Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Wrong Number?

Tony (Ray Milland): How do you go about writing a detective story?

Mark (Robert Cummings): Well, you forget detection and concentrate on crime. Crime's the thing. And then you imagine you're going to steal something or murder somebody.

Tony: Oh, is that how you do it? It's interesting.

Mark: Yes, I usually put myself in the criminal's shoes and then I keep asking myself, what do I do next?

Margot (Grace Kelly): Do you really believe in the perfect murder?

Mark: Mmm, yes, absolutely. On paper, that is. And I think I could plan one better than most people; but I doubt if I could carry it out.

Tony: Oh? Why not?

Mark: Well, because in stories things usually turn out the way the author wants them to; and in real life they don't always. I'm afraid my murders would be something like my bridge. I'd make some stupid mistake and never realize it until I found everybody was looking at me.

"Dial M for Murder" premiered 60 years ago today.

That was before my time — which is true of nearly every Hitchcock movie — but I still enjoy watching it whenever it's on.

It seems dated now, I admit, but I didn't mind that when I saw it the first time. Nor did I mind that nearly all the action takes place in a single location, which makes it seem more like a stage play than a movie. Actually, the movie was based on a very successful stage play.

The author of that play, Frederick Knott, did the screenplay as well, which may account for its virtually seamless presentation. In my opinion, movie adaptations of books or plays usually turn out better if the original author is involved. That isn't always possible, of course, but if the author is involved, it seems to improve the chances that his/her vision will be faithfully represented on the big screen.

Well, it helps to have a good cast, too — and the cast of "Dial M for Murder" was top notch. I have written before of my admiration for Grace Kelly, and she was excellent as Margot, Ray Milland's wealthy and (for the most part) faithful wife. Her character was also a bit naive, I thought. But I'll get back to that in a minute.

At one point, Kelly was roused from her slumber by a ringing phone (which was intended to lure her into the living room, where her intended killer waited for her). It seemed to me, when I first saw "Dial M for Murder," that only a handful of humans have ever been able to roll out of bed and look like they were ready to go out on the town. Apparently, Grace Kelly was one of them.

Her character was also alert enough to fight back against her attacker and stab him with some scissors. She was convicted of murder (in one of the few segments in the movie that took place outside the cozy little flat that Kelly and Milland shared), but, apparently, she never figured out that Milland had planned the attack.

Well, not until the very end.

She had had an affair with an American writer (Robert Cummings) but then broke it off. He wrote several letters to her, all of which she destroyed except one, which disappeared. But she never put two and two together until it was spelled out for her at the end — the man she had killed had been sent to her apartment by her husband to kill her.

She had acted in self–defense.

I guess Margot was an exceptionally trusting sort. The first time I saw "Dial M for Murder," I thought Milland's complicity was obvious. Apparently, it never occurred to Kelly's character. Well, they say love is blind ...

In his droll yet understated way, John Williams, as the chief inspector, helped persuade her that her husband was behind it all.

But, while I always enjoy watching Kelly in any of her movies (and she made three of them for Hitchcock), I have to say I don't think her British accent was very convincing. For me, that was and continues to be a distraction, mainly because "Dial M for Murder" is such a talkative movie.

There is more to it, I suppose. My parents spent a lot of time overseas in the first years of their marriage, and they met many people from other countries, some of whom came to visit us in the United States later. A few of those people were British so I had more exposure to that accent (and some of its variations) than most.

But perhaps I am nitpicking. Most people probably didn't notice.

"Dial M for Murder" may seem to have a transparent plot — but you have to remember that the plot hasn't been a secret for 60 years. It probably packed quite a punch when it was new. Personally, I have always thought the early scene in which Milland blackmailed his old friend into murdering his wife was impressive.'s Michael Costello appeared to agree. "Kelly, and Robert Cummings as her lover, are forced to contend with underwritten stock characters," Costello wrote. "Neither comes off particularly well."

I'm not sure I would take it quite that far. I have already praised Knott's "seamless" story and the quality of the cast — and I stand by that. I still think "Dial M for Murder" was a good movie, but maybe Costello was on to something. Kelly and Cummings did not come off well even though their characters prospered. Maybe it was hard for some viewers to care what happened to them.

Sometimes, I suppose, all the elements in a movie are good — until they're mixed together.

Technically, "Dial M for Murder" was noteworthy for its early attempt at 3–D. If you look closely, you can see remnants of the rudimentary technology that Hitchcock used to create the 3–D effect.

Personally, I have never really cared for the 3–D effect, but I was never sure why until I read an online journal entry by Roger Ebert.

"There is a mistaken belief that 3–D is 'realistic.' Not at all," Ebert wrote. "In real life we perceive in three dimensions, yes, but we do not perceive parts of our vision dislodging themselves from the rest and leaping at us. Nor do such things, such as arrows, cannonballs or fists, move so slowly that we can perceive them actually in motion. If a cannonball approached that slowly, it would be rolling on the ground."

I guess that explains it.