanny Brice, who was quite taken with her. Brice recommended her to Flo Ziegfeld, who hired her to perform in his New York City club. As she was preparing to leave, she got a phone call from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer producer Harry Rapf, who offered her a screen test. That screen test was seen by Hal Roach, who hired her to perform in the Laurel and Hardy comedy short Sailors, Beware! (1927).

She would go on to appear in The Gaucho (1927) opposite Douglas Fairbanks and Wolf Song (1929) opposite Gary Cooper, both were silent. One of the first successful Mexican actresses in Hollywood, she was often typecast as a hot-tempered Latin woman, known as The Mexican Spitfire. She successfully made the transition to sound and was featured in many Pre-Code films, including playing Naturich in Cecile B. DeMille’s 1931 remake of The Squaw Man. She would eventually find a place in comedies playing beautiful but volatile characters. As time went on and her star dimmed, Velez would drift into B-Pictures, like this one and the series of related films that followed. She would make 13 films after The Girl From Mexico, so her suicide at age 36 had little to do with her career tanking; she seemed to be working steadily.

Instead, it was love gone wrong and perhaps undiagnosed bi-polarity that led her to take her own life. The former wife of Tarzan’s Johnny Weissmuller, she began to date a struggling young Austrian actor named Harald Maresch (aka Harald Ramond) in 1944. In September, she discovered she was pregnant by Ramond and announced their engagement in November. But that only lasted until December 10, when she announced their engagement was off and he had moved out of her house.

Harald Ramond and Lupe together in happier times.

On the night of December 13, Velez dined with her friends, actress Estelle Taylor and Benita Oakie from 9 pm to 3:30 am the next day. When she retired to her room, she consumed the 75 seconal pills and a glass of brandy, after leaving a suicide note. Apparently, after they had broken up, Ramond having told her he was only marrying her to “give the baby a name,” Velez didn’t see any other way out. A devout Catholic, she couldn’t have an abortion and so she took her own life.

Not being an expert on Velez, I have read that at the end of her last Spitfire film, Mexican Spitfire's Blessed Event, released five months before her suicide, Carmelita and her husband Dennis, then played by actor Walter Reed, learn that she is pregnant. It is ironic that her own would lead to suicide.

Carmelita and Dennis (Walter Reed) learn they are expecting in Mexican Spitfire's Blessed Event,
the last in the series of  films inspired by the success of The Girl From Mexico.

While her life came to a very sad end, that was five years away when this film was made and is no excuse to watch it now. I have no idea if any of the films from the sequel series were any better, but it is hard to imagine they could be any worse. The Girl From Mexico is almost unwatchable unless you’re a die-hard fan of Lupe Velez, and I’m doubtful there are many of those around these days if there ever were.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Final Fantasy XV

The story of Final Fantasy XV’s development goes all the way back to Final Fantasy XIII, which spawned a compilation called Fabula Nova Crystallis (“new tale of the crystal” in Latin). One of the titles originally announced for this compilation was Final Fantasy Versus XIII, directed by Tetsuya Nomura. However, the game went through a troubled production cycle, including on-and-off pre-production, to the point where the game changed hands to a new director, Hajime Tabata, who changed up a few elements of the game in order to help development move forward. To reflect these changes, the game’s title became Final Fanatsy XV, officially removing itself from the Fabula Nova Crystallis compilation.

The game's logo and title pre-E3 2013.

Details about the production will end here, as I hadn’t followed it until after the announcement of Final Fantasy XV’s release. This review will cover not what could have been, but what became of the final product.

Post-E3 2013, Final Fantasy Versus XIII
officially became Final Fantasy XV.

In the story of Final Fantasy XV, the Kingdom of Lucis is to sign an armistice with the Niflheim to end a long-standing war between the two nations. To formalize the union, the ruler of Lucis, King Regis Lucis Caelum CXIII, sends his son, Prince Noctis, to marry Lady Lunafreya Nox Fleuret of the imperial province of Tenebrae. To help him on this journey, Noctis travels with his three closest companions, Ignis, Gladiolus and Prompto. During Noctis’ journey, however, the Empire of Niflheim takes the crown city and its crystal while the Lucian shield is down. As a result, King Regis, Noctis and Lunafreya are all considered dead, the news of which shocks Noctis. As his world falls apart around him, Noctis must strengthen his resolve and trust in his companions to face the adversity that awaits him to prove himself a worthy King of Lucis.

The execution of Final Fantasy XV’s story is a bit mixed. From Chapters 1-9, the game moves at a generally steady pace and introduces different characters and concepts at a rate that’s rather easy to pick up and understand. Here, the plot is surprisingly straightforward and, although due to this half of the game being more open-world, it’s easy to go for long stretches without advancing the plot. Chapters 10-15, however, take up the linear portion of the game, where the story is given a laser focus. As a result, the story feels a little more rushed and underdeveloped, with no time to truly flesh out a lot of the characters and allowing a few supposedly major events to occur off-screen. In addition, a lot of major twists feel like they had little to no real buildup and came out of nowhere.

This all culminates in an ending that’s somehow pretty emotional, in spite of the exact events feeling muddy, and while it didn’t elicit very strong reactions from me, the climax felt somewhat fitting for the journey that Noctis and his friends embark on. It gave a number of elements somewhat of a real meaning and I still got caught up in what I witnessed.

L-R: Ignis Scientia, Prompto Argentum, Noctis Lucis Caelem, Gladiolus Amicitia.

And yet I must confess that the only real reason I cared about the main quartet, and some of the supporting cast, is because I actually watched/played some of the tie-in material beforehand. Firstly, since I pre-ordered the game at GameStop, I was able to play A King’s Tale: Final Fantasy XV, a game that takes roughly 1 ½ hours to beat, which fleshed out a little bit of the relationship between not only King Regis and Prince Noctis, but also King Regis and some of the supporting cast who later appear in the game. Secondly, I watched the five-episode (totaling roughly one hour) Brotherhood: Final Fantasy XV anime on the official YouTube channel, which established the backstories and connections of Noctis, Ignis, Gladiolus and Prompto. Lastly, I watched the two-hour Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV movie, which established much of the backstory of the game and filled in the details of what occurred before and after the fall of Lucis. While the characterization wasn’t perfect in all three pieces of tie-in material, it gave me enough context to actually care about the characters while playing, which in turn gave some events in the actual game more of an emotional weight. As such, I don’t know what it’s like to play with only the knowledge provided by the game, but I can agree it could have done a better job of explaining things without the need to go through around 4 ½ hours of extra material, including the “Omen” trailer, beforehand.

Much of the backstory is contained in
Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV.
Unfortunately, the backstories of the main cast are
contained within Brotherhood: Final Fantasy XV
(freely viewable legally on the official YouTube channel).

With that said, the actual gameplay is stronger than the story overall, though still a little uneven. The main aspect of the game is its open world, calculated to take up roughly 780 square miles. The fastest way to traverse the map initially is to drive the Regalia, a car gifted to Noctis by King Regis for his travels. Later on, the player can ride Chocobos, a well-known bird species from the Final Fantasy series, across areas the Regalia can’t normally get to and at a faster rate than walking or running. Should the payer visit enough locations, they can also begin to fast travel to certain destinations as long as they pay 10 gil, the game’s currency, and take the Regalia. Additionally, more power monsters, called Daemons, roam the world during the night, at which point only manual driving as Noctis is allowed until a certain part of the story is reached.

I personally didn’t mind the Regalia all that much, since I gained the ability to earn AP (Ability Points) and EXP (Experience Points) for long drives and Chocobo rides, plus I could do something else while waiting. However, there are certainly long stretches of nothing happening during this time, which can take anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes depending on the destination. After a certain point in the game, I also resorted to using fast travel more often and used Chocobos to traverse longer off-road stretches of land. There is also the matter of needing to refuel the Regalia, though I didn’t mind doing this at all, considering it only costs 10 gil no matter what and it forces the player to pay attention to the amount of fuel left (and prevents abuse of earning AP and EXP). In addition, you can do various side quests to upgrade the regalia with parts that make it faster and more fuel efficient, or even drive away Daemons during the night, so there’s eventually even less of a worry of running out of fuel.

The Regalia is the party's main method of
transportation for most of the game.

As for the battle system, dubbed Active X Battle, or AXB (read: Active Cross Battle), it’s simple but at the same time has some depth. To initiate combat, the party can engage monsters in the field, some of which won’t attack until you do and some of which will attack as soon as they detect you. This is determined by a red bar at the top of the screen which starts from the center and slowly grows outward until it hits the edges. Once it hits the edge, combat has begun and an area marked in red on the mini-map, typically a circle, determines how large the marked combat area is. If the monster does not attempt to attack first, then striking one will automatically create a combat zone. It is also possible to attack monsters before combat is formally initiated.

Once combat has begun, be it against monsters or bosses, the primary actions revolve around the use of three of the action buttons on the controller. On the default controller layout, holding circle will have Noctis attack a single target continuously or run toward a target to begin attacking. Holding square has Noctis defend against attacks by phasing away from attacks, but at the cost of MP, or initiating a parry attack with the correct button prompt. Triangle is used for warping, which consumes MP, either to a designated Warp Point by holding the button or striking an enemy from afar by holding down R1 to lock on and then pressing triangle. Noctis can also automatically team up with his friends with link-strikes and attacking an enemy from behind results in a blindside attack or, if performed with teammates, a blindside link.

HP and MP, or Health and Magic, replenish automatically over time. If Noctis reaches a Warp Point, his MP will fully recover and his HP will recharge at a faster rate. This also occurs when he takes cover either behind an appropriate object or by hanging from a high up Warp Point. However, should a character’s HP hit zero, they enter a Danger state and their maximum HP begins to drop for the duration until either another party member rescues them or a healing item, such as a Potion, is used. Once their maximum HP becomes zero, they are knocked out for the remainder of the fight unless a revival item, such as a Phoenix Down, is used. If Noctis is knocked out, there is a small window of time to revive him, otherwise it’s Game Over. Outside of battle, maximum HP recovers over time, but at a slower rate than recoverable HP.

Each party member can equip various weapons and accessories, all of which can be adjusted for each individual’s playstyle. However, Noctis’ friends each prefer certain weapon types, while Noctis can equip any weapon. Different weapons also have different properties, which can affect how they interact with the strengths and weaknesses of different monsters. While party members can only have two weapons equipped at a time, Noctis can equip four, all of which can be freely cycled through with the d-pad.

Two special weapon types are Royal Arms and Magic, which must be equipped. Royal Arms are found throughout the game by accessing Royal Tombs and represent Noctis’ ancestors. However, each use drains their health, so the player must keep a healthy supply of curatives on-hand to make up for it. Magic, on the other hand, comes in two flavors. There’s magic crafted through Elemancy, which are essentially grenades, and there’s Ring Magic, aka Arcana, which the player cannot use until the late game. The effectiveness of the former can also depend on the weather. While crafted magic comes with no MP cost, Ring magic does, though the ring has immediate access to three powerful spells of its own.

Noctis using Elemancy Magic.

There are also two gauges which fill up during combat. The three-segmented Tech Bar gradually fills up over time and allows Noctis to command his friends to perform specific Techniques, which can damage the enemy or provide a tactical advantage. Different Techniques cost a different number of segments, which the player can view each time they bring up the Tech menu to help keep track of their options. Once the player has acquired enough Royal Arms, they also have access to the Armiger Gauge, which fills up with each blow Noctis deals to an enemy. Activating the Armiger leads to a powerful move where Noctis repeatedly attacks a targeted enemy until the gauge runs out. Noctis is also immune to entering a Danger state over this period, though he can still take damage.

The last aspect of combat is the summoning mechanic, a staple in the series. In Final Fantasy XV, Summons are known as Astrals and are obtained after Noctis has proven himself worthy to them. Under specific conditions, the player can hold down L2 for a few seconds when prompted to summon an Astral and deal a huge amount of damage to enemies in an area, if not outright kill the target(s).

Now that I’ve laid out the battle system, I can say that there are certainly some pros and cons to how it works. The AXB system is fairly easy to pick up, but difficult to master, which is good for the surprising depth that it offers, as button mashing (or rather, holding down circle) the whole time will not win you the fight. It’s more about using the right combination of equipment and skills, as well as creating synergy between all of the party members to best eliminate the monsters which await them. In this way, the system is actually pretty fun. Should someone not like active time combat, however, there is a Wait Mode, which from my understanding is more or less similar to turn-based in that you can see enemy weaknesses and time moves when you take action.

An example of combat in Final Fantasy XV.

However, as I had mentioned, there are some downsides to combat. For one, Prompto is surprisingly frail, as he gets up close to monsters, despite using ranged weapons, and has the least amount of health, resulting in him being the teammate I had to help out the most. As much as I liked the Elemancy mechanic, I didn’t really enjoy needing to be careful about it due to it being both an Area of Effect move, a normally good thing, and involving “friendly fire” (sometimes literally). Because of this, I eventually just used it when I thought the benefit outweighed the potential damage to my teammates or when I wanted to potentially end an encounter in one shot. As for the Astrals, I found them to be pretty cool to use when I could pull it off, but the game doesn’t tell you all of the conditions required to summon one in particular, so one would have to either look it up or guess through trial and error. Then there’s the fact that you have to hold down L2 without getting hit, which can be pretty difficult when up against multiple enemies or just one that’s particularly aggressive. In addition, the camera can sometimes be a little wonky, allowing some environmental objects to occasionally obstruct your view.

What is useful, however, is the Ascension Grid, a system where you can spend AP earned throughout the game, though mainly through combat. These points can be spent in nine different grids, which can enhance a variety of different gameplay aspects, including combat, stat boosts and the rate of AP gain through exploration of the world. It’s definitely worth checking out the rewards you can obtain from each grid, as that may influence your playstyle based on how you prioritize your AP spending.

An example of the Ascension Grid.

Apart from the main quests, the player can take part in a large number of side quests and activities, including monster hunts, a pinball game or gambling on monster fights, the last of which can be done closer to the halfway point. The side quests and monster hunts are generally good to do for the sake of earning extra EXP, but can feel a little repetitive after a while. The, sometimes maze-like, dungeons can also be very difficult to get through depending on the dedication of the player to leveling up, which can lead to the need to grind a little before feeling confident enough to take on these challenges; that or somehow acquire a lot of gil to spend on endless curatives. As for the aforementioned pinball game, Justice Monsters Five, it has an interesting concept, but quickly gets boring due to the seeming impossibility of failure and its seemingly never-ending nature. It may have been better off as a regular themed pinball table.

There are some additional aspects of the game which are either staples of RPGs or little touches which further the idea that Final Fantasy XV is a “fantasy based in reality.” While a little sparse, there are plenty of towns to visit where players can go to shops, ask tipsters for information on the game world or engage in side quests and monster hunts. They can also eat different varieties of food, all of which provide some sort of status buffs at the cost of some gil.

Each party member also has a specific attribute that levels up over the course of the game based on certain actions taken. Gladiolus’ Survival attribute goes up the longer he is in the field and increases the chance that he can find certain items after each fight. Prompto’s Photography attribute goes up with each photograph he takes. Ignis’ Cooking attribute goes up each time he cooks a meal, as well as directly proportionate to the difficulty of the food item. Noctis’ Fishing attribute goes up with each fish that he catches at a fishing spot. These attributes help to distinguish each party member in some way and emphasizes the role that they play in the group, as well as their individual hobbies from even before the road trip.

The Main Menu in Final Fantasy XV.

The Photography mechanic is interesting, as Prompto takes a number of photos every day that Noctis can sort through each time the party rests. The player can choose which ones are the best to keep or share on social media, which ties into the realistic elements of the game. However, the player can only save back a total of 150 photos. This limit felt arbitrary, but it forced me eventually to decide which ones were truly worth keeping. Without spoiling, it turns out that there is more or less an actual reason for forcing the player to be selective, but it’s only obvious towards the end of the game.

Cooking is a skill that Ignis can tap into when the party rests at a Haven, a safe resting spot on the map. Cooking requires ingredients the player can acquire either out in the wild or from different vendors. Ignis can unlock more recipes either from acquiring a new ingredient or from eating certain purchased meals. Each cooked meal also provides different status boosts, but these only last for a certain amount of time. While the cooking is good from a gameplay standpoint, it’s also good for taking a load off and seeing more of a social aspect within the main party.

As for fishing, there are once again some pros and cons. Fishing feels more or less like fighting an enemy in the field, except you’re reeling in different fish which can differ in power depending on their location. Noctis can also have different rods, reels, lines and lures equipped to deal with certain fish or last longer during a catching attempt. The fishing mini-game is good for developing concentration as well as increasing Noctis’ skill and obtaining potential cooking ingredients, plus it’s somewhat humorous that catching a fish always feels like an actual battle, complete with appropriate music. However, it can take a while before the player can obtain a stronger rod or reel and it gets annoying when the line is only halfway to breaking and Noctis’ teammates don’t shut up about changing it out. In addition, you lose your lure once the line breaks, so you really have to pick your battles, even when you picked a lure to work on a specific fish. Thankfully, most lures can be purchased again, but it made me consider saving before trying to fish just in case.

Noctis about to fish.

While the game does have its flaws, they certainly nailed the graphics. Everything looks realistic, with beautifully detailed environments and unique and distinct monster designs. Even the Chocobos look real in their feather arrangement and detail. They especially nailed the food, which looked so mouthwateringly real that I wanted to eat it. When Ignis does the cooking, it even looks like someone could’ve made it on a camp stove. A day-to-night cycle is also present, with lighting that accurately reflects how the time of day would affect visibility. The lighting is also good in terms of the reflection of light, including the glare that would be present off of buildings and cars like the Regalia. But the dev team didn’t stop there, even going so far as to render the effects of dirt and weather on the main party members, which affect cloth and hair physics. When it rains, for instance, you can see everyone’s clothes soaked in water and Noctis’ hair flattens.

Noctis' hair during the rain.
The food in Final Fantasy XV looks mouthwateringly real.

Fun fact: The Final Fantasy XV team collaborated with
Epic Meal Time on the Stacked Ham Sandwich.

Another highlight is the music composed by Yoko Shimomura. I’m familiar with her work on the Kingdom Hearts series and she has yet to disappoint. Her score is very memorable and each track feels distinct from one another, with highlights such as the Chocobo theme, the Main Menu theme and the main combat theme, among others. Apart from Shimomura’s score, you can listen to music from current and previous Final Fantasy games through the CD player in the Regalia, as well as an unlockable portable CD player, and Braver by Afrojack. The game also features a cover of “Stand by Me” recorded by Florence and the Machine. Personally, I liked the Florence and the Machine cover and found its usage effective.

One last element is the voice acting. The voice actors did a very good job bringing the characters to life and making them all feel like individuals. The performances from Ray Chase (Noctis), Adam Croasdell (Ignis), Chris Parson (Gladiolus) and Robbie Daymond (Prompto) helped contribute to the relationship dynamic between the main party and brought out their full personalities. I could say the same for Erin Matthews as Cindy Aurum, the mechanic, and Amy Shiels as Lunafreya Nox Flueret. I also have to credit Darin De Paul’s performance as Ardyn Izunia, as he very clearly had a lot of fun in his role.

Although flawed, Final Fantasy XV is quite a ride. The story is pretty straightforward and engaging for the most part, though it admittedly loses steam toward the end as motivations start to get a little muddy. The open world gameplay and combat is also very well done and while the linear half has its moments, Chapter 13 in particular seems to drag on a bit long. The graphics, voice acting and music are all highlights, however, and do well to compliment the surprising touches of realism within a fantasy game, earning the game its tagline, and core concept, of “a fantasy based in reality.” While it is unfortunate that you need to watch a movie and an anime to fully understand what’s going on, I still got into the dynamic of the core cast as they made their journey across the land of Eos toward their ultimate fates. Overall, coming from someone who felt compelled to play and finish a mainline Final Fantasy game for the first time, Final Fantasy XV truly is “A Final Fantasy for Fans and First-Timers.”

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.