Friday, May 20, 2011

Sundays with Hitch: Dial M for Murder (1954)

Welcome to a very special installment of Sundays with Hitch.

The point of this series is for me to watch the Alfred Hitchcock films that I’ve missed. Rosemarie’s list of such titles is far shorter. The early English movies that are my biggest Hitchcock blind spot? She’s seen ‘em all. She even took a class taught by Donald Spoto, Hitch’s most prominent biographer. A few of the movies we’ve watched so far were new to her – good luck finding people who have made it through Topaz – but many were old favorites.

Dial M for Murder is different. It’s the only Alfred Hitchcock film that I had seen but Rosemarie had not.

In the opening minutes of this adaptation of Frederick Knott’s stage thriller, Hitchcock manages to convey a complicated story of infidelity without dialogue. Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) could easily be Strangers on a Train’s Guy Haines a couple of years down the road, a one-time tennis pro who married well but now finds himself trapped in an unsatisfying job. Worse, the man his wife (Grace Kelly) truly loves – successful American mystery novelist Robert Cummings – has returned to England intent on winning her over. In a scene so long it becomes as thrilling as a high-wire act – how long can Hitch keep this up? – Wendice blackmails an old school chum into bumping off the missus and lays out how it’s to be done. But that only marks the start of Milland’s scheming, in a performance that reaches spectacular heights of both cunning and odiousness.

When I saw the film as a teenager I dismissed it as a lesser effort, thinking it stagy. But I was an idiot then. I disavow most of what I said in the 1980s. Hitchcock doesn’t make the expected attempt to open up Knott’s play, keeping the action almost entirely in the Wendices’ flat and using the claustrophobia to his advantage. He relishes every bit of Knott’s stagecraft no matter how hokey; he practically imposes a proscenium arch over the closing moments, making you appreciate how effective the piece must have been when performed live. John Williams reprises his Tony-award winning performance as Inspector Hubbard, the blandly implacable detective. There’s more than a hint of Lieutenant Columbo in the character, right down to the “one more thing” question as he’s heading out the door. The film was shot but not initially released in 3-D. To think that audiences missed all the excitement of a key going into a lock.

For the record, Rosemarie thought it was great.