Rethinking Dial M for Murder

The last time I saw Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder on the big screen, or in 3D, was the first time any paying audience had seen it in decades. That was in 1980, at San Francisco’s York Theater. I finally experienced the film properly again Thursday night at the Rafael, and it’s a much better movie than I remembered.

That 1980 screening was on a double bill with the even-better Strangers on a Train. Oddly, Dial M feels in some ways like a sequel to Strangers. In the first film, Farley Granger plays a young tennis pro estranged from his philandering wife. The happy ending has him ready to marry the daughter of a rich and powerful man. In Dial M, Ray Milland plays a middle-aged former tennis pro with a wealthy, but philandering wife. Both stories involve a plot to murder the adulteress, with the dirty deed performed by a seemingly disinterested third party.

In Dial M for Murder, Grace Kelly plays that wife in her first of three performances for Hitchcock. Knowing of her infidelity, and wanting to inherit her fortune, Milland plans an imageelaborate "perfect" murder, blackmailing and bribing an old acquaintance to commit the crime when the phone rings. Things don’t go as planned, but Milland is a bright fellow who can still turn things to his favor…maybe.

Set in England (but shot in Warner Brothers’ sound stages in Burbank), it’s all very droll. Everyone speaks calmly and wittily.

In fact, the film’s major weakness is the abundance of talking. Frederick Knott adopted his own stage play for the screen, and apparently didn’t change it much. Large chunks of the movie feel like theatre, with actors giving long, expository speeches. Hitchcock does what he can to liven these scenes with his patented, paranoia-producing camera angles, but the staginess still comes through.

But I don’t want to emphasize the film’s weaknesses. There were good reasons why the play was a Broadway hit, and why Warners picked Alfred Hitchcock to helm the film version. The story if filled with wit, suspense, and thrills. There’s great pleasure in watching Milland inwardly squirm as his plot unravels, then find a way to turn events in his favor, only to squirm inwardly again.

Hitchcock made Dial M for Murder in 1953, at the height of Hollywood’s first and very short 3D boom. Warner Brothers insisted he shoot the film stereoscopically. Hitchcock used the new format well by hardly using it at all. Most of the film is shot like a conventional, flat movie. But the one time Hitchcock throws something at the screen, you don’t laugh at the silly 3D hokum; you jump out of your seat and scream. That moment stands amongst Hitchcock’s greatest scenes, and it’s entirely dependent on 3D for its effect.

Warner Brothers recently restored the film digitally. Much of it looks very grainy–especially the exteriors (of which there are few). Presumably the source was several generations away from the negative. Or perhaps early Warnercolor really was that grainy.

The Rafael is showing the film digitally, which some people object to but not me. Realistically speaking, digital projection makes the 3D experience far more practical, and therefore more available to audiences.

You can catch it again at the Rafael on Sunday, at 4:15 and 7:00. I highly recommend it.

Saturday at the Movies: 50s 3D Horror and Early Talkie Hitchcock

I attended two very different revival screenings yesterday. In the early afternoon, I visited the Castro to catch the newly-restored Creature from the Black Lagoon in all of its 3D spender. Then, in the evening, I dropped in at the Pacific Film Archive to catch a rare, early Alfred Hitchcock talkie, Rich and Strange.

Both were fun, but neither was a must see.

The Creature from the Black Lagoon

I’d seen this 1954 science fiction monster movie three times before–all theatrical and always in 3D. But that was way back in the 1970s. Yesterday, I believe, was my first time seeing it without benefit of marihuana.

It was still pretty funny.

Set in a previously-unexplored tributary of the Amazon–that looks suspiciously like the imageUniversal back lot–Creature follows a small group of scientists, plus a colorful local fisherman, as they search for fossils and find something stranger–a sort of man-fish highbred that doesn’t appear to be particularly well-adapted for anything. Perhaps that explains why he’s all alone; his species is well on the way to extinction.

Why am I calling the creature he, despite the lack of any visible genitalia? Everyone in the movie assumes that the creature is male. What’s more, he seems strangely interested in the one female member of the expedition (young and beautiful, of course).

So let’s take a moment to consider that one female character in the movie, played by Julie Adams. She’s supposed to be a scientist, but she never does anything remotely scientific. While male scientists scuba dive to collect underwater rocks, then run tests below deck, she hangs around, puts herself in dangerous situations, and occasionally screams. But as anyone familiar with 1950s horror understands, those are the primary responsibilities of all female scientists.

(To be fair, some 50’s movies treat female scientists a tad more seriously. See It Came From Beneath the See  for a better role model.)

The other characters are equally stereotyped. You’ve got the handsome, virtuous young man, the older, wise scientist, the boss who cares more about money than research, and the colorful fishing boat captain. Much of the dialog is memorable, although perhaps not in the way the screenwriters intended:

Captain: What kind of fishing is that? Who eats rocks?

Old scientist:  I eat rocks, in a manner of speaking. I crush and look inside them and they tell me things.

This was my first time seeing Creature from the Black Lagoon with decent 3D. Before that, I had only seen it in the dreadful anaglyph 3D version of the 1970s, which required cheap, colored glasses that degraded the image.  Yesterday’s screening used modern, polarized, digital 3D, which gets considerably closer to how the film would have looked in the dual-projector setups of 1954.

Director Jack Arnold (who a few years later would make the excellent Incredible Shrinking Man) and cinematographer William E. Snyder don’t overdo the 3D effects–or at least they don’t overdo overdoing them. The underwater scenes are particularly effective in 3D. On the other hand, rear projection scenes are particularly fake.

But then, you don’t go to a movie called Creature from the Black Lagoon expecting realism.

Rich and Strange

The Pacific Film Archive‘s Alfred Hitchcock series is winding down, so it felt like a good time to catch a rare work from the Master of Suspense. Except that Rich and Strange was made in 1931, before he had come anywhere near earning that title.

You can’t honestly call this modestly budgeted British programmer a thriller, as there are very few actual thrills. image(You can, however, call it East of Shanghai; as did the American distributers.) It starts as a comedy of manners, becomes a fake travelogue, then turns into a serious drama about adultery. A shipwreck sequence near the end gives it a little bit of that Hitchcockian suspense.

Why a fake travelogue? Because everything shot for the film was done on a soundstage. Stock footage and studio sets make up for all of the story’s locations.

The plot is simple and initially conflict-free: A bored and miserable married couple (Henry Kendall and Joan Barry) unexpectedly come into some money. So they decide to travel the world first class, seeing the sites and spending time with the "best" people.

Of course things don’t go smoothly. He suffers from seasickness. She gets bored. They both get very drunk. Each is successfully romanced and seduced by someone else, almost destroying their marriage.

For an early talkie, Rich and Strange appears strangely like a silent movie. The many dialog-free sequences are clearly shot with a hand-cranked camera. It even uses a surprising number of narrative intertitles ("To get to Paris, you must first cross the channel.") These add to the light sense of fun, and make for some of the best sequences. The wordless, over-cranked opening, where the husband battles rain, a crowded subway, and a defective umbrella, is one of the funniest sequences in Hitchcock’s work.

The movie sags a bit in the middle, as adultery threatens the marriage and some broadly-drawn characters threaten the film. But the shipwreck sequence, with the characters trapped in a cabin on the sinking ship, reminds us of the Hitchcock to come.

Mildly entertaining on its own merits, Rich and Strange‘s major value today is as a glimpse of the artist who, in three years, would emerge as the greatest creator of thrillers that the cinema has ever known.

The PFA presented a rare, imported 35mm print of Rich and Strange.

Noir City in 3D

Last night I attended Noir City‘s first ever 3D double bill. Both films, Man in the Dark and Inferno, came out in 1953. That year was both the height of the classic noir period, and the zenith of the first 3D craze.

Actually, it was the only year of the first 3D craze. Hollywood turned to 3D after Bwana Devil became a surprise hit in the fall of 1952. By early 1954, the public was preferring movies in 2D.

Both films have been digitally restored, and were projected off of DCPs. This was my first experience with old 3D movies projected with new 3D technology.

The result? I have a new all-time favorite ’50s 3D movie.

Man in the Dark
This isn’t it. Overall an entertaining little crime thriller with a touch of science fiction, Man in the Dark suffers from the addition of the third dimension.

Edmond O’Brien stars as a violent gangster who, on condition of parole, agrees to experimental brain surgery that will make him a law-abiding citizen. (I’d love to know if Anthony Burgess saw this movie before writing A Clockwork Orange.) The operation also destroys his memory. He has no idea who or what he was before waking up in post-op. The movie never explains why he remembers little things like the English language, or that $130,000 is a lot of money.

That’s how much he stole, then hid, before getting arrested. His partners in crime want their share of the loot. So does an insurance investigator. None of them really believe that he can’t remember anything. Nor are they particularly concerned about his well-being or survival.

The result is a quick, slick, and totally entertaining crime movie, but not an exceptional one.

Except for the 3D. For most of the screen time, the 3D adds absolutely nothing to the picture. It’s just there. But every so often, the filmmakers remind you that you’re watching a 3D movie by throwing something at the camera. Surgical instruments, gunfire, a bat, and a spider all get in your face, taking you out of the story, and–at least with last night’s audience–producing laughs that the filmmakers didn’t intend.

I suspect that movies like this, that would have been better in 2D, ruined the 50s 3D craze.

Now this was more like it. An exceptional story of attempted murder and human survival, set against an unforgiving desert, Inferno is a unique and totally satisfying experience. Directed by Roy Ward Baker and shot by Lucien Ballard, Inferno made better use of 3D than any other pre-digital film I’ve seen.

In fine nourish tradition, an unhappy wife and her lover (Rhonda Fleming and William Lundigan) decide to kill of her rich husband (Robert Ryan) and make it look like an accident. They leave him in the hills above a desert, with a broken leg, while they go looking for help. And when they reach civilization, they give the authorities wrong information, so they look for the missing millionaire in places where he couldn’t possibly be found.

Just one problem: Hubby doesn’t die. Most of the film cuts back and forth between the deceitful lovers and their intended victim, who drags himself across rough terrain, climbs down a cliff with the help of a rope, and walks with a homemade splint, all the while improvising ways to get food and water. (He has no one to talk to, of course, but we hear his thoughts in voice-over.)

So you’re watching two evil people enjoy a life of luxury, while their victim suffers and struggles to stay alive. You know that the tables will inevitably turn. Wondering how that will happen provides most of the movie’s fun.

For most of the film, Baker and Ballard avoid the throw-at-the-camera tricks that make most 50s 3D movies so annoying. Even when a rattlesnake strikes, it sends its venom to something off the side of the screen, not directly into the camera.

The filmmakers use the stereo-optical photography to emphasize the vast emptiness of the desert, adding to the drama rather than detracting from it. Only at the action-packed climax do they throw fists and pieces of furniture at the audience. But the fight is so intense, and so well-choreographed, that the effect enhances the movie rather than hurting it.

Noir City continues today and Sunday at the Castro.

New Movies I’ve Seen Recently…and How I Saw Them

I’ve managed to see six first-run movies in theaters over the last couple of months. I liked all of them to varying degrees. Here’s what I thought about the movies, and about the conditions in which I saw them.

Technical note: All of these films were screened digitally, two of them on screens that had only recently been converted. Four of the films and part of another were shot digitally. They all looked good, although the only one shot on film looked the best (Lincoln).

Non-Technical note: Five of these films had clear, individual protagonists, all male. The exception was about four people; three of them male.

I’ve written this in the order in which I saw them. The first grade is the for the movie; the second for the presentation.

A-/A Skyfall
Daniel Craig continues to rewrite the whole idea of James Bond in his third outing as fiction’s favorite spy). This time he suffers a traumatic experience in the pre-credit sequence, disappears, then comes back months later only because he feels that M needs him. He’s physically and emotionally unfit to serve, but he does so anyway because some shady figure appears to be targeting MI5. This may be the first Bond film set mostly in Brittan, and the first since The World is Not Enough to give Judi Dench a part worthy of her acting talents. Her M carries the story almost as much as Craig’s conflicted and emotionally tortured Bond. And speaking of Craig’s unromanticized interpretation of the character, has anyone else noticed that he never ends the picture happily in a beautiful woman’s arms?

My wife and I saw Skyfall at the Cerrito, projected onto their beautiful, big screen. The Cerrito is always fun, with their couches and good food. But that night they had something special. Someone had gone to the trouble to prepare an appropriate pre-show playlist. As we waited for and ate our dinner, we were treated to theme songs from classic spy movies and TV shows.

B/C+ Argo
Ben Affleck’s truth-based political thriller holds together very well for most of its runtime, even though we know the ending. After Iranians took the American embassy in 1979, a CIA specialist (Affleck, who also directed) takes on the assignment of rescuing a handful of Americans hiding in the Canadian embassy. His far-fetched plan: Create the illusion of a movie company scouting for locations. The Hollywood and Washington scenes are played very effectively for laughs, while the Tehran scenes provide equally-effective thrills. But in the final half hour, Affleck and his screenwriters provide three saved-in-the-last-second moments that might work with Indiana Jones, but are two too many for this allegedly true story. Another complaint: The real hero of this story, Tony Mendez, is Hispanic and looks it. Affleck is unquestionably white.

My wife and I (I saw all six of these films with my wife) caught Argo at the UA Berkeley. This former movie palace has been broken up into so many many auditoriums that only the lobby retains any grandeur. We saw Argo in a tiny hole in the wall down a long hall.

A logo before the movie proudly proclaimed a Sony 4K projector. I turned around and, sure enough, two stacked light sources told me that they hadn’t bothered to remove the 3D lens for this 2D movie. Thankfully, the image wasn’t horribly dark, suggesting that they at least removed the 3D filters. Still, Argo didn’t look as good as it might have.

A-/B Lincoln
What? No vampires? And how much a movie called Lincoln wasn’t about me?

Seriously, I liked most of Lincoln very much. Tony Kushner’s intelligent screenplay concentrated on the struggle to get the 13th amendment through the House, ending slavery before the South was defeated. That made Lincoln a film about the political process, showing us the arguments, backroom deals, and compromises behind one of the most important and idealist laws ever to go through the American government. The script doesn’t shy away from moral ambiguity, either–Lincoln is clearly prolonging the war, leading thousands of young men to an early grave, in order to end slavery. The acting is uniformly excellent, especially Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role. But director Steven Spielberg and composer John Williams occasionally overdo it, bashing us over the head with whatever emotion they want us to feel.

For what it’s worth, this is the only picture of the five shot entirely on film, and it’s also the best looking. But Janusz Kaminski’s camerawork is occasionally too beautiful, distracting us from the story.

We saw Lincoln at the Shattuck soon after it went all digital. However, the particular auditorium we saw it in has been digital for over a year. I have absolutely no complaints about the projection or sound, but there was nothing exceptional about it, either.

A/B+ A Late Quartet
Artistic collaboration is always a tricky business. A string quartet that’s been playing together professionally for decades begins to come apart in Yaron Zilberman’s musical drama. The problems start when the cellist (Christopher Walken, for once not playing a psychopath) tells his partners that he has Parkinson’s disease, and will not be able to play for very long.This sets off various chain reactions, as personal and creative differences that have long been simmering for years bubble to the top. People get hurt, they get angry, and they sleep with the wrong people. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener are brilliant (aren’t they always?) as the frustrated second violist and his violist wife. Like the Beethoven piece that gives the film it’s title, the picture is slow, deliberate, and rewarding, with the joy coming primarily from the performances.

Like Hoffman’s character, I’m married to a violist, so seeing A Late Quartet was inevitable. We saw it downstairs at the Albany. This was our first experience at the Albany since they went digital.

Before the movie, an employee came down to the front of the theater and welcomed us. The movie itself It looked and sounded great. No complaints.

A-/D Life of Pi
I came in wondering what Ang Lee could do without his major collaborator, writer/producer James Schamus. Pretty darned good. Told in flashback and shot almost entirely in a studio water tank, Life of Pi tells the story of an Indian boy who’s shipwrecked in the middle of the Pacific ocean, sharing his lifeboat with a full-grown tiger. Clearly, this is meant as a parable, as the boy gains skills and discovers abilities he didn’t know he had, while wrestling with fate, God, and a companion who wants to eat him. The computer-animated tiger, I’m glad to say, behaves like a real beast, not an adorable Disney creation. The digital effects aren’t always convincing, and the story occasionally drags, but the film’s best parts easily outweigh the weak ones. What’s more, this is the best use of 3D I’ve seen since Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

I wanted to see Life of Pi in 3D, on a really big screen. In the East Bay, by the time we got around to seeing it, that meant the AMC Bay Street 16 in Emeryville. Yes, the screen was big, and the sound was terrific, but the left side of the image looked slightly blurry, with a sort of double-vision effect, as if the two parts of the 3D lens weren’t properly aligned.

Did I complain? No. It was the AMC Bay Street 16. Why bother.

B+/D Hitchcock
Don’t go to this movie expecting to learn anything about Alfred Hitchcock and the making of Psycho. From the opening scene, where Anthony Hopkins appears in a fat suit and addresses the audience directly, Hitchcock is clearly what Sir Alfred would have described as "only a movie."  Helen Mirren is far more glamorous than the real Alma Reville–Hitchcock’s wife and major collaborator–but that doesn’t hurt the picture an iota. The story, part of which actually happened, shows how Hitch and Alma got the idea for Psycho, struggled to find funding, cast and shot it, then did brilliant work in the editing room, and all the while with Hitchcock suspecting that his wife was having an affair. Fun escapism disguised as film history.

Just one warning: Don’t see Hitchcock if you haven’t seen Psycho. It contains spoilers.

We saw Hitchcock upstairs at Berkeley’s California Theatre–our first time there since it went digital. Made up of what was once half of a balcony, the auditorium was small and oddly shaped.

And familiar. We’d been there many times.

But this time, there was an audio problem. The California’s other two auditoriums were both showing The Hobbit, and the theater isn’t sufficiently soundproofed to block out such a loud movie. Battles and explosions did not improve Hitchcock.


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