Hitchcock-a-thon: Dial M for Murder (1954)

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Since his career survived the movement from silent cinema to talkies, Hitchcock had learned the necessity of keeping up with the times. As such, he agreed to shoot his next film in 3D.

Yup, 3D. A brief early ‘50s fad popularised by films liked House of Wax. Unfortunately for Hitchcock, Dial M for Murder was released just as audiences (correctly) realised that 3D was a gimmicky waste of time. Nearly all subsequent re-leases of Dial M have been in faithful, ol’ two dimensions, just like-a Mama used to make. But it does explain why so many shots have awkwardly positioned table lamps in the foreground…

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Former tennis player Tony (played by Ray Milland or, if you’re watching it in 3D, a Ray Milland-shaped red and blue blur) learns that his wife Margot (Grace Kelly) has cheated on him with a crime writer, Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings). He blackmails an old college pal (Anthony Dawson) into killing his wife and making it look like a burglary. But even the best laid plans can go awry…

From the film’s synopsis, it’s easy to see Dial M as a fusion of Strangers on a Train and Rope. Like Strangers, the plot involves two men discussing the “hypothetical” murder of the other’s wife and like Rope the film is purposefully constructed to increase a sense of theatricality.

But Dial M has enough strengths of its own to set it apart. Ray Milland injects some suave intimidation to his role and, of course, there’s Grace Kelly.

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Ah, Grace.

An immediate favourite of Hitchcock; she would star as the leading lady in his next three films. Had she not quit acting two years later at the age of 26, who knows how many more collaborations we might have seen from these two?

She’s great in her Hitchcock debut, playing a more vulnerable role than she would give in Rear Window or To Catch a Thief. Though Margot’s sentiments behind her marital affair are never fully conveyed thanks in part to the casting of ever-bland Robert Cummings as Mark.

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And the cat and mouse dialogue, while is tight and sleek, feels almost mechanical in its plotted progression.

Regardless, Dial M for Murder is a gripping mystery that is well worth seeing in any dimension of your choice.

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Hitchcock-a-thon: I Confess (1953)

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Hitchcock carries the theme of the transference of guilt from Strangers on a Train on to his next film, I Confess, this time with a religious twist. Transfers it, you might say. Appropriate.

In Quebec City, devout Catholic priest Father Michael Logan (Montgomery Clift) hears a late-night confession from the church caretaker Otto Keller (O. E. Hasse), an impoverished German immigrant, who accidentally killed a wealthy lawyer called Villette after an attempt to rob him royally ballsed up.

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Logan’s vows mean he cannot reveal Otto’s confession to anyone, including the police, even after he finds himself accused as the murderer thanks to a co-incidental relationship with Ruth (Anne Baxter) long before his days of the cloth that connects his life to Villette.

We’ve seen heroes falsely accused of crimes time and time again in Hitchcock films, but this is the first time our main man hasn’t ended up on the run, trying to track down the true culprit. Instead, the drama comes from wondering how long Logan can bear the cross of another man’s guilt when the entire city blames him and whether he can clear his name without breaking his holy oath.

As you might expect, this makes I Confess more sombre in tone than Hitchcock previous “innocent man on the run” flicks. And not necessarily in a good way. It borders on boring, not helped by chiselled, brooding Montgomery Clift who looks more like Captain Scarlet in a dog collar than an actual priest.

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Anne Baxter is also fairly forgettable as Ruth. But she was never meant to be involved in the project.  Anita Bjork, the Swedish star of Miss Julie, was originally on board for the role, but Warner Bros forced Hitchcock to cast Baxter instead after Bjork brought her lover and illegitimate child into Hollywood.

Combine these unremarkable leads with a mediocre script and you’re left with a real damp squib of a film.

At least it’s beautifully shot. Hitchcock always had a keen eye for striking architecture whenever he was let loose on location shoots, and I Confess is no exception. He sure knows how to make Quebec look glorious.

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And, hey, it is interesting to see Hitch attempt a film where the hero addresses the accusations against his name rather than running from them. The final product just doesn’t pay off.

Hitchcock-a-thon: Strangers on a Train (1951)

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With the exception of Rope, the last five years hadn’t been kind to Hitchcock either financially or critically. But Hitch had a habit of popping out a big hit just as he reached a rut. Strangers on a Train was a box office smash and, though it received mixed reviews at the time, has since been remembered as one of his All Time Greats. Rightly so.

Renowned tennis player Guy Haines (Farley Granger) means a flamboyant young man, Bruno (Robert Walker), a on a train. Over a couple of drinks Bruno outlines a *cough* totally hypothetical scheme in which Guy murders Bruno’s hated father and in exchange Bruno murders Guy’s gold-digging wife (Kasey Rogers, credited as Laura Elliott). “Criss-cross.” The deaths would appear motiveless.

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Guy dismisses Bruno as a harmless loon, but it quickly becomes clear that his hypothetical scheme isn’t hypothetical at all…

After Hitchcock’s first attempt at a blackmail story, he’d learned that the suspense works best if the pressure from villain piles over time. The tension becomes so thick you could scoop it into ice-cream cones. It’s hard not to shiver at the sight of Bruno’s stationary head staring out from the middle of nodding tennis crowd or his ominous shadow as he stalks Guy’s wife through a fairground.

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 Hitchcock was famed for his eye for his obsessive perfectionism and Strangers on a Train is perhaps one of clearest example of this. He oversaw every detail from Bruno’s tacky lobster tie to the food he orders in the train restaurant. Combined with the pitch-perfect casting of Granger and Walker, Hitchcock believed these details saved “a reel of storytelling time” since they conveyed key character qualities that would otherwise need to be spelled out to the audience.

There’s a dapper, homoerotic subtext to Bruno that gives him a menacing charm. In a way, he represents Guy’s own darkest desires which he will not (or cannot) act upon. “I like a guy who does things,” schmoozes Bruno. So do we. But we also fear them.

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Much like Shadow of Doubt, Hitchcock packed Strangers on a Train full of visual references to this sense of good/evil duality. In the film’s opening moments we see two sets of feet, matching each other in movements, but they establish the contrast between the two men: one pair garish and the other sensible. From the off we know to expect contrast.

But, really, there’s far too many great moments to mention in a short blog post. Go and see it for yourselves. Or, if you’ve already seen it, watch it again. It only gets better with repeat screenings.

Hitchcock-a-thon: Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

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In the sleepy town of  Santa Rosa CA, Charlotte “Charlie” Newton (Teresa Wright) is over the moon when her favourite uncle, also called Charlie (Joseph Cotten), comes to stay with her family. Everyone loves Uncle Charlie, y’see. He’s charming, fun and generous. And, best of all, he’s not secretly a serial killer.

Oh. Oh, wait.

Yes, it’s another Hitchcock tale of growing mistrust. Our heroine starts to suspect that one of the people closest to her harbours a dark, sinister secret: is her uncle the “Merry Widow murderer”? As the paranoia grows, it’s only a matter of time until it’s Charlie vs. Charlie.

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While the plot may sound like a retread of The Lodger or Suspicion, it’s executed better here than in either of them. For two main reasons. Firstly, the  idyllic suburban setting is brought to life magnificently by the Great American playwright Thornton Wilder (Our Town) who collaborated on the screenplay. With the setting imagined with such believability, it only adds to the threat when the dark presence of Uncle Charlie begins to creep in.

The second thing that makes Shadow of a Doubt a success is the spectacular performance by Cotten as Uncle Charlie. He’s acts Cary Grant’s performance in Suspicion out of the water. The strong twin-like bond he has Young Charlie at the beginning seems almost genuine, making it all the more ominous when her ideal of him begins to shatter. As Hitchcock villains go, he’s up there with Norman Bates in Psycho and Bruno in Strangers on a Train.

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When the two Charlies come head to head it plays out as an allegory of good and evil. The duality of Man: the Good Charlie and the Bad.

There are some baffling plot aspects, such as an absurdly shoehorned romance subplot that comes out of nowhere and goes nowhere, or when the detectives drop their investigation of Uncle Charlies after the other suspect meets an untimely death.

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Hitchcock ranks the film as one of his very best. While I personally wouldn’t go as far as that, it’s still an extremely strong thriller that shows off many of trademarks that make up the Master of Suspense.

Hitchcock-a-thon: Blackmail (1929)

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“See and hear it – our Mother Tongue as it should be…Spoken!”

So declared the posters for Blackmail, the first ever British talkie. However, it began life as a silent film. Half-way through production the studio asked Hitchcock to re-shoot key scenes to include sound. The finished product is a landmark collision of the silent and talkie eras.

Hitchcock included many scenes with fast edits and atmospheric montages to accommodate for silent screenings, while other scenes are designed to show off the capabilities of recorded sound. Cars honk, glass shatters, pianos are played, characters whistle and there’s even some singing.  It’s like the early RealD 3D movies of mid 2000s that took every opportunity throw something towards the screen. If you were a moviegoer in 1929 this was fucking awesome.

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But not as awesome as this shot

Straight off the back of The Manxman, Czech actress Anny Ondra stars as Alice, the bubbly girlfriend of police detective Frank (John Longden). She ditches him at a restaurant to secretly liaise with a suave artist (Cyril Ritchard). Things take a horrific turn as he tries to force himself on her and, in the heat of the moment, she stabs him to death.

Her boyfriend, refreshingly unjudgemental of Alice’s previously flirtatious relationship with the artist, now protects her from a cigar-puffing ex-convict (Donald Calthrop) who suspects her of murder and wants to exploit it to his advantage.

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The knife gives it away

Although Ondra is the only actress officially credited, the character of Alice was actually voiced by Joan Barry who dubbed in all of the lines live on set, since Hitchcock feared audiences would find Ondra’s accent difficult to understand and sound technology was still too primitive for non-diegetic editing. This leads to a few disjointed moments, but in general both actresses do a superb job.

Their collective talents are most impressive during the attempted rape scene. Alice’s terror is frighteningly well expressed, both through the visuals and audio, as he grasps her repeating “Don’t be silly, don’t be silly.” Once her attacker lies dead she becomes quiet, slow and quivering – devastated by what she did and what was nearly done to her. It’s intense and deeply unsettling.

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I never liked clowns

The film drags for the last half hour as the blackmailer tries to have his wicked way. Hitchcock would later realise with Strangers on a Train that a this kind of story works best if the threat builds over a long time. Blackmail takes place over only 24 hours. Regardless, it’s one of Hitchcock more morally complex films with enough intensity to it to forgive the clumsier moments.