19 June 2008

A Cocktail With Your Murder, Sir?


An attempted murder.  A man killed by scissors.  An innocent woman faces the gallows. Doesn't exactly sound like light fare does it? But in the hands of Alfred Hitchcock such a film can be quite a pleasant way to pass a couple of hours. I refer to Dial M for Murder (1954). 

Ray Milland is charming, debonair and oh, by the way, a calculating killer. Grace Kelly is his wife, blessed with equal parts wealth and beauty. Bob Cummings is her American lover and, in typical Hitchcockian fashion, we are in greater sympathy with Milland, the guilty than with Cummings, the innocent.

It's fascinating how Hitchcock could make audiences switch their allegiances and indeed root for the bad guy. Remember Tony Perkins trying to dispose of that car in Psycho? How did we feel when it wouldn't sink? Why, we were on HIS side, of all things.

Dial M for Murder is remarkable for a number of reasons, one of which is how 95% takes place in one rather small apartment but  never feels claustrophobic. Watch the way Hitchcock uses cameras and camera perspectives to create space. But at the same time he creates a kind of intimacy with the story and characters that would be lost if there were more outdoor scenes. And what characters they are. I no longer imbibe but if I did I'd love to have a scotch with Milland and even Cummings, as annoying a bloke as the latter could be. Even the "it man" is perfectly delightful chap. As for Kelly, well...I mean who wouldn't? And no one could be better at playing an English detective than John Williams who positively reeked wisdom and class. This was a much better role for him than as the chauffeur and father of Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina. Milland versus Williams in a battle of urbanity and ingenuity. A veritable clash of cultured titans!

It is London in the early 1950's and those of means enjoy a good drink and a bit of sophisticated banter along with perhaps a murder. Even at the point of being found out the guilty partyserves cocktails. (Interestingly, with all the drinking going on, no one seems to ever get so much as tipsy.)

For me Dial M is maybe Hitchcock' 12th, 13th best film which means it's far better than the vast majority of films from the vast majority of directors. Like a lot of his movies, it's not really a mystery but is rife with suspense. A watch stops, a key doesn't fit, someone forgets to...you know, edge of the seat stuff.

And done with such class.

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