Monday, March 22, 2010
Rich Girls - Part 2 - With this Ring, I Thee Kill
“Dial M for Murder” (1954) and “A Perfect Murder” (1998) provide a contrast between supposedly what was and supposedly what is in terms of film techniques, acting techniques, and women of means. They are the same story, told 44 years apart, and demonstrate not only what has happened to the movie rich girl, but what has happened to the telling of whodunits.
“Dial M”, like “The Heiress” mentioned here in our last post, was adapted from a stage play, and so the action is centered mainly on one interior set, the lines delivered crisply, measured as if paced for the stage, and in an orderly, logical manner to tell the story. In stage plays, the dialogue moves the plot along, whereas sometimes in films, we almost get the feeling that the dialogue is what gets in the way of the plot.
It’s not Easy Street, but actually the Maida Vale section of London where they reside, in a garden apartment Edwardian building that, except for the affluent address, really doesn’t seem to indicate extreme wealth. With what appears to be one bedroom and a kitchen both off a central living room, there’s not much here of which to be covetous. Makes you wonder why they need a daily charwoman to come and clean. Makes you wonder what Miss Kelly does with her time, when she’s not having an affair with Bob Cummings.
It’s somewhat unusual for a sympathetic female character to have some flaw like adultery as part of her baggage, with the Code usually so strict about heroines being unbesmirched. It’s also mighty unusual for a female lead at this time to beat up a guy in hand-to-hand combat.
We mentioned last time how director William Wyler took what seems to be a light touch in the camera work for “The Heiress”, letting most of the action appear as natural as it would on stage. But “Dial M” is a Hitchcock film, and so Mr. Hitchcock, master self-brander that he was, took this stage play and viewed it through his own unique perspective and never lets us forget this is a Hitchcock film. His trademark cameo appearance in this one is in the photo Milland shows the killer of an old college reunion dinner. Hitchcock is seated at the table in the photo with a Milland and a group of gents, all looking at the camera.
Mr. Milland is charming as her duplicitous husband, who couches his considerable ego and greed in a remarkably likeable demeanor. This is the fun thing about his character, and makes his quite long explanation of the murder plot fascinating. Even his occasional bursts of petulance are somehow cute. Grace, despite straying from her marriage when she feels abandoned and neglected by him, never really falls out of love with Milland’s character, and that makes her shock at the end of the film upon discovering his plans to murder her all the greater.
Grace Kelly, in her first of a few memorable Hitchcock films, is believable as the troubled woman looking for balance between her guilt for having an affair, and her desire to have the kind of romantic and trusting relationship with her husband that she apparently has enjoyed with Bob Cummings.
Grace, as if intentionally interrupting what the men folk are discussing, keeps heartily, and thoroughly, blowing her nose, unfolding the handkerchief, turning it over in her hands and looking for a clean spot to blow some more. It is so natural and human, that I am never sure if she was actually deep into her character’s misery, or if she was just a great scene stealer. Or if she had sinus infection.
But the most amazing aspect of this film is how she stabs her would-be-killer to death.
Since this script, minus a few changes, was taken from the stage play, it would be hard not to have Miss Kelly kill the killer, since this is how it was done on stage, but such a graphic scene was not the norm for Hollywood, even if what was judged acceptable for film was changing a bit in the early 1950s.
She reaches for her scissors, stabs him, at a rather unrealistic angle, but we’ll let that go. Then, of course, the killer may be judged to have caused his own death because he falls on his back, driving in the scissors and killing him. Brief, but ghastly.
Milland, who has enjoyed plotting the murder almost as if it was a hobby, kind of like Henry Travers and Hume Cronyn in Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt” (1943), quickly switches gears and sees that he still has a chance at killing his wife by framing her for the murder of this man, thereby sending her to the gallows.
It’s interesting that Grace Kelly’s character, like Dorothy McGuire’s character in “Invitation” (1951) which we mentioned in our last post, is a woman with inherited wealth, but no seeming place in society except as a rather young matron, the supportive wife of a man with no pedigree and few talents, men who have mainly their charm to recommend them.
We might assume that as wealthy women of leisure, who have servants to clean their homes, they might fill their time with other pursuits, perhaps charity work, but the films do not show us this. It is perhaps not thought necessary to round out their characters in order to tell the complicated plots of these films. They are like types, and we do not see as much into their characters as we do Olivia de Havilland in “The Heiress.”
“A Perfect Murder” (1998), which is a remake of “Dial M” gives us the old chestnut plot about the house keys, and the phone signal, and the husband plotting to murder his adulterous wife, with a new coat of paint that reflects much about how filmmaking has changed and what we expect as a society from our rich girls.
It also shows the difference between filming a stage play and filming a script meant for film, just as we saw differences in style between “The Heiress” and “Invitation”, one which showed action in a confined space, and the latter which relied on several sets and locations (even if they were all soundstage “locations”).
“A Perfect Murder” takes the murder plot out of the Maida Vale flat and runs all over New York City with it. There are shots of the couple’s spectacular apartment, Central Park, subways, a Brooklyn industrial loft, offices, the United Nations, bars and restaurants. We are freer, there are many places to run, so we do a lot of running.
Viggo Mortensen is his wife’s lover, who, in this drastic change in the plot, is also the one Douglas blackmails into killing his wife. No bland if trustworthy Bob Cummings will do for the 1990s. Mortensen is sexy, mysterious, rather grubby-looking, and has that regrettable habit of most film actors today who speak in choked syllables from the back of the throat that makes it difficult to hear everything they’re saying. The old style of stage speech for film has long been regarded as artificial sounding, but I prefer it to guttural mumbling. I know stage speech is not always realistic, but I also know the movie is not real. It’s only a movie, so making it “realistic” is sometimes irrelevant.
Which is probably why most car chase scenes bore me to tears. I know it’s not real. The director yelled cut and everybody went to have lunch. Big deal. Show me some acting.
The kicker is, like any modern superwoman, she actually solves the crime rather than letting the police inspector, played by the terrific David Suchet, do it. There is the attack scene as well, where instead of using scissors from her sewing basket (how un-1990s), she jabs the killer in the neck with a meat thermometer.
Which is why I never cross through darkened parking lots and inner city back alleys without my trusty meat thermometer. It’s like a hat pin for the modern woman. And it tells you when the roast is done. Try doing that with a hat pin or scissors.
The attack scene is a bit more prolonged, violent and bloody. Another major difference is that by the end of the film, we rack up three dead bodies, among them her husband. As in most modern films, he does not have to face the wrath of society and the courts of justice. Too tedious. Just blow him away with a gun we had no idea she even had in her pocket. Problem solved.
But the modern world is complicated, and instead of dial phones and clicking mechanical phone exchanges, we have cell phones and computers, a tangled world in which “the perfect murder” or rather we should say, “the perfect movie murder story”may be impossible because we cannot easily follow the twists and turns anymore. We may understand about greed and lust, but most of us are a little overwhelmed by automatic computer stock programs and how that could have made David Suchet no longer suspect Michael Douglas. We saw him toss his disposable cell phone out the car window. We may wonder why Suchet did not think of that.
And in a world where keys come in clusters on lanyards and chains, why would the killer carry a single key in his pocket? What makes sense in 1954 is harder to justify in 1998, and the problem is us. We tend to try to justify the complicated machinations of modern films which are more interested in being “realistic” than being entertaining. Those of us who watch old movies tend to accept a lot of what we see without justifying too much of it. Like accepting a convicted Grace Kelly, scheduled to be executed in a few hours, can be released on the hunch of a police inspector.
In all of these films, “The Heiress”, “Invitation”, “Dial M for Murder” and “A Perfect Murder”, the wealthy heiress is shown as someone vulnerable, unhappy, and reaching for contentment, mainly through romance which seems to have nothing to do with her wealth. She seems curiously indifferent to her money, and remarkably innocent about the attraction it has for the men in her life.
No “madcap heiresses” here, unlike the ‘30s comedy films we mentioned in our intro last week. Clearly, money is no longer a joke. It’s a bit of a burden.