“The Birds” - Alfred Hitchcock (1963)


The Birds (1963), coming relatively late in Alfred Hitchcock’s illustrious career, was one of his biggest and most memorable hits.  It was the fourth film in a string of expressionistic classics, following Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), and Psycho (1960), that mark a sustained period of high artistic achievement. Although critics dismissed him as a mere crowd-pleasing showman, Hitchcock’s novel narrative structures in each of those four films were keys to their successes with viewers. 

In particular, The Birds features a curious two-part narrative structure somewhat like Vertigo and Psycho.  Both of those preceding films initially drew negative reviews from the critics because of the way they each presented two almost separate stories back-to-back.  The Birds also features two separate narrative threads, shifting from the first over to the second as the film progresses.  But while the separate stories in Vertigo and Psycho were at least linked by a murder, the linkage between the two narratives in The Birds is obscure and has confounded (and intrigued) critics and viewers alike. To some people there is no significantly meaningful connection between the two narrative threads, while others have proposed a variety of suggestive implicative links.  Whatever the case, The Birds, like its two double-narrative predecessors, was also initially panned by the critics.  Nevertheless, it stands today as one of the all-time great films [1].

The dominant story of The Birds (which is the second narrative thread and dominates the second half of the film) concerns an inexplicable eruption of violent bird attacks on the people of a small coastal village in California, and it is loosely based on Daphne du Maurier’s 1952 short story “The Birds”.  As a consequence, the film is generally placed in the horror genre,

Hitchcock and his screenwriter, Evan Hunter (aka “Ed McBain”), added more, including material for that first narrative, the relationship thread. This enabled them to highlight the almost iconic Hitchcockian narrative elements of (a) a classy beautiful blonde heroine and (b) a mature male lead closely hovered over by his fussy mother.  Usually Hitchcock used big-name stars in these principal roles, but he eschewed that practice this time and daringly cast in the big roles some lesser-known figures, who turned out to fit Hitchcock’s expressionistic intuitions to a T and from whom he got very good performances. 

Naturally, many films have a relationship thread, and it is usually a secondary feature to the main problem-to-be-solved thread, such as in Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (1935). Sometimes the relationship thread can be elevated to have a delicious involvement in the problem thread, as in Notorious (1946), and of course sometimes the whole film can simply be about a key relationship, such as in a romantic comedy.  However, if the relationship thread is elevated to  high prominence and equal status with the problem thread, the viewer expects some significant connections between the two.  And this quizzical narrative connection is what critics struggle with when watching The Birds.

The story proceeds through four main phases and begins with the first narrative thread, which has all the appearances of a light romantic comedy.

1.  Melanie and Mitch
The film opens in San Francisco, with a beautiful and fashionable blonde, Melanie Daniels (played by Tippi Hedren, an unknown in her film debut) entering a bird shop in order to purchase  a provocative gift (a mynah bird) for a relative. She is clearly chic, cordially self-confident, and accustomed to deferential treatment.  She also likes to spoof people in her elegant way, so when an equally self-confident young man, Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), enter the shop looking to buy a pair of lovebirds, she immediately begins sparring with him.  On this occasion she uncharacteristically loses the encounter and is intrigued by the man.  After he leaves the shop without the lovebirds, she tracks his residence down to Bodega Bay, a fishing village two hours north of San Francisco, and she decides to play another prank by buying the lovebirds and delivering them, along with a sarcastic note, to him.  All this puts us in the groove for a romantic comedy.

The next day she drives up to Bodega Bay in her fancy sports car and then hires a boat to make a sneak delivery of the lovebirds into the bay-facing back entry of Mitch's house.  But her delivery of the lovebirds is marred when a seagull swoops down on her while she is in the boat and gives her a minor head injury.  Seeing what happened, Mitch takes her to his home and introduces her to his mother, Lydia (Jessica Tandy), who lives with him. After some more sparring between Mitch and Melanie, he invites her to stay for dinner, and given the long drive back to the city plus an invitation to attend a birthday party the following afternoon for Mitch’s 11-year-old sister, she decides to stay for the night at the home of a local schoolteacher, Annie Hathaway  (Suzanne Pleshette), whom she had met earlier when entering Bodega Bay.  All the while Melanie is struggling not to show too much interest in the handsome Mitch, and he is showing equal prideful reserve.

The evening conversation between Melanie and Annie, who turns out to have been a former girlfriend of Mitch, offers an interesting study of feminine contrasts. While the mink-clad blonde Melanie is refined and oh-so upper-class, Annie is an earthy and sultry brunette.  Annie reveals that even after the termination of her affair with Mitch, which she says was caused by Lydia’s possessiveness, she was still so in love with him that she moved to Bodega Bay just to be near him as a friend.  So we have now been introduced to four very different women in Mitch’s orbit:
  • Cathy (Veronica Cartwright) – Mitch’s innocent sister
  • Lydia – fussy and possessive
  • Melanie – an ethereal will-o’-the-wisp
  • Annie – passionate but resigned
2.  The Birds Come
The next day at Cathy’s outdoor birthday party, Melanie and Mitch take a stroll and get to know each other better as they let their guards down.  But the party is interrupted by a mysterious and violent bird attack.  Now, fifty minutes into the film, this is when the bird issue comes to the fore and takes over the film.  Later that night at the Brenner’s residence, a different group of birds – sparrows this time instead of seagulls – comes down through the chimney and attacks the family.  Mitch manages to shoo the birds out, and Melanie decides to stay over with them for the night.

The next morning Lydia drives over to a neighboring chicken farm and is alarmed to discover the dead body of the farmer, with its eyes having been gouged out by birds. Meanwhile Melanie and Mitch have been getting on together and their ardent morning kiss suggests they may have consummated their relationship the previous night.  When Lydia comes home and reports what happened at the neighboring farm, she is in a state of shock, and Melanie promises to go to Cathy’s school and see that she gets home alright.

3.  Birds Attack Bodega Bay
It is at this point that we move into the realm of horror.  In one of the all-time great buildup scenes, Melanie waits on a bench outside the schoolhouse while the children are singing a nursery rhyme.  As the singsong lyrics are repeated by the children, we see birds gradually gathering behind Melanie’s back outside the school.  When she turns around, she is alarmed to see a massive armada of crows crowded onto the school’s jungle gym.  She informs Annie inside, and the children are ushered out, but the birds attack them viciously.

After the attack, Melanie makes it to a local diner in town, where the customers engage in an animated discussion about what is happening with the birds.  An amateur ornithologist looks for a scientific explanation, a salesman says birds are a nuisance and should be exterminated, and a drunkard sees it all in apocalyptic terms.  Then a scared mother of two children points at Melanie and says all this trouble began the moment the elegant outsider arrived in town, so she must be a bearer of evil.

After another bird attack, during which Mitch arrives, the two of them go back to the schoolhouse to fetch Cathy.  They do find Cathy, but discover that Annie was slaughtered by the birds in the earlier attack.

4.  The Onslaught
Back at his home, Mitch begins boarding up all the windows to protect the family from the next attack.  They have become aware that the birds seem to attack after regular intervals, and in the meantime they settle down and perch silently.  The next bird attack is another highlight of the film, with an outstanding sequence of dynamic camera angles and tight editing.  Again the family survives, but just barely.

During the following lull, Melanie hears an upstairs rustling while the others are asleep downstairs and goes up into Cathy’s empty bedroom to investigate.  Upon entering the room, she sees that birds have torn a hole through the roof and accumulated there inside the room. They attack her immediately, almost killing her. Mitch just manages to save her, but Melanie is now severely injured and in a state of shock.  With his house now compromised with holes and the birds momentarily in one of their lull periods but gathering in massive force for their next assault, Mitch knows time is running out. There is little chance that he and his three women can survive the next devastating attack.


Hitchcock’s expressionistic mise-en-scene is in its full glory in The Birds and helps make this one of the great films.  I have already mentioned two outstanding sequences – the buildup to the bird attack on Annie’s school and the attack on the Brenner home in Act 4 – but there are many other well-crafted scenes throughout.  In general, the special effects used in connection with presenting the attacking birds are still effective even today and are amazing to see.  And the bright technicolor hues, which can sometimes appear unrealistic in other contexts, work well to enhance the expressionistic feel of the presentation.   Credit must be also given in these respects to cinematographer Robert Burks, (a regular with Hitchcock since Strangers on a Train), and film editor George Tomasini (Hitchcock’s regular editor since Rear Window).

The acting is also generally good and expressionistically appropriate, with Hitchcock’s many closeups of Tippi Hedren highlighting her ethereal beauty. There is one scene, however, that is seriously out of whack with the rest of the show, and that is the discussion about the birds with the townspeople in the local diner. The acting in that scene is seriously overdone and artificial, lowering the film into B-grade histrionics.  Curiously it is this scene that the screenwriter claims was his great achievement in the film [2].

The question of what was behind the bird attacks is still an issue though.  There are several possibilities.

  • The caged lovebirds
    The lovebirds (Hitchcock's "MacGuffin" in this film [3]) that Melanie brought to Mitch Brenner are quiet and utterly docile.  But they seem to have symbolic significance, and their appearance more or less coincides with the bird attacks.  Perhaps the lovebirds trigger an eruption of the bird world’s fury over the way mankind has trapped, killed, and confined innocent birds.  In the last scene when Mitch is ushering Melanie and his family into Melanie’s car for an attempted escape, Cathy says she wants to take the lovebirds along with them.  In these dire circumstances, you can almost hear the viewers imploring Cathy not to do that – that those lovebirds are somehow linked to the bird kingdom’s unquenchable rage.
     
  • Melanie’s unnatural interference with nature
    Melanie is beautiful, but she is artificially coiffed and clad in mink.  Both she and Mitch are used to manipulating the world – almost playing with it – to get what they want out of it.  As such, they are uncooperative extractors, not inclusive contributors, to the world’s life force. Perhaps, then, Melanie is an iconic representative of man’s separation form the natural world, which has induced its wrath.  According to this interpretation, the hysterical mother was more or less correct when she denounced Melanie for bringing on the birds’ rampant attacks.
     
  • Primeval feminine power unleashed 
    Many feminists have criticized Hitchcock over the years for misogyny and having a distorted view of women.  There are, after all, a number of power plays going in the film between Melanie, Lydia, and Annie, and some critics see the film as a display of Hitchcock’s obsession with feminine mystery as some kind of threat. Cultural critic Camille Paglia, who wrote a monograph about The Birds [4], has in this connection commented [5]: 
    “[Hitchcock was] in the main line of the Hollywood view of the divinity and yet ultimately secret malice of woman. . . .

    There is something mysterious about femaleness — coming from the facts of woman’s physical nature, the endless mysteries of the shadowy womb, and the power of  procreation that even she doesn’t understand. Part of what I got from Hitchcock is his vision of woman’s un-knowability, her un-reachability, her enormous beauty — the glamorous artifice with which she cloaks herself but ultimately her incredible, natural sexual power.”
    So from this perspective, the rage of the birds (and hence nature’s rage) may be somehow associated with the mystery of feminine power.
     
  • The mystery of existence and annihilation 
    Going further and more fundamentally, we can observe that there is something ultimately mysterious about what it is that activates the universe. What is the source of this unfathomable animation that drives our consciousness and our experiences? This is an issue that was touched on in Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), wherein “the Zone” was a region representing the dynamic vitality of existence, which could be both a promise and a menace but was ultimately unknowable.  Philosopher Galen Strawson has commented lucidly on this topic, for it is an unresolved philosophical issue [6].  In this sense the eruption of the bird kingdom’s rage is essentially a manifestation of nature’s ultimate, savage unpredictability. But it is not mechanical unpredictability, like an explosion or a hurricane; it involves the unpredictability of primordial agency.  We must admit that we have no intellectual grasp of primordial agency. It can embody love or hatred without our understanding.
In my view it is this last scheme that captures what it is that makes The Birds so endlessly fascinating.  The film thus represents the ultimate in existential horror.  It is not just that we might be destroyed, but that nature itself, the primordial prana or qi, might erupt in uncontrollable predatory hatred and annihilate us, humanity. Hitchcock needed the relationship narrative to situate the viewer’s empathy across a range of human caring and feeling among the main characters, so that it could be contrasted with impenetrable, nihilistic hatred. This is not just about lovebirds, or femininity, or a response to human selfishness.  It is about something deeper and more dreadful. It was Hitchcock’s art to be able to capture this consummate horror in film form.
★★★★

Notes:
  1. Roderick Heath, “The Birds (1963)”, Ferdy on Films, (2006).
  2. Christopher Mulrooney, “The Language of The Birds”, Deep South, University of Otago, New Zealand (2007). 
  3. See
  4. Camlle Paglia, The Birds, The British Film Institute, (1998).
  5. Camille Paglia, quoted in
  6. Galen Strawson, “Consciousness Isn’t a Mystery. It’s Matter”, The Stone, International New York Times, (16 May  2016). 

“Nights of Cabiria” - Federico Fellini (1957)


Nights of Cabiria (Le Notti di Cabiria, 1957) was one of Federico Fellini’s most popular films. It won the 1957 US Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, which was Fellini’s second straight Oscar in that category, since his La Strada had also won that award in 1956.  Nights of Cabiria also earned its star (and Fellini’s wife), Giulietta Masina, the 1957 Cannes Film Festival award for Best Actress.  This was a period in which Fellini achieved great heights of human expressiveness, and  Nights of Cabiria is considered to be the third installment of what is referred to as Fellini’s “Trilogy of Loneliness”, with La Strada (1954) and Il Bidone (1955) making up the other members of the trilogy.

Indeed loneliness is the key thematic issue in Nights of Cabiria, which tells the story of a prostitute’s struggles to find happiness in her very much compromised world.  This makes the film considerably removed from Italian Neorealism, in which tradition Fellini began his career.  Because of that earlier tradition and because the film is shot in run-down urban locations, some critics have argued that Nights of Cabiria really has a political message that concerns social themes such as class, prostitution, and religious exploitation [1].  But those items are only a social backdrop for Fellini’s more profound exploration of the universal search for totally romantic fulfillment.


Although the loneliness theme does link Nights of Cabiria with Fellini’s two previous films  of the trilogy, there are interesting narrative similarities between Nights of Cabiria and Fellini’s subsequent outing, La Dolce Vita (1960) [2]. Those two films both present a sequence of expressionistic episodes, each of which provides a distinct thematic context for the frustrated protagonist’s quest for fulfillment.  But while the quest in La Dolce Vita concerns general meaningful fulfillment in life, the quest in Nights of Cabiria is true love.  And the memorable endings of those two films leave the viewer with distinctly different feelings about future prospects for the respective protagonists, too.

The story of Nights of Cabiria comprises five episodes in the life of its protagonist, the prostitute Cabiria Ceccarelli (Giulietta Masina). Each of these episodes represent stages in the inner development of Cabiria’s plucky character. Although each one ends in disappointment, she alwalys emerges with renewed resolve.

1.  Cabiria and Giorgio
The film opens with a 1-minute long shot of Cabiria with her boyfriend Giorgio lovingly cavorting by the river bank.  It is obvious that Cabiria, at least, is hopelessly in love.  As Cabiria is standing by the bank’s edge, Giorgio pushes her into the swiftly moving water and runs off with her purse.  Since Cabiria cannot swim, she very nearly drowns; but some young boys nearby heroically rescue her, and then a couple of men who rush to the scene revive her with artificial respiration. The flustered Cabiria is in no mood to thank her rescuers, however, and she angrily storms off and heads home to her one-room house. 

It is only at this point that we learn that Cabiria is a prostitute and also, perhaps because of the kind of life her profession entails, that personal dignity is something very important to her.  She was madly in love with Giorgio and cannot believe it when her neighbor and fellow prostitute Wanda (Franca Marzi) gently tells her that Giorgio just wanted to steal the 40,000 lira (~US$140) in her purse.  From our brief exposure to Giorgio, it seems that he is nothing but a selfish exploiter and hardly worthy of Cabiria’s devotion.

So the main theme of this episode is Cabiria’s romantic innocence and vulnerability.  But at the same time she is clearly feisty and ready to mix it up with anyone who troubles her.

2.  Cabiria and Lazzari
In the second act we are introduced to Cabiria’s raucous streetwalking milieu.  This crowd is not an upscale group of prostitutes, but more pf a motley crew that collects in a more plebeian area near the Passeggiata Archeologica. While waiting for customers, there is a lot of strutting and taunting among the girls and their pimps, and Cabiria is one of the energetic participants.  After a friendly pimp ushers Cabiria away from a brawl she had with another prostitute, he drops her off in the glitzy Via Veneto area. But Cabiria doesn't find any customers that evening and eventually walks by a nightclub, where she sees a famous movie actor, Alberto Lazzari (Amedeo Nazzari) in a heated spat with his glamorous girlfriend Jessy (Dorian Gray). After Jessy storms off, Lazzari on impulse summons Cabiria to be his partner for the rest of the evening.

Cabiria is wowed by the upper-class extravagance of Lazzari’s world, and she accompanies him to his luxurious mansion. But just as things are warming up between Lazzari and Cabiria, Jessy returns to the scene, and Cabiria is forced to hide away for the rest of the night in the bathroom.

The focus of this episode has been on the star-struck Cabiria’s brief explore to a level of wealth and glamour that she could only dream about.  In the morning she drearily walks home and back to her own sordid life.

3.  The Virgin Mary
Back with the prostitutes again, a passing religious procession prompts a discussion about religion and the possibility of miracles.  They all consider going to a church where an alleged historical sighting of the Virgin Mary makes it a place for the faithful to pray for miracles.  Cabiria considers it, but is ambivalent, since she is also practical about her living.  When a truck stops by and invites her, she readily climbs in for her next job.

Afterwards, she is dropped off in the city outskirts and happens upon a quiet and selfless samaritan who is busy distributing food to the homeless who sleep in cave holes on the city’s outskirts. Cabiria is amazed that the man apparently acts entirely on his own to help people in distress and seeks no reward or recognition.  This scene with the samaritan, whom critics sometimes refer to as “the man with the sack”, was cut from the original release of the film (after its showing at Cannes) apparently on orders from the Italian Roman Catholic Church, and it was only restored to distributed prints in 1998 [3]. This scene is important to the film’s meaning, though, because it summons up in Cabiria a fleeting awareness of her own true inner essence.

Later Cabiria joins the other prostitutes to visit the Holy Madonna church where they can petition the Virgin Mary for a miraculous gift.  The scene shows masses of greedy supplicants almost storming the church in hopes of some potential miraculous material gains.  In the church Cabiria humbly prays that she can change her life to the good, but she is appalled by the selfishness she sees around her.  Afterwards she gloomily realizes that they are all just the same as before and the efficacy of the Church and its prayers is basically zero.

So this episode’s focus on the emptiness of the religious life, which was more or less mirrored in Fellini’s subsequent film, La Dolce Vita, compounds the gloom of the previous episode’s focus on the unattainability of the glamorous life.

4.  The Magician and Cabiria

Walking later in seedy area, Cabiria drops in on a magic show, where she is lured into going up on stage to be hypnotized.  She is immediately put into a trance where she is made to believe that she is the innocent, romantic young girl she once was.  In a dreamy state, she dances around the stage pretending to be arm-in-arm with her dream lover, a conjured up persona that the magician calls “Oscar”.  When she comes out of her trance, she is humiliated to see the raucous crowd of men laughing at her silly naivete.

Again, though, we have seen that deep inside Cabiria’s naughty hard-boiled exterior there lurks a longing for true love.

5.  Oscar and Cabiria
Coming out of the magic show theater, Cabiria meets a man calling himself "Oscar D'Onofrio" (François Périer) who had watched her up on stage and now wants to become her friend.  This final and by far longest episode concerns their slowly emerging relationship.  Cabiria is skeptical, but Oscar appears sincere and civilized; he asks nothing of her but her company.  He makes no sexual demands, and they don’t even kiss until relatively late in the piece. Certainly he is the man she has always been looking for.

Outside of her house one day, she meets a priest who jovially assures her that the only important thing is to be in God’s grace. Cabiria is moved by his authenticity and, taking his simple message to heart, wonders if Oscar is a manifestation of God’s grace.  Still, Cabiria is doubtful.  When Oscar proposes marriage, she protests that he doesn’t really know anything about her.  But he assures her
“I’ve asked you no questions, and I don’t want to know anything. Prejudices don’t touch me. Because what matter is that I know your inner self. . . We are two lonely creatures.  We have to stick together.  I need you.”
Yes, that is what matter’s: one’s inner self. She is ready to take the plunge. But as we were forewarned by episode #1, things don’t turn out as Cabiria hoped.


One might see Nights of Cabiria as depicting a downward spiral of despair, much in the fashion of the more grandiose La Dolce Vita.  But there are reasons to think otherwise, and this is signaled by the film’s final shot – when the despondent Cabiria is walking alone along a country road and encounters a group of youthful musicians and singers reveling merrily.  In the end she can’t help responding to their spirited joie de vivre with a shy smile. So even at this point her inner self – her willingness to give everything over to true love – is still there.  As Fellini, himself remarked on her character [4]:
“The positive nature of Cabiria is so noble and wonderful. Cabiria offers herself to the lowest bidder and hears truth in lies. Though she is a prostitute, her basic instinct is to search for happiness as best she can, as one who has not been dealt a good hand. She wants to change, but she has been typecast in life as a loser. Yet she is a loser who always goes on to look again for some happiness.”
There are several things that contribute to the film’s expressive effectiveness.  First of all there is the music of Nino Rota, whose romantic tunes resonate throughout the narrative, sometimes in the background but often from diegetic sources in the story.

Even more significantly, there is the odd but effective combination of Fellini’s realistic settings that are combined with his emotive expressionism.  This expressionism is partly conveyed through the highly demonstrative acting, particularly that of Giulietta Masina (Cabiria).  Fellini devotes the whole film to exploring her conflicted character, and this presentation is considerably enhanced by Franca Marzi’s portrayal of Wanda, through whose worried countenance we see further into Cabiria’s vulnerability.

It is true that Masina’s relentless flow of smirks, frowns, and dramatic postures has been criticized for reverting to silent-screen overacting, even self-consciously mimicking Charlie Chaplin. But there are real personalities in this world who are naturally like this, and Masina’s performance is convincing and ultimately moving.  Her performance here was probably her crowning achievement.

In any case the comparison with silent movies is apt, because Fellini’s expressiveness enables the viewer to understand the film purely from the visual plane alone and without any reference to sound.  He had the ability to tell his stories purely visually.

Indeed European films, in those days were intended to be distributed in multiple language formats and were shot without synchronous sound (MOS).  All the sound was dubbed in later, even for the original language.  Under these MOS circumstances, Fellini apparently often had Nino Rota’s music playing in the background while shooting in order to put his actors in the appropriate mood.  Sergio Leone did the same thing with Ennio Morricone’s music for his spaghetti westerns.

Of course the sound does make an important contribution, too, and when I watch a foreign language film, I usually prefer to see it with its original-language soundtrack and with subtitles, rather than seeing a dubbed-in-English version. But with Fellini’s films from this period, all versions are dubbed, and the English-dubbed version is just as “original” as the Italian-dubbed version.

However you see it, though, I think you will get the feeling that Cabiria’s personal narrative journey, which shows her getting buffeted wherever she looks, does not end in despair. Her ever-hopeful romantic vitality lives on.
★★★★

Notes:
  1. Gary Morris, “Pre-‘Felliniesque’: Fellini’s The Nights of Cabiria”, Bright Lights Film Journal, (1 September 1998). 
  2. Roger Ebert, “Nights of Cabiria”, Rogerebert.com, (16 August 1998). 
  3. Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Restored to Power [NIGHTS OF CABIRIA]”, JonathanRosenbaum.net, (21 August 21 1998). 
  4. Federico Fellini, "Nights of Cabiria”, The Criterion Collection, (6 September 1999). 

Michael Moore

Films of Michael Moore:
  • SiCKO - Michael Moore (2007)

“Dial M for Murder” - Alfred Hitchcock (1954)

Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder (1954) was one of his more popular features in the general area of murder mysteries and detective fiction [1]. In this case the story was not a whodunit, but instead a “will he get away with it?”.  Despite the film’s popularity, though, Hitchcock himself did not regard it as one of his major works [2]. This was perhaps partly connected with the production constraints that were imposed on filmmakers at the time in efforts to distinguish movies from the existence-threatening encroachment of television:
  • Dial M for Murder was a color film, which required more lighting and offered less contrast than black-and-white.  At that time television was still black-and-white.
  • It was filmed for 3-D viewing (3-D cameras were bulky and hard to move).  In the event, though, there wasn’t much material in the film that could really take advantage of 3-D effects; and with the popular interest in 3-D movies on the wane at the time of the film’s release, the film was mostly shown in 2-D format.
  • In addition, it was also filmed in Cinemascope, and the widescreen format introduced image-framing issues.
These issues were compounded, because of the tight space in which Hitchcock was filming – the entire film is essentially a resurrection of a famous stage play that takes place within the confines of a single apartment room.  Note however that shooting film in a confined action space was something that Hitchcock, the master of cinematic narrative expression, did not shy away from – he also did it with Lifeboat (1944), Rope (1948), and Rear Window (1954).


The stage play on which the film was based, also named Dial M for Murder, was by Frederick Knott (who also scripted the film), and it had been a recent hit when it opened in 1952 on London’s West End and New York’s Broadway.  In the usual case when stage plays are made into films, the film director often “opens up” the action by portraying various action scenes in their referenced locations.  However, for various reasons – perhaps the play’s recent vintage or perhaps factors associated with the drama’s tight narrative – Hitchcock decided not to open up Dial M for Murder in this way, so he was left with the confining production constraints that I have just mentioned.  (In fact even two of the key characters in the film are played by actors who played the same roles in the earlier stage production.)  Nevertheless, and despite these limitations, he did manage to come up with a dynamic cinematic narrative, as noted film scholar David Bordwell has carefully pointed out [3].

The story of Dial M for Murder concerns a husband’s plan and attempt to have his wife murdered by a hired assailant. The viewer sees things mostly from the husband’s point of view, and this guilt-inducing empathy for the villain is probably one of the movie’s attractions.  The narrative passes through four stages, the first two of which are separated from the remaining two by an “intermission”.
1.  The Setup
In the beginning, recently retired tennis professional Tony Wendice (played by Ray Milland) and his wife Margot (played by Hitchcock favorite Grace Kelly) are shown apparently living in happy matrimony in London.  The arrival from America of well-known murder mystery writer Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings), with whom Margot had a passionate love affair a year earlier, disrupts things.  Margot tells Mark that she wants to break off their illicit relationship, but there is still a problem: one of the love letters that Mark sent to her was stolen from her handbag and she has received blackmail threats about the letter from the unknown thief.  She doesn’t want Tony to find out about her relationship with Mark, and she doesn’t know what to do.

Tony, however, knows all about their relationship and was himself the letter thief. While Mark and Margot are out, Tony meets with a former college schoolmate, C. A. Swann (Anthony Dawson, who played the role in the Broadway production) who has fallen onto swindling ways and is desperate for money.  Tony offers him £1,000 (about US$25,000 today) to murder his wife the very next night, when he and Mark will be away attending a stag party.  This circuitous 22-minute conversation is probably the most artfully staged scene in the film.  It reveals the full nature of Tony’s diabolical plan and conscienceless character.  His primary motivation for seeking his wife’s death is not over her infidelity but mainly for money – as a retired tennis professional, he has no means of supporting his now-accustomed luxuriant lifestyle, and upon his wife’s death he wiould inherit £90,000.  Swann, who is equally unprincipled, accepts the offer.

2.  The Killing
The next night Tony steals Margot’s latchkey to their apartment and places it under the stairway rug just outside the door for Swan’s entry later that night.  There are some potentially disruptive hitches as things proceed, but these false alarms – Tony’s watch stops, a needed phone booth is occupied – add further tension and keep the viewer’s empathy with Tony. Swann enters their apartment on schedule while Margot is sleeping and hides behind the curtains, preparing to strangle Margot.  But in the event Margot stabs Swann with a pair of scissors and kills him instead.

Tony rushes home and, seeing his original plans dashed, adopts in a flash a new plan to kill off Margot and get hold of her money.

3.  Tony’s New Plan
Tony now has a new adversary, though, Chief Police Inspector Hubbard (played by John Williams, who also played this role in the Broadway production), who now becomes a major figure in the film. Tony’s new plan is to make his wife culpable of murdering Swann, and to do this he has to convince Hubbard. He proceeds to make it appear that Swann had been blackmailing Margot over the stolen love letter, and when Swann came to the apartment, she murdered him. In short order Margot is convicted of the murder and sentenced to death.

4.  The Unwinding
Tony now seems to have gotten away with it.  But the last section of the film concerns the various serendipitous events that serve to unravel Tony’s story.  I won’t go into the details, but there are two key elements that drive the action. 

One of the elements is murder-mystery writer Mark’s supposedly cockamamy plan to save Margot.  On the night before her scheduled execution, he approaches Tony with the idea that Tony confess to the admittedly fabricated idea that he had planned to murder his wife and had sent Swann to carry out the deed.  Using his writer’s hat, Mark has come up with a murder plan that turns out by chance to have been the actual case.  He tells Tony that though this “story” will be injurious to his reputation, it will save his wife’s life.  Tony resists and when Mark persists, Tony convinces Hubbard that Mark’s story is ridiculous.  This threat to Tony, which turns “truth” on its head, will undoubtedly intrigue the viewer.


The other key element concerns the issue of the stolen latchkeys to the apartment.  The film depicts a number of thefts of several different identical-looking latchkeys, and two of these unlawful acts are undertaken by Chief Inspector Hubbard.  Gradually the latchkey theme becomes paramount, because it can establish who had access to the apartment and when.  The latchkey icon may be considered to be another one of Hitchcock’s “MacGuffins”, which are said to provide a visual motivic connecting link for the plot.  But as I have remarked elsewhere, the MacGuffin notion has drawn too much confusing commentary, and it would be better just to see the latchkeys as a plot-hinging device for focusing the viewer’s attention [4]
Your appreciation of Dial M for Murder will depend on your tastes.  Among other things, there were a few jump-cuts observable that, even with account taken of the bulky 3-D camera, I found surprising. But a bigger problem was the plausibility of Tony’s original murder plan.  It is presented as if Tony has cooly and masterfully thought out all the details and come up with a perfect scheme.  But the plan appears to me to have many obvious flaws:
  • If Tony had been making preparations for the better part of a year, why did he wait until the night before the intended event to contact and negotiate with Swann?
  • How could Tony be so sure Swann would agree to do it?  It seems to me that Tony risked a lot by incriminating himself when he revealed everything to Swann, and his claims that he could cast guilt on Swann merely by getting his fingerprints on the love letter are not strong enough for him to take such a risk.
  • Why was Tony so sure Swann was the person who could pull the murder off?
  • Why was Tony so sure that there would be noone in the stairwell outside the apartment when Swann was to come and go?  Although the probability would be low, one cannot take risks like that in such dire circumstances.  There could also be sounds of struggle that might alert people in the vicinity.
  • Tony’s claim that he had lost about a thousand pounds by losing bets at the dog races also seems weak and unlikely to be believed.
  • And Tony’s later efforts after Swann’s death to get rid of his intended payoff money by making large cash payments to people he owed money to seems naive and almost guaranteed to invite suspicion.
The impression that the super-confidant Tony gave in his Act 1 negotiation with Swann was that he had worked out everything perfectly after almost a year of planning.  But the considerations above suggest to me that Tony’s plan was woefully ill-conceived from the start and fraught with risks.

The acting performances were also variable.  Grace Kelly, who really didn’t have a lot to do in this story, was radiant, as usual, and was convincing and effective. Her sometimes guilty, sometimes sympathetic glances were all important for the narrative movement.  The other actors were mostly too theatrical for my tastes.  This kind of posturing works better on the stage than with the intimacy of films.

Ray Milland does reasonably well in the role of Tony, but the nature of that role is problematic.  Hitchcock’s villains and adversaries are usually cold-blooded and unconscionable.  Their cool implacability makes them even more frightening to us, because we cannot understand them. Although basically gentlemanly, Tony is like that, too.  Only here we see things closing in on him from his perspective.  This induces fear but not guilt.  So our sympathies for him are limited.  But Mark, and to a certain extent Margot, are not particularly sympathetic characters, either.  And Inspector Hubbard seems to see everything as a gentleman’s game of billiards.  At the end of the game, everyone pauses for a drink; and further disengagement takes over.  This is perhaps why Hitchcock, himself, did not rate this film among his best.
★★★

Notes:
  1. Rob Humanick, “Dial M for Murder”, Slant Magazine, (17 June 2011).
  2. Henry Barnes, “My favourite Hitchcock: Dial M for Murder”, The Guardian, (6 August 2012).
  3. David Bordwell, “DIAL M FOR MURDER: Hitchcock frets not at his narrow room”,  Observations on Film Art, David Bordwell’s Website on Cinema, (7 September 2012).
  4. See: