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Horror/Suspense Mystery/Noir

Dial M for Murder

I have recommended a clutch of Hitchcock films (Notorious, Psycho, The 39 Steps, and The Lodger), but omitted some of his best known. Some of his classic films (e.g., Rear Window) have been written about so much that I can’ t think of anything novel to add. Others exceed my powers: I’ve seen Vertigo a dozen times but still can’t fully explain why it is one of the greatest works of art of the latter half of the 20th century, though I know in my heart that it is.

So let me recommend a film you may have missed, which is usually considered a minor success of The Master: 1954’s Dial M for Murder. The movie had a strong foundation because it was based on an extremely well-crafted hit play by Frederic Knott (who also wrote the screenplay for the movie version).

The story is a simple one: A tennis-playing effete British smoothie (Ray Milland) discovers that his glamorous wife (Grace Kelly, elegant and effective) is carrying on a passionate love affair with a broad-shouldered American (an appropriately manly Robert Cummings), so he decides to murder her. But rather than do the deed himself, he seeks the help of an intermediary, leading things to go horribly awry…unless of course he can clean up the mess by framing his wife for a terrible crime.

When film directors adapt plays, they typically insert scenes of exteriors, use many long shots and wide shots and trolley shots etc., in order to give the audience a cinematic experience. Hitchcock did just the opposite, shooting almost entirely on a single set, and using camera placement within it to keep things fresh. The claustrophobic framing adds to the tension of the film while somehow never coming across as stagy.

The highlight of this film is the astonishing performance of Ray Milland as Tony Wendice, the suave and unflappable villain. He won a Best Actor Oscar for The Lost Weekend, but I think he’s even better here. Even when he cruelly and cleverly blackmails an old college mate (Anthony Dawson) into participating in his murder plot, he is ever calm and smiling, the perfect British upper class sort. It is that emotional tone in his performance, combined with Hitchcock’s directorial genius, that makes the famous closing scene of this film so memorable.

The foil for Tony Wendice isn’t really his romantic rival Mark Halliday (Cummings), but the intelligent, moral Chief Inspector Hubbard. He is played by John Williams, never a huge star but someone Hitchcock used over and over in movies and TV shows because he consistently gave solid and intelligent performances. Williams is at his best here, nicely leavening his hard-headed cop role with touches of warmth and humour.

In summary: Fantastic source material, fantastic director, fantastic cast – what’s not to like?

p.s. You may wonder why such a short movie has an intermission. This film was originally made in 3-D, and the intermission was to give a chance for those theaters with only two cameras to load the next two parallel reels. I regret very much never having seen the 3-D version, because Hitchcock allegedly used the technique in a more creative, less gimmicky way than did other film makers. The most famous 3-D moment was the extreme closeup of Ray Milland’s finger dialing M. To get the shot right, they built a gigantic phone and a huge paper-mache finger tip! In any event, unlike most 3-D movies, it’s perfectly watchable without the 3-D effects.

Categories
Blogs on Film

Making Good Movies on the Cheap

The cost of making movies seems to climb every year, with $100 million productions being common nowadays. Yet few people would argue that Hollywood’s product is better than it was when budgets were smaller. It takes money to promote a movie and to get big stars in a movie, but fundamentally you can make a good movie pretty cheaply. And I admire the people who are inventive and unpretentious enough to go for it on a low budget, like the subjects of the documentary American Movie (which I recommended here) or Robert Rodriguez, who penned the Rosetta Stone of such filmmakers: Rebel Without a Crew.

X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (Trailer) - YouTube

For example, I recently watched X: The Man with X-Ray Eyes, one of Roger Corman’s many low budget horror/sci-fi films. He used a common strategy for such films, which is to cast someone who used to be an A-list star but whose career is waning enough that he will take a smaller check. In this case it was Ray Milland, who clearly didn’t think the film was beneath him and turned in a good performance. The sets are spare, the actors are few and other than Milland, unknown. But it’s completely watchable and engaging. It doesn’t try to be a blockbuster extravaganza life-changing piece of cinema. Rather, it tries to entertain for 79 minutes and it does, on what is clearly a modest budget.

A film that is an even bigger triumph of low budget movie making is Rocky. Yes, Rocky, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, spawned a billion-dollar film franchise and was a world-wide hit, was a low budget film. Burgess Meredith was in the Ray Milland position; something of a name in the past but now affordable. All those shots of Rocky running around Philadelphia were an economy, using the new Steadicam technology to generate emotional momentum without having to build sets or hire extras (Mostly it’s ordinary Philadelphians volunteering to do cameos). The romantic ice rink scene with Rocky and Adrian was supposed to happen with many skaters and a crowd, but they couldn’t afford that so they set the scene instead at a time when the rink is closed.

And the climactic sequence is a work of genius in inexpensive film production. Before the final fight, Stallone’s shorts didn’t match the banner image of Rocky and his robe was the wrong size, but they couldn’t afford to switch props so they simply rewrote the script to have Rocky comment on the errors and make him that much more pathetic. During the fight itself (embedded below), the arena is dark because it was mostly empty — they had run out of budget for extras. Stallone’s dad is the guy ringing the bell for rounds and other friends and family pitched in as extras to stretch the dollars. They could not afford many re-shoots so if you watch carefully you will see that the people watching the fight were moving around to give the impression of a full arena (you can also see the Steadicam in some of the overhead shots and that some the key punches actually miss — a “rib shot” to the hip for example).

With such a sparsely populated set, it was impossible to portray a big crowd reaction. So what did director John Avildsen do? When Rocky first decks Apollo Creed, Avildsen cannily cuts to the neighborhood bar, so that a small number of actors can give the audience a scene of excited, cheering people packed in close and rooting for Rocky.

Inspired, resourceful work by everyone involved, on what was then a slender budget of about a million dollars. And note to Hollywood, it returned an over 200 to 1 profit so it isn’t true that you can’t make money in Hollywood without a gazillion dollar production behind you.