DIAL M FOR MURDER
Note: The following review discusses the anatomy of one crucial scene, but does not give away the ending to the film.
In the early 1950s, Warner Bros. had gone crazy for 3-D, and mogul Jack Warner wanted Alfred Hitchcock to experiment in the effect. Hitchcock, of course, had been experimenting in film style for years: the long-take, highly specialized and wholly unique camera movements, confined quarters, unreliable narrators, etc. It seem like the director who would seemingly try anything would embrace the opportunity to work with new technology, but he was smart enough to tell the difference between cinematic possibility and fleeting fad.
Despite his healthy skepticism, he signed on to produce Dial M for Murder utilizing the 3-D effect, chiefly because he knew fulfilling a certain favor could keep the shifty eyes of the studio off his back and let him work uninterrupted. In the fall of 1952, while in New York, he had seen British playwright Frederick Knott's stage play of the same name, about a man who plots to have his adulterous wife murdered in order to secure her hefty fortune. The murder goes awry, and the husband has to cover up his steps – the kind of story right up Hitchcock's alley. And, to add icing to the cake, Cary Grant was interested in playing the husband.
But like the murder itself, things began to slide off the tracks from the very beginning. The budget for Dial M for Murder was extraordinarily tight, and nearly all of Hitchcock's concessions were due to money. Warner vetoed filming on location in London (he didn't want the studio's only 3-D camera traveling overseas), and Warner vetoed Grant (too expensive, plus he claimed audiences wouldn't buy the shift away from lighter fare, which completely ignores Suspicion and Notorious). Production had to begin quickly and end quickly, so there was no time to get into Knott's play and re-tool it extensively for a cinematic rebirth, which left the setting to be very much a "stage." And even though Hitchcock had lost Grant, there still wasn't room in the budget for the lead actress to be anyone greater than a virtual unknown.
Yet what makes Hitchcock great is that when things began to slide away from him, nine times out of ten he could get away with it nevertheless. Dial M for Murder isn't among his banner productions, and it's only referenced in passing in his interviews or writings on him, but it is a remarkable film in many ways, one of his abandoned darlings that teaches us a great deal about what kind of filmmaker he was and happens to be quite entertaining in the process. From a purely cinematic vantage, part of its immense joy is how little the story is changed from the original theatrical production and how Hitchcock and cinematographer Robert Burks literally seem to stage a play. A filmed play is, technically, the best way to describe Dial M for Murder, although its triumph is that it doesn't feel like it. (Note how each time Hitchcock filmed something in a small, enclosed space – Lifeboat, Rope, Rear Window – he filmed it differently.)
With Grant out of reach, the lead role of former tennis star Tony Wendice went to Ray Milland, who in my opinion is perpetually underrated. Tony has left the sport at the request of his wife Margot (Grace Kelly, at the time still relatively unknown), and their marriage can't be described in any way as truly satisfying. Margot is unaware that Tony knows of a previous relationship she had with a crime writer named Mark (Robert Cummings, who played lead in Saboteur). Tony blackmails a former classmate of his going by the name Lesgate (Anthony Dawson, who played the same role in the New York stage production) to kill Margot. When Margot survives, Tony has to juggle Margot, Mark, and a curious and determined inspector.
The story is tight, and overall the film is gripping, if not slightly long. Milland is grand and meticulous, even though Cummings is ... well, Cummings. In the twelve years that passed between Saboteur and Dial M for Murder, Cummings didn't become spectacularly telegenic, and when stacked against Milland, it's easy to tell which of the two had won an Oscar for Best Actor. The real draw to Kelly, who is lovely in Technicolor, in her first of three consecutive Hitchcock roles. Margot doesn't have as prominent of a role in the play as Tony or Mark, so it does feel like there is a large empty space on screen sometimes when Kelly isn't there. (But that's what generally happens when a mesmerizing actor or actress isn't there.) Because of the small sets (and the 3-D process), it was necessary for the camerawork to be as nimble, and Dial M for Murder is a great example of a Hitchcock film where you can detect the director's slightest presence in every shot, particularly the ones that seem to explode across the screen with his typical and artful delicacy.
When Dial M for Murder premiered in May of 1954, Hitchcock's dismissive attitude of 3-D as a mere fad had proved clairvoyant. Almost as soon as it had exploded in popularity, it had imploded and shrunk away lusterless. Dial M for Murder only played in 3-D in selected theaters upon its first run, but subsequent revivals have brought it back to be shown as it was intended. I've never seen it in 3-D, and look forward to the day I might be able to, but what I've read about it normally concludes the same thing you'd be able to tell from the film being shown on your television at home: that Hitchcock used the technology carefully and judiciously, aiming mostly at creating subtle depth on the primary set of the Wendice house. Many objects (such as lamps and furniture) are placed in front of the camera and supposedly "pop." The one grand exception is during the attempted murder scene, where Margot struggles against Lesgate and suddenly reaches her hand out (and directly toward the camera) for something to fend him off, translating into the effect of her "reaching out into the audience." Even on a two-dimensional space, though, the violent jerk of her arm and hand is rather startling.
Although not as beloved as some of Hitchcock's other masterful films, I have a theory that Dial M for Murder is necessary viewing for anyone seeking to prove why the director is cited as among the best. There's a moment of luminousness where the pacing, the camera, the script, and the editing all merge together and form a cohesive and brilliant scene. It occurs in the moment of the attempted murder, and it's a tour de force sequence; although it appears so simple and elegant in execution, in terms of suspense and skill it matches the sophistication and complexity of any scene from Hitchcock's acclaimed masterpieces. The success of the moment alone makes me wonder why Hitchcock would prove so discursive on the subject of the film later in his life.
But first, to appreciate the sequence in all its cinematic glory, it's necessary to note here that Dial M for Murder was re-adapted in the late 1990s as A Perfect Murder, with Michael Douglas and Gwyneth Paltrow in the Milland and Kelly roles. The murder scene in that below-par film hinges on the shock of a masked man jumping out from off-screen and the ensuing violence as Paltrow fights him off – bogeyman stuff basically, the kind of stuff you might well expect in a thriller film. Yet consider what Hitchcock does with the same scene. There is a splendid trail of guilt dripping across the characters and into the audience that exists only under the watchful eye of Hitchcock. For all intents and purposes, Tony is the bad guy: he has planned his wife's murder (although she's not exactly an angel, either). But beginning with the sequence of the murder, Hitchcock slyly begins to toy with our allegiances. We can't help but root for Margot not only to live and be proven redeemed, but we also find ourselves rooting for Tony, as well, to have his plan be performed successfully, or at least get away with what he has done.
The attempted murder, which occurs roughly forty minutes into the film, has been plotted and spelled out for the audience in an earlier conversation between Tony and Lesgate. Tony is going to be out of the house and is supposed to call Margot at a specific time, and Lesgate will be waiting behind the curtain with a cloth to strangle her when she answers the phone. The scene begins with an anxious Tony, who is keeping a close eye on the time and realizes when his watch stops and he is late to call that he must have inadvertently overwound it. Lesgate, thinking the plan has been postponed, gets ready to leave. Tony gets up to go to the pay-phone to call Margot, and there's a steady shot of him walking through the lobby of the restaurant. He pulls the change out of his pocket and as he makes a slight left turn toward the pay-phone, the camera pans right to reveal someone else in the booth already. Dimitri Tiomkin's somewhat generic but highly effective tick-tock thriller score circles in the background, and Tony paces outside the booth, as frustrated now as we are. Once he gets into the booth, he slides in the coins and as the score booms thunderously, we are given an extreme close-up of the rotary phone, Milland's fingertip sliding into the number 6 spot (the "M"). Cut then to a seemingly unrelated shot of the mechanics inside the phone chirping and ticking away as the call is connected, but in the history of Hitchcock's films, we are given numerous shots of "behind-the-scenes" functionality (The Lodger, for example, includes a montage of how the newspaper is printed).
Back in the apartment, the phone rings. Lesgate, halfway out the door, turns around at its sound. The light snaps on in Margot's bedroom, visible between the door and the floor. She answers the phone in a three-quarter shot and slowly the camera begins to curl around her (she until eventually it staring at the back of her head, just as the Lesgate's cloth, pulled tight between his hands, comes into view. Smash-cut back to the front of her, Lesgate now positioned over her shoulder. The score has drowned out nearly all sounds but Margot repeating "Hello?" into the telephone and pressing the switchhook over and over. The orchestra crescendos as Lesgate finally attacks, with Margot panting and screaming and fighting; he pushes her onto the desk, a lamp breaking in the background – and this is where it gets really tricky – Milland now closes his eyes in what I suppose can only be called mournful (he has planned this, after all, so there's your Hitchcockian complexity). Kelly famously reaches back toward the camera, and grabs a pair of scissors left on the desk. Naturally, they are held stiff in the "X" position with the blades spread apart, and as the light gleams across the silvery metal, she stabs Lesgate in the back, a perfect moment of resistance and self-defense. Lesgate falls onto the floor, the scissors pressing deeply into him and killing him. Tony is stricken but unaware as he listens to the commotion on the telephone, then his eyes grow when Margot picks it up, sobbing and asking for the police.
"What's the matter?" he asks. She says she can't explain now and wants him to come quickly. But he prods her to reveal, unbeknownst to herself, the state of the plan: "Darling, pull yourself together. What is it?" And after she explains the attack, and he knows everything has gone wrong, the fear fills his face like water in a sponge. Although the words are by Knott, the response – utterly callous to Margot's well-being, but leading and hopeful the plan hasn't completely collapsed – is purely Hitchcockian in its dark humor, its duplicity, and its eagerness: "Did he get away?" She says the man is dead, and he tells her not to touch anything and he'll be home quickly.
Dial M for Murder is a 1954 American thriller film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring Ray Milland, Grace Kelly, and Robert Cummings. The movie was adapted from a successful stage play by Frederick Knott, and was released by the Warner Bros. studio.
The screenplay and the stage play on which it was based were both written by English playwright Frederick Knott, whose work often focused on women who innocently become the potential victims of sinister plots. The play premiered in 1952 on BBC television, before being performed on the stage in the same year in London's West End in June, and then New York's Broadway in October.
The single setting in the stage play is the living-room of the Wendices' flat in London (61A Charrington Gardens, Maida Vale). Hitchcock's film adds a second setting in a gentleman's club, the well of a staircase, a few views of the street outside, and a stylized courtroom montage. Having seen the play on Broadway, Cary Grant was keen to play the role of Tony Wendice, but studio chiefs did not feel the public would accept him as a man who arranges to have his wife murdered.
In June 2008, the American Film Institute revealed its "Ten Top Ten" list—the best ten films in ten "classic" American film genre—after polling over 1,500 people from the creative community. Dial M for Murder was ranked the ninth best film in the mystery genre.
The 1954 film was shot with M.L. Gunzberg's Natural Vision 3-D camera rig. This rig was notable for being the same rig that started the 3-D craze of 1953 with Bwana Devil and House of Wax. Intended originally to be shown in dual strip polarized 3-D, the film played in most theaters in normal 2-D due to the loss of interest in the 3-D process by the time of its release.
The film earned an estimated $2.7 million in rentals at the North American box office in 1954.
In February 1980, the dual-strip system was used for the revival of the film in 3-D at the York Theater in San Francisco. This revival did so well that Warner Bros. re-released the film using Chris Condon's single-strip StereoVision 3-D system in February 1982.
12 ANGRY MEN - February 2019
In form, "12 Angry Men" is a courtroom drama. In purpose, it's a crash course in those passages of the Constitution that promise defendants a fair trial and the presumption of innocence. It has a kind of stark simplicity: Apart from a brief setup and a briefer epilogue, the entire film takes place within a small New York City jury room, on "the hottest day of the year," as 12 men debate the fate of a young defendant charged with murdering his father.
The film shows us nothing of the trial itself except for the judge's perfunctory, almost bored, charge to the jury. His tone of voice indicates the verdict is a foregone conclusion. We hear neither prosecutor nor defense attorney, and learn of the evidence only second-hand, as the jurors debate it. Most courtroom movies feel it necessary to end with a clear-cut verdict. But "12 Angry Men" never states whether the defendant is innocent or guilty. It is about whether the jury has a reasonable doubt about his guilt.
The principle of reasonable doubt, the belief that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty, is one of the most enlightened elements of our Constitution, although many Americans have had difficulty in accepting it. "It's an open and shut case," snaps Juror No. 3 (Lee J. Cobb) as the jury first gathers in their claustrophobic little room. When the first ballot is taken, 10 of his fellow jurors agree, and there is only one holdout--Juror No. 8 (Henry Fonda).
This is a film where tension comes from personality conflict, dialogue and body language, not action; where the defendant has been glimpsed only in a single brief shot; where logic, emotion and prejudice struggle to control the field. It is a masterpiece of stylized realism--the style coming in the way the photography and editing comment on the bare bones of the content. Released in 1957, when Technicolor and lush production values were common, "12 Angry Men" was lean and mean. It got ecstatic reviews and a spread in Life magazine, but was a disappointment at the box office. Over the years it has found a constituency, however, and in a 2002 Internet Movie Database poll it was listed 23rd among the best films of all time.
The story is based on a television play by Reginald Rose, later made into a movie by Sidney Lumet, with Rose and Henry Fonda acting as co-producers and putting up their own money to finance it. It was Lumet's first feature, although he was much experienced in TV drama, and the cinematography was by the veteran Boris Kaufman, whose credits ("On the Waterfront," "Long Day's Journey into Night") show a skill for tightening the tension in dialogue exchanges.
The cast included only one bankable star, Fonda, but the other 11 actors were among the best then working in New York, including Martin Balsam, Lee J. Cobb, E. G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Jack Warden, Ed Begley and Robert Webber. They smoke, they sweat, they swear, they sprawl, they stalk, they get angry.
In a length of only 95 minutes (it sometimes feels as if the movie is shot in real time), the jurors are all defined in terms of their personalities, backgrounds, occupations, prejudices and emotional tilts. Evidence is debated so completely that we feel we know as much as the jury does, especially about the old man who says he heard the murder and saw the defendant fleeing, and the lady across the street who says she saw it happen through the windows of a moving L train.
We see the murder weapon, a switch-blade knife, and hear the jurors debate the angle of the knife wound. We watch as Fonda imitates the shuffling step of the old man, a stroke victim, to see if he could have gotten to the door in time to see the murderer fleeing. In its ingenuity, in the way it balances one piece of evidence against another that seems contradictory, "12 Angry Men" is as meticulous as the summation of an Agatha Christie thriller.
But it is not about solving the crime. It is about sending a young man to die. The movie is timely in view of recent revelations that many Death Row convictions are based on contaminated evidence. "We're talking about somebody's life here," the Fonda character says. "We can't decide in five minutes. Supposing we're wrong?"
The defendant, when we glimpse him, looks "ethnic" but of no specific group. He could be Italian, Turkish, Indian, Jewish, Arabic, Mexican. His eyes are ringed with dark circles, and he looks exhausted and frightened. In the jury room, some jurors make veiled references to "these people." Finally Juror No. 10 (Ed Begley) begins a racist rant ("You know how these people lie. It's born in them. They don't know what the truth is. And let me tell you, they don't need any real big reason to kill someone, either...") As he continues, one juror after another stands up from the jury table and walks away, turning his back. Even those who think the defendant is guilty can't sit and listen to Begley's prejudice. The scene is one of the most powerful in the movie.
The vote, which begins as 11-to-1, shifts gradually. Although the movie is clearly in favor of the Fonda position, not all of those voting "guilty" are portrayed negatively. One of the key characters is Juror No. 4 (E. G. Marshall), a stockbroker wearing rimless glasses, who depends on pure logic and tries to avoid emotion altogether. Another Juror No. 7 (Jack Warden), who has tickets to a baseball game, grows impatient and changes his vote just to hurry things along. Juror No. 11 (George Voskovec), an immigrant who speaks with an accent, criticizes him: "Who tells you that you have the right to play like this with a man's life?" Earlier, No. 11 was attacked as a foreigner: "They come over and in no time at all they're telling us how to run the show."
The visual strategy of the movie is discussed by Lumet in Making Movies, one of the most intelligent and informative books ever written about the cinema. In planning the movie, he says, a "lens plot" occurred to him: To make the room seem smaller as the story continued, he gradually changed to lenses of longer focal lengths, so that the backgrounds seemed to close in on the characters.
"In addition," he writes, "I shot the first third of the movie above eye level, shot the second third at eye level and the last third from below eye level. In that way, toward the end the ceiling began to appear. Not only were the walls closing in, the ceiling was as well. The sense of increasing claustrophobia did a lot to raise the tension of the last part of the movie." In the film's last shot, he observes, he used a wide-angle lens "to let us finally breathe."
The movie plays like a textbook for directors interested in how lens choices affect mood. By gradually lowering his camera, Lumet illustrates another principle of composition: A higher camera tends to dominate, a lower camera tends to be dominated. As the film begins we look down on the characters, and the angle suggests they can be comprehended and mastered. By the end, they loom over us, and we feel overwhelmed by the force of their passion. Lumet uses closeups rarely, but effectively: One man in particular--Juror No. 9 (Joseph Sweeney, the oldest man on the jury)--is often seen in full-frame, because he has a way of cutting to the crucial point and stating the obvious after it has eluded the others.
For Sidney Lumet, born in 1924, "12 Angry Men" was the beginning of a film career that has often sought controversial issues. Consider these titles from among his 43 films: "The Pawnbroker" (the Holocaust), "Fail-Safe" (accidental nuclear war), "Serpico" (police corruption), "Dog Day Afternoon" (homosexuality), "Network" (the decay of TV news), "The Verdict" (alcoholism and malpractice), "Daniel" (a son punished for the sins of his parents), "Running on Empty" (radical fugitives), and "Critical Care" (health care). There are also comedies and a musical ("The Wiz"). If Lumet is not among the most famous of American directors, that is only because he ranges so widely he cannot be categorized. Few filmmakers have been so consistently respectful of the audience's intelligence.
THE BICYCLE THIEVES January 2019
Neorealism never got more real than in Vittorio de Sica's 1948 classic Ladri di Biciclette, or Bicycle Thieves - occasionally mistranslated as "The Bicycle Thief", though the plural is surely crucial. It turns out that there are two thieves: one at the movie's beginning, another at its end. This study of poverty in postwar Rome is now revived in cinemas as a somewhat astringent Yuletide treat. For me, it is as unbearable as any horror film.
Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani) is a poor man who is thrilled when he is at last offered a job: delivering and putting up movie posters. But he needs a bicycle, and must supply his own, so his wife Maria (Lianella Carelli) pawns the family's entire stock of bed linen to redeem the bicycle he had already hocked. On his first day at work, the unlocked machine is stolen and Antonio drops everything to go on a desperate odyssey through the streets of Rome with his little boy Bruno (Enzo Staiola) to get his bike back, pleading and accusing and uncovering scenes of poverty similar to theirs wherever they go. They create uproar in classic crowd moments: in the streets, in a market, in a church mass. Faces always gather avidly around the pair, all commenting, complaining and generally magnifying the father and son's distress and mortification.
This is a story that magnificently withholds the comic or dramatic palliatives another sort of film might have introduced. Antonio and Bruno are a world away from Chaplin and his Kid. The son is the intimate witness of the father's humiliation, his inadequacy as a provider. The scenes at the beginning of the film, when Antonio casually leaves his bicycle unlocked but it remains for the moment miraculously unstolen, have to be watched through your fingers.
Antonio seems unable or unwilling to embrace the obvious redemptive moral - that his son is the important possession, not the wretched bicycle - and De Sica is unwilling to embrace it either, perhaps precisely because it is too obvious, or because this moral is a luxury that only well-off people can afford. The father is obsessed with finding a stolen needle in the urban haystack, obsessed with getting his job back. Again and again, he ignores his little boy while scanning the horizon for his bicycle. At one stage, he hears an uproar from the riverbank about a "drowned boy". With a guilty start, he looks around. Do they mean Bruno? No: there he is, safe and sound.
But the lesson is not learned. He doesn't even hold Bruno's hand! And, in a later scene, we see the poor boy almost run over by a car because his father isn't looking out for him. Bruno's simple physical survival is the movie's secret miracle, and he is finally to be his father's saviour, but in such a way as to render Antonio's humiliation complete. This is poverty's authentic sting: banal and horrible loss of dignity. Bicycle Thieves is a brilliant, tactlessly real work of art.
The Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di Biciclette) is an Italian Neorealist film directed by Vittorio De Sica, with the screen play by Cesare Zavattini and shot in 1948. Neorealism, as a term, means many things, but it often refers to films of working class life, set in the culture of poverty, and with the implicit message that in a better society wealth would be more evenly distributed. Set in poverty stricken post-war Rome, the stories of the poor were close to De Sicca’s heart, he himself was born into poverty and only managed to escape through a career as a theatre and then film actor. De Sica’s first films as a director were light comedies like the ones he often worked in. However, maybe due to the harsh realities of World War II, his 1942 film "The Children are Watching," had mush more depth and sensitivity than his earlier work.
When De Sica was looking for a producer to finance his film, he finally found one, but on condition that the workman was played by Cary Grant. The mere statement of the problem in these terms shows the absurdity of it. Actually, Cary Grant could play that kind of part extremely well, but it is obvious that the question here is not one of playing of a part but of getting away from the very notion of doing any such thing, The worker had to be at once as perfect and as anonymous and as objective as his bicycle.
Creation from limitation
De Sica famously used non-actors, in location. Not one scene shot in a studio. Everything was filmed in the streets. As for the actors, none had the slightest experience in theater or film. The workman came from the Breda factory, the child was found hanging around in the street, the wife was a journalist.
In his journals, Cesare Zavattini writes about how he and De Sica visited a brothel to do research for the film, and later the rooms of the Wise Woman, a psychic, who inspires one of the film's characters. De Sica hunted for his cast for a long time and selected them for specific characteristics. Natural nobility, that purity of countenance and bearing that the common people have… He hesitated for months between this person and that, took a hundred tests only to decide finally, in a flash and by intuition on the basis of a silhouette suddenly come upon at the bend of a road.
With the disappearance of the concept of the actor into a transparency seemingly as natural as life itself, comes the disappearance of the set. Now De Sica's film took a long time to prepare, and everything was as minutely planned as for a studio superproduction, which, as a matter of fact, allows for last minute improvisations. Nevertheless, the numbering and titling of shots do not noticeable distinguish Ladri di Biciclette from any ordinary film. But their selection has been made with a view to raising the lucidity of the event to a maximum, while keeping the index of refraction from the style to a minimum.
The long, drawn-out takes add to the feeling of desperation and fear that Antonio faces in his pursuit of finding his bike. Bicycle Thieves can feel like a documentary in it’s subject matter, and though the cinematography is unpretentious it is incredibly beautiful. Bazin (who is regarded as one of the most important or influential writer on cinema and was a co-founder of the French film review "Cahiers du cinéma") stated that the film was "pure cinema"; that it tells a simple story composed of "real" events involving "real" people in "real" places. The truth of its extraordinary emotional impact is another element of the story's purity.
"The Bicycle Thief" had such an impact on its first release that when the British film magazine Sight & Sound held its first international poll of filmmakers and critics in 1952, it was voted the greatest film of all time.