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


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…


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.


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.


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.


Hitchcock-a-thon: Stage Fright (1950)


By 1950 Hitchcock had been directing films for a quarter of a century. His career had survived the shift from silents to talkies, he’d made it big in Hollywood for over a decade and had even bagged himself a Best Picture Oscar with Rebecca. In many ways it must have seemed like there was nowhere left to go. In actuality, the Golden Age of Hitchcock was still to come.

But not quite yet. First we have to get through Stage Fright. It’s not as melodramatically tedious as Under Capricorn, but it’s a bland affair. For a film about deceitful theatrics (Classic Hitchcock), it deserves to be more interesting than it is.


An aspiring London actress Eve Gill (Jane Wyman) gets caught up in a very different kind of drama when her friend Jonathan (Richard Todd) seeks her help. The husband of his secret lover, musical diva Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich), has been murdered and Jonathan is the chief suspect. With the help of her cool-as-a-cucumber father (Alastair Sim) and a charming police inspector (Michael Wilding), Eve puts her acting skills to the test in order to uncover the truth.

The thing most critics remember about Stage Fright is the ending, which turns the plot around in a pretty nifty and unexpected twist. Also, in contrast to the large scale chases around big set pieces that had become prominent in Hitch’s American films, the climax is restricted and personal. It’s by far the most tense and claustrophobic moment in the two hour running time and ends things on a high note.


But as for the rest of it…it’s OK. Wyman and Dietrich are watchable enough as the leads and there’s a few funny moments such as a ridiculously over-the-top cameo from comic actress Joyce Grenfell credited only as ‘Lovely ducks’ (you’ll know why when you see it). But the film feels hugely stretched at two hours, with long chunks of unmemorable dialogue.


It’s fair to say Hitchcock’s brief return to British cinema was underwhelming. It would be another two decades before he came back again, this time with glory.

Hitchcock-a-thon: Rope (1948)


Hitchcock loved creating his own technical boundaries only to overcome them. In Lifeboat he set out to shot a riveting drama within the confines of one small, cramped location. In Rope he now goes one step further: to create a riveting drama within a small, cramped location…in one single shot. An incredibly ambitious undertaking. Too ambitious, in fact.

The short reels of the time wouldn’t allow Hitchcock to shoot the film as one take. As such, the finished film consists of nine shots cut together to give the appearance of a single take. Unfortunately, the illusion doesn’t always work; some of the cuts are jilting obvious and serve as a bit of a distraction.

Regardless, Rope is an extremely engaging story. Brandon (John Dall) and Philip (Farley Granger) are two friends who decide to commit a murder as an intellectual exercise. After throttling their mutual friend, David (Dick Hogan), in their New York apartment they hide the body in a trunk and throw a party with a bunch of clueless party guests as David’s still warm corpse lies stored just out of sight. All part of the fun, really.


It’s all fun and games until someone gets murdered

What they don’t count on is the observant eye of their old school teacher Rupert (James Stewart) who starts to suspect that something truly dreadful has happened.

Rope was Hitchcock’s first colour picture as well as his first collaboration with the great actor James Stewart. Although Stewart gives a strong performance (when does he not?) he’s still not yet at the absolute top of his game as the sleuthing school teacher.


On the case

The real stand-out is John Dall, who gives plays the more suave – and creepy – half of the murdering duo. He’s a slick screen presence and always fun to watch.

The real achievement of Rope is that, despite the clunky cuts, Hitchcock keeps the camera in nearly constant motion. He’d learnt from Juno and the Paycock that shooting a one room drama like a static stage play simply wouldn’t do. In contrast, all of Rope is always visually interesting, not least of all the beautiful addition of the New York skyline backdrop designed to slowly shift from dusk to nighttime.

Hitchcock later dismissed his “one-shot” approach as a stunt. Maybe so, but it’s a stunt which gives an engaging and suspenseful film, even if it’s slightly frayed at the edges.


Geddit? It was a rope pun! God, I’m so alone…

Hitchcock-a-thon: Juno and the Paycock (1929)


Of all the films under Hitchcock’s belt up by 1929, Juno and the Paycock might be his most impenetrable for modern audiences. Yes, even more so than his two hour silent rural comedy.

A lot of this comes from immediate technical problems. The film used ridiculously cheap sound equipment so there’s muffled speech and droning background static throughout. Combine that with some questionable “Irish” accents and you’ve got audio as rough as a badger’s arse.


No one does glares like the Irish

But the most off-putting element in Paycock is the pacing. Hitchcock was a huge fan of Seán O’Casey’s original play and wanted to adapt it as faithful as possible, often running directorial decisions past O’Casey to make sure he was happy. Hitch’s loyalty is commendable, but his attachment to the source material ultimately holds the film back. It unfolds like a filmed stage play, rather than a movie. The thrilling visual language we’ve seen in Hitch’s silent films (and Blackmail) is abandoned and we’re left with an inert and “wordy” one-room drama.

But once your ears have stopped bleeding and you ease in to the slow pace you’ll uncover an engaging story. In the slums of Dublin at the height of the Irish Civil War we follow the struggles of the Boyle family: Juno (Sara Allgood), her two children Mary (Kathleen O’Regan) and Johnny (John Laurie) and her husband Captain Boyle (Edward Chapman) who’s nicknamed the peacock – or “paycock” – on account of his vanity and uselessness.


He even has to concentrate to drink tea

When the family starts to tear apart the film reaches a shockingly bleak – almost nihilistic – conclusion. Allgood nails her final heart-wrenching monologue and it makes for an impactful send-off. It’s a fitting ending to a highly ideological film dealing with issues of national loyalty, the scars of guilt and the terrifying judgement of a devout Catholic society.

Despite these meaty topics, Paycock fails to utilize the inbuilt differences between film and theatre. It’s best to approach it as a venture into new territory since Hitchcock would later discover how to “translate” plays into films with Dial M For Murder and Rope.

An interesting early attempt, but as the great director later admitted in his famous interview with François Truffau, Juno and the Paycock has “nothing to do with cinema.”


Well I don’t know what y’all so happy about

Hitchcock-a-thon: Downhill (1927)


Reunited with leading man Ivor Novello (who also penned the original stage play), Hitchcock gives us a tale of false accusation and the loss of innocence with Downhill.

There’s also a bit where Novello takes his top off to appeal to the teenage girl fanbase. No, I’m serious. He was a huge sex symbol. The Ryan Gosling of his day.


Women got their ankles all kinds of naked for him

This sexy lump of man-meat plays Roddy, a schoolboy who’s best friend Tim (Robin Irvine) knocks up their mutual friend Mabel (Annette Benson). Shockingly, she falsely names Roddy as the father-to-be because she thinks his rich family can provide for the unborn child better than Tim’s. Not wanting his pal’s Oxford scholarship chances to go down the drain, Roddy takes the bullet. He’s immediately expelled and cast out by his parents. Now he has to make his own way in the world and I’ll let you guess how well that goes…


“I’m tripping balls, bro”

It may be lacking in murders, but Downhill is one of Hitchcock’s bleakest films. Polite society is depicted as untrusting, uncaring and unrewarding, particularly when it comes to the women, all of whom betray Roddy’s trust in some vile and deceptive way. There’s also an especially mean-spirited “old-spinster” stereotype towards the end. For anyone already put off by examples of misogyny in Hitchcock’s works, Downhill isn’t for you.

Novello, well into his 30s, isn’t going to convince anyone he’s a schoolboy but he sinks his teeth into the emotional range of his role with aplomb. He makes a believable journey from bushy-tailed rapscallion to a broken, haunted man the likes of which we saw him play in The Lodger. Speaking of familiar, Ian Hunter makes a return as another love rival. Sleazier this time. And he sneezes on a toy dog. Sleazier and sneezier.

Downhill is one of Hitchcock’s clunkier films. Symbols of “descent” are pushed to a breaking point, the villainesses are crude caricatures and the final resolution is absurdly quick and easy. There are a couple of truly stand-out moments such as the accusation in the headmaster’s study which is a master class in How To Inject Tension Into Your Scene. On its own, it may be one of the most suspenseful moments on Hitch’s resume so far. It’s a shame the rest of the movie goes downhill (ho ho) from there.


Well that escalated quickly