Dial M for Murder (USA, 1954)

dial-m-for-murder-movie-poster-1954-1020143881Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock. Years ago, I sort of half decided to burn through the entire filmography of a number of canonical filmmakers whose work I admired, including John Ford, Woody Allen, and Hitch himself. In reality, I did what I always do—I get through a handful of films and then get distracted by something else, and here we are. But damned if I’m not very fond of Hitchcock. He’s a guy whose films I’ll pick up absent mindedly to enjoy after seeing them several times already, to watch for pure enjoyment, you know? Psycho, Rear Window, Vertigo—pure bliss. Just watch the master at work. And this one, though perhaps not brilliant, is definitely an interesting addition to the Hitchcock filmography, as you see him slowly build up his expertise, film by film, until his golden period of the late 50’s/early 60’s (perhaps similar to John Ford, as an armchair observation). And actually, to me, the main thing preventing this one from being flat out brilliant like the others I mentioned, is the absence of a sparse, spare, economy of suspense, if that makes sense. This, even moreso than North by Northwest, is very plot-heavy, very dependent upon the intricate web of facts and the audience remembering all of the stuff going on, and the bad guy remembering all the stuff going on, so that the resolution is satisfying because the bad guy couldn’t keep his shit straight, and the good guys were smarter than he was, and were able to catch him in his own convoluted web. This movie is basically a drawing-room murder mystery except we’re with the murderer as he plans it, we see it all unfold, and we still don’t quite know how it’s all going to fit together. This is definitely an unconventional narrative, but almost unsuccessfully so—the protagonists are just so incredibly overshadowed by the incredible gravity and sideways charm of Ray Milland that the film never fully recovers, and his capture at the end kind of feels flat. This American guy is fine but he doesn’t have half as much character as Ray Milland, and the police detective is very clever, but he’s too good, and he feels too much like a fictional super sleuth, it kind of elevates the initially gritty real-world peril of the film into some kind of phoney cinema-mystery world where the bad guys always lose and the good guys always prevail. So in a way, it’s a pretty un-typical Hitchcock joint, how everything gets wrapped up, everyone’s redeemed, and all’s well that ends well. Maybe that’s what I didn’t like as much about Rear Window and North by Northwest, and what remains so satisfying about even a film like The Birds—even though everything is done, the world is still out of joint. And I guess, arguably, the same could be said of this film. Grace Kelly can run away with her American lover, but can she ever trust anyone again? In my opinion though, the film doesn’t really give us any hint of that kind of depth, it doesn’t really treat Grace Kelly as a person so much as a swooning cinema princess (and it is 1954 after all), and again, the film barely fills in the blanks on the American, played by Robert Cummings, and really the only reason we’re “with” him is because he’s not Ray Milland. Can I just gush about Ray Milland for a second before I leave? I didn’t know the name really at all, but now that I check, I see that he was the guy who led the way so well in The Lost Weekend, which was not a fantastic Billy Wilder film (and not a subtle film about substance abuse) but holy cow was Milland ever good! Not to mention his amazing turn in The Thing With Two Heads (how could I forget???). And in this one, Milland gets the role of a lifetime, and he knocks it out of the ballpark like no one else could. I could go on all day about this guy, but holy cow is this performance ever satisfying to watch. In fact, I think I’ll watch it again just for that. The first act alone, where he lays it all out on the table, slowly luring in the criminal guy to do his dirty work, trapping him like a snake, talking and talking and talking, but never wearing it out, always feeling fresh. This was based on a stage play, and it definitely feels like a stage play, in the same set, with tons and tons of dialogue, but the way Milland handles it like a pro, I’d watch that play every week if he were playing it in my town. More of that, please!

5 responses to “Dial M for Murder (USA, 1954)

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