Dial M For Murder (1954) Review

Dial M For Murder (1954) Director: Alfred Hitchcock

“In stories things usually turn out the way the author wants them to; and in real life they don’t…”

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Based on a successful stage play of the same name by British playwright Frederick Knott, Alfred Hitchcock initially intended for Dial M For Murder to be screened as an early 3-D film, however the concept of 3-D films would not be popular for several more decades to come. This amusing bit of history is yet another example of Hitchcock standing alone as an anachronism, far ahead of his own time, taking risks and making great movies. And despite being a simple film in concept, Dial M For Murder is a remarkably challenging film from Hitchcock that explores the place and position of an audience’s perspective.

Dial M For Murder is a delightful anti-“whodunnit” story. Throughout the most of the film, we know who the culprit is, and what’s more, the audience is placed mostly in a single room a la Rear Window (1954), right beside the scene of the crime, giving us a privileged perspective on the situation. Only Hitchcock can get away with making an audience deeply anxious while keeping us cooped up in an enclosed space for an entire movie. Dial M For Murder is rife with dramatic irony as Hitchcock toys with his audience. The story follows a retired tennis star named Tony Wendice (brilliantly played by Ray Milland), who has secretly discovered that his wife Margot (Grace Kelly) is having an affair with a mystery writer named Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings). Rather than confront her about the affair, Tony decides to create an elaborate ruse involving an old schoolmate named Charles Swann (Anthony Dawson), who also goes by several other names to hide from his criminal past. Tony blackmails Swann into killing his wife one evening –and the plot is laid out in a lengthy scene of exposition wherein we are presented with the anticipated murder via a variety of unique angles positioned around the room. It really is a marvelous achievement for Hitchcock to not only hold the audience’s attention in such a way, but also to successfully build the tension for the forthcoming attack. We love to watch a sinister plot unfold, but perhaps even more so, we love to watch an evil plan fall apart, putting a calm and confident genius on the defensive. Tony’s cool charisma is just begging to be unraveled and his hubris stands precariously atop a house of cards. Our anxiousness over Tony’s guilt is funneled into particular modernist images placed within the camera’s foreground –Margot’s handbag, a telephone, a stocking, a key, a suitcase, and a prominent photo hanging on the wall (this use of imagery is rife throughout Hitchcock’s great films like Notorious 1946 which comes immediately to mind). All while the room is being displayed we are assessing Tony –is he justified in the murder of his unfaithful wife? Or is he simply a madman? As an aside, during this long but riveting scene, we are introduced to a school photo of Tony and Swann. In the photo, seated at a table is none other than Alfred Hitchcock –this is the filmmaker’s famous cameo in Dial M For Murder.

At any rate, the planned murder goes awry and Swann is the one actually killed in the scuffle. This foible changes the whole course of the film as Tony desperately tries to cover his own tracks in order to avoid being prosecuted for the incident. We follow Chief Inspector Hubbard (John Williams) as he pieces the clues together. How did Swann enter the room? Perhaps he climbed in through the window, or perhaps Margot invited him inside. How did he attempt to strangle Margot? Well, perhaps she actually staged the attack with him. Why did he attempt to kill Margot? As it turns out, Tony sent several false blackmail letters to his own wife which gloss over this situation. The pièce de résistance comes when Mark Halliday, the murder mystery writer, crafts a narrative which identifies Tony as the true villain –a narrative which is remarkably close to the true string of events (only Tony and the audience are aware of this fact). As the films progresses, Margot is actually blamed by the London police for staging the attack while Tony breathes a little easier, believing himself to be released from legal entrapment. The day before Margot’s scheduled execution, Tony is questioned about a suitcase full of money he is seen lugging around. As his story about the suitcase (and the money within) continues to change, Chief Inspector Hubbard manages to finally enclose Tony in his own ruse, by revealing the location of the second key which Tony had left under the stairs outside his flat. And when tony re-enters his apartment, he is greeted by none other than Margot, her lover Mark Halliday, and Chief Inspector Hubbard. The fox has been outfoxed. It is a fitting end for a man who is likely facing an unpleasant prison sentence. It is a gratifying conclusion for an audience which has been kept in uncomfortable anxiety for much of the film.

Limelight (1952) Review

Limelight (1952) Director: Charlie Chaplin

“The glamour of limelight, from which age must pass as youth enters.”

Rating: 5 out of 5.

In Limelight, Charlie Chaplin offers a strikingly autobiographical reflection upon his life and career. The film is a portrait of a waning stage entertainer whose time in the sun has come and gone. On the one hand, it is a sorrowful lament on the passing of time by one of cinema’s great auteurs –the cinematography is rife with dreamy hopes and old memories, a requiem for those bygone halcyon days. On the other hand, Limelight represents a filmmaker’s extraordinary effort to combat the creeping sense of fatalism we all encounter from time to time. For Chaplin, the remedy to feeling hopeless comes in the form of high art, a life-affirming mimesis, because as he states in the film, “there’s something just as inevitable as death, and that’s life. Life, life, life!”

The story for Limelight was initially written by Chaplin as an unpublished novel entitled Footlights, which has since been released. On a summer’s day in the London of Chaplin’s youth (1914) we are treated to “a story of a ballerina and a clown.” Amidst a street scene of amused children crowding around an entertainer, this peaceful moment is immediately contrasted with a young woman lying lifeless on a bed while her stove gas is turned on. A drunken man stumbles into the townhouse and smells the gas so he summons a doctor in the hopes of rescuing this woman. Despite not knowing her, the drunk is now tasked with caring for her. He takes her in and when she awakens, they get to know one another. She is Thereza “Terry” Embrose (Claire Bloom), a dancer who is secretly infatuated with a struggling composer she once met (the composer is played by the second son of Charlie Chaplin, Sydney Chaplin). However, Terry has fallen into a morbid state of sadness. Thus our protagonist must help this young dancer find hope in her life again, even though he himself regularly feels sad and lonely in his twilight years. Who is this man? His name is Calvero (Charlie Chaplin) a washed-up drunkard who was once a renowned vaudevillian stage clown. In his dreams each night he sees himself entertaining bored and emptying auditoriums with a gag about pet fleas and a collection of silly songs. As time passes, Calvero and Terry form a unique relationship. They bolster one another during their lowest points. Terry soon finds success in a new ballet show, Calvero also performs in a minor role as a clown, but when his performance meets criticism, he gathers his things and runs away. He takes up the life of a poor vagabond musician, working the streets (he cheekily remarks “there’s something about working the streets I like, It’s the tramp in me I suppose”). Some months pass, and he is rediscovered by Terry. She begs him to return for an upcoming benefit show and he relents. He is joined by his piano-playing partner who is none other than the great Buster Keaton –what a treat to see these two great comedians of the silent era united on film! The duo showcases their musical satire before a roaring crowd –the flea gag with “Phyllis and Henry” is a hit. It is so popular, in fact, that the pair are given a final encore in a hilarious bumbling gag consisting of a silent slapstick show that leaves Keaton quietly shuffling and spilling all his musical notations while Chaplin shrinks himself into his baggy clothes, and their instruments –the piano and the violin– are continually plucked out of tune. It is a beautiful nod to the vaudevillian roots of Chaplin and Keaton. Sadly, the performance leaves Calvero in a weakened state, only able muster enough strength to watch Terry’s ballet performance from a nearby couch before he quietly passes on. It is an exit befitting a gentleman –full of grace and wonder.

Limelight was boycotted upon release in the United States over rumors that Chaplin was actually a covert communist. He had become one of the most notorious victims of Joseph McCarthy’s “red scare,” and the film was only screened in a few theaters on the East Coast. Chaplin was abroad promoting the film in Europe when he found out that his visa had been revoked. After a string of scandals and the lukewarm critical reception of his previous film (Monsieur Verdoux), Chaplin officially left the United States. He returned only once when Limelight was re-released in 1972, and Chaplin was invited to receive an Academy Award for the film. Needless to say, for this brief moment Chaplin was welcomed back with open arms and cheering crowds, but he never again returned to live in the United States. While Limelight remains an apropos farewell for the king of the silver screen, he did make two more films abroad: A King in New York (1957) and A Countess from Hong Kong (1967).

“Life can be wonderful if you’re not afraid of it.”

Battling Butler (1926) Review

Batting Butler (1926) Director: Buster Keaton

Rating: 4 out of 5.

As was so often the case in Buster Keaton’s films, the title of Battling Butler was actually a spoof on a popular musical play entitled “Battling Buttler” (note the second “t” in “Buttler”). In the film, an effete son of an aristocrat, Alfred Butler (Buster Keaton), is accused of being weak by his father so he heads out on a hapless hunting and fishing trip in the mountains. Amidst a series of mishaps, Alfred accidentally falls in love with a rural mountain girl (Sally O’Neil). However, in order to impress her gruff, poor, working-class father, Alfred’s valet explains that despite Alfred’s slight appearance, he is in fact a famous boxer known as “Battling Butler.”

The lie entraps Alfred in a marriage and forces him to begin a lengthy training regimen in order to prep for a big Thanksgiving fight versus the “Alabama Murderer” –though his biggest challenge is successfully entering the boxing ring without becoming entangled in the ropes! When the big day finally comes, the real Battling Butler arrives and saves Alfred from being brutally beaten in the ring. However, later in the locker room the real Battling Butler starts a fight with Alfred for impersonating him. In the end, Alfred musters the courage to fight back and he actually defeats Battling Butler in the locker room, thus winning the heart of his new wife. They walk away together, arm in arm, she in her dress (rather than her fancy overcoat) and Alfred in half-boxing gear and half-top hat and cane.

Buster Keaton often described his youth as being “brought up by being knocked down” and so it only made sense that he would release a boxing film. There is an amusing class inversion here in which an aristocrat must win the heart of a working class girl (and her family) by lowering himself to appease the crowds as a lowly boxer. In the end, they both shed their opposing outfits to reflect their change into a blend of something new. I thought this was an apt metaphor, as she sheds any aristocratic pretense and he finds himself halfway between boxer and milquetoast, and while this film is another delight from Buster Keaton, it is not as outright hilarious or powerful as some of his other classics, like The General or Sherlock Jr.

The Stranger (1946) Review

The Stranger (1946) Director: Orson Welles

“The German sees himself as the innocent victim of world envy and hatred, conspired against, set upon by inferior peoples, inferior nations. He cannot admit to error, much less to wrongdoing, not the German. We chose to ignore Ethiopia and Spain, but we learned from our own casualty list the price of looking the other way. Men of truth everywhere have come to know for whom the bell tolled, but not the German. No! He still follows his warrior gods marching to Wagnerian strains, his eyes still fixed upon the fiery sword of Siegfried. And in those subterranean meeting places that you don’t believe in, the German’s dream world comes alive when he takes his place in shining armor beneath the banners of the Teutonic Knights. Mankind is waiting for the Messiah, but for the German, the Messiah is not the Prince of Peace. No, he’s… another Barbarossa… another Hitler.”

Rating: 5 out of 5.

In a small Connecticut town lurks a former high-ranking Nazi official, Franz Kindler who is posing as local prep school teacher, Professor Charles Rankin (played by the great auteur Orson Welles). Meanwhile, Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson) of the United Nations War Crimes Commission is following a trail of clues which will hopefully track down the brutal instigator of genocide, Franz Kindler, however all he has are vague rumors. He follows Kindler’s former associate Meinike to Connecticut in the hopes of picking up the trail to Kindler, and he knows Kindler has a unique obsession with clocks. Otherwise, Kindler is an entirely mysterious figure. It is an alluring set-up for a classic post-World War II noir. The quietude and safety of small town America is contrasted with the covert presence of pure evil –this is a great study in dramatic irony as the audience knows Kindler’s dark secret long before any of the characters in the film actually figure it out.

When Kindler and Meinike meet, Kindler is urged to come forward and confess his crimes but instead he strangles Meinike (while a group of boys goes running through the woods, nearly catching Kindler, but to them he is merely their beloved professor). When his dog “Red” discovers the body, Kindler poisons him. Gradually, Mr. Wilson pieces together this puzzle, particularly in a memorably nail-biting scene which shows Kindler slipping up over dinner and exposing some of his antisemitic views, but Mr. Wilson only succeeds after he manages to persuade Kindler’s wife, Mary (Loretta Young), of her husband’s guilt –he shows her documentary footage of the holocaust in one of the first moments in Hollywood history a film uses holocaust footage. It bridges the gulf between colorful fiction and ugly reality. At any rate, the intense conclusion to The Stranger leads to a shootout between Kindler and Mary atop the town clock tower as a small figure on the clock belfry impales him –a poetic end for a vicious killer with a fanatical obsession for clocks.

While we have all heard the stories of former Nazis hiding out in South America after the war, the idea that some might have been hiding in small town America is as compelling as it is disturbing. The Stranger is sometimes overlooked among Orson Welles’s incredible string of films in the 1940s —Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, Lady From Shanghai— however I found this to be a brilliant adaptation of a simple concept told with all the shadowy, silhouetted tropes of the classic noir detective films.

At the time of its release, The Stranger was an attempt by Welles to conform to the usual standards of formulaic Hollywood especially after the roller-coasters of Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. Nevertheless, in later years he would sometimes remark that he thought The Stranger was a failure, his own personal worst film, and that it was little more than a cheap sell-out. The film has often drawn comparisons to Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943) as both films play with the illusion of safety experienced by ordinary Americans in their quiet little towns. It leads the mind to unsettling places: wondering what horrors might be lurking in the safest corners of American society.