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.

Ex-playboy tennis star Ray Milland is the husband of rich girl Grace Kelly. She has just terminated an adulterous affair with visiting American Robert Cummings. Milland plots to kill her, but not out of any Othello-like rage of jealousy. It has occurred to him that if she takes to falling in love with other men, she might divorce him. And there would go his Easy Street life. He doesn’t mind losing her, just her fortune.

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.

Ray Milland enlists the aid of a former acquaintance, a two-bit ne’r do well with a record, to kill his wife. It’s an intriguing scene where they visit companionably with drinks in hand and Mr. Milland, in his oily, suave way, blackmails the man into doing his dirty work, which is to kill his wife. Trapped, and considerably greedy, the would-be-killer goes over the plot with Milland step-by-step until he, and especially the audience, is well-trained on what is supposed to happen that fateful night when Grace goes to answer the telephone in the dark. When the plot unravels, we then get plan B and a whole new movie..

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.

There are many table-level shots as in film noir, and when Milland starts to choreograph the murder for the killer, we jump to a shot looking down on them from the ceiling. This shot is reprised later when we see the police scurrying about the apartment inspecting the crime scene.

When Grace is shown in a dream-like sequence summarizing her trial, she stares directly into the camera, similar to James Stewart’s dream trance in “Vertigo” (1957).

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.

One scene I get a kick out of is toward the end of the film when Mr. Cummings and the police inspector are hashing out the plan to catch Milland at his own game. They are both standing behind Grace Kelly, who sits on a chair. They are speaking, the focus is on them, but in the foreground we have Grace hunched over so that her hair keeps falling messily in her face despite attempts to push it away, crying and blowing her noise in Cumming’s handkerchief. Any other female star would have dabbed at the corner of her eyes delicately so as not to smudge the makeup, and eked out a few strictly for the camera boo-hoos.

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.

The killer attacks Grace Kelly in the dark as she answers the phone, which her husband called right at that time purposely to get her out of bed. She is strangled in a brief tussle which despite a discreet keeping the violence to a minimum, evocatively shows her bare legs dangling over the desk in what many critics have judged to be Hitchcock’s substitute image for rape.

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 nearly happens, but an 11th hour bit of dogged detective work by the veddy British Scotland Yard inspector saves the day. He is played by the ever reliable John Williams, whose comic dignity is such a pleasure in roles like these. The mystery of the switched house keys is solved, and the louse Milland gets caught, still as suave as ever.

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.

The couple is played by Gwyneth Paltrow and Michael Douglas. In this case, Douglas is not the washed up sports hero that Milland was, relying on his wife’s money to give him the good life. Mr. Douglas is a Wall Street investor, a man of considerable drive and power. He is a self-made man, and his marriage is weakened not by neglecting his wife, but being overly controlling. She is less his meal ticket and more his trophy wife.

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 biggest change comes in the character of the wife. Gwyneth Paltrow is excessively wealthy, but we see no malaise, like Dorothy McGuire and Grace Kelly, on her part because of it. She is educated, multi-lingual, works for the U.N., though we easily understand she does not need to work for a living at all. But she needs to work for the movie because it would more difficult for us to be interested in her character, these days, if she did nothing with her life. It’s hard to have sympathy with someone who does not work as hard as we do.

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.

Though Mr. Douglas’ main motive for attempting to have his wife killed is for her money, just as it was for Milland, we sense there is a bit more of Othello’s rage in Douglas. This may indeed be a crime of passion for him as well as for income, or at least a crime of ego. With Milland, we sense it is almost for the fun of seeing if it will work.

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.

“A Perfect Murder” also tends to drift a bit when the focus on the action falls on the cat and mouse tactics of Mortensen and Douglas and we wonder not if they are going to kill Paltrow but each other.

I like the exchange in Arabic between Paltrow and Suchet, and their brief camaraderie. It’s a shame she has to be a modern woman who can do it all and therefore not have him do his own police work. I’d like to see more of him.

Another brief scene I like is when Mortensen makes his getaway on the subway with his $400,000 in a shoebox, and he glances furtively around at strangers who he hopes do not know he is carrying that much money. We always see him, looking like a hip slob and slipping in and out of shadows, a man capable of surviving anywhere. Suddenly a shoebox full of money makes him vulnerable in a way even pointing a weapon in his face does not.

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.


Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

The biggest problem I have with this film is why the killing takes place in the kitchen. Gwyneth is taking a bath which would have been the perfect place to drown her. I had a hard time believing that in a huge apartment that the only phone seemed to be in the kitchen. Also, I couldn't believe that Douglas was killing her for her money, since he has a high-powered job. And the age difference really creeped me out. Although Grace Kelly was considerably younger than Ray Milland, she seemed older than she actually was, while Gwyneth seemed just out of college. It seemed as if the screenwriter really didn't think about how to translate the play into modern terms beyond making Gwyneth's character have a career.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Hi, Elizabeth, thanks for commenting. You make some excellent points. I suppose forcing her into the kitchen was so that she'd have something sharp to kill him with. I didn't see any reason for putting her in the bath at all, except for titilation.

I didn't mind the age difference in the characters too much, such marriages occur, but I couldn't see what attraction Viggo Mortensen had for her. I have to agree with you that the script at times seems wrenched awkwardly from the 1950s. Though I like some of the lines, like when Douglas says to Mortensen, "The only thing keeping you from bolting out of here right now is bad genes and greed!" or something like that. Cracks me up.

Films like this, that are based on much older movies, certainly show us how much times have changed, don't they?

Prince Bollywood Movie said...

Your blog is a very good medium for entertainment. That was well written. You have got great writing style. The comparison you made for the movies for the past 40 years is really great.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

You're very kind, Prince. Thank you.

panavia999 said...

Your description of the 1998 version, confirms why I prefer the old movies. Also, I have no problem with rich women characters who don't work like those played by Grace Kelly and Dorothy McGuire. I think the descriptive word for unemployed women of means is "ladies who lunch". I am annoyed by tacked on careers in modern movies, especially very young actresses playing characters with doctorate degrees and highly paid jobs. Way too Fake! Those wealthy self absorbed New York women in some Woody Allen films who say they "want to work with children" but really just keep talking about themselves - that's probably more realistic.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Ladies who lunch, I forgot that. I like that phrase. Thanks for your comments, Panavia, you make some very good points, as usual.

I don't dislike "A Perfect Murder", nor do I find fault, really, with Paltrow's character as a career woman who is able to live very well on inherited wealth. My only complaint is that she solves the crime herself and blows her husband away with a gun. That I think is too forced. I dislike seeing women portrayed perpetually as victims, but neither do I think it is necessary to turn them into superheroes. Somewhere in the middle would be fine.

Unless of course, they're playing superheroes. That's different. I wouldn't expect Wonder Woman to need any help.

As for the "very young actresses playing characters with doctorate degrees and highly paid jobs. Way too Fake!" I agree, but did you see the remake of "The Women"? We could probably make comparisons with the "Murder" movies then and now with "The Women" 1938 version and the -- what was it? 2009? No more ladies who lunch in this one, either. They're all career gals. Again, a movie I did not dislike, but I can smile at the way an old movie plot is, sometimes awkwardly, wrenched into a modern film. It's the females that make the modern films different. Nobody seems to agree what "realistic" is.

I'm sure what I did with your second comment about June 14th being Dorothy McGuire day on TCM, but thanks so much for the heads up. I'm going to check out the schedule.

panavia999 said...

The remake of "The Women": It doesn't matter whether the women work or not. The movie stinks. (As Ben Mankiewicz said on TCM after hosting the original: "the remake blows".) Besides, most women in movies have "careers", in reality most of us only have jobs. Most movies don't stand up to a reality test, they don't need to. We are happy to suspend disbelief when the story is skillfully done. The original version of "The Women" is about a crowd of mostly shallow, vain women in beautiful clothes and it's entirely enjoyable. "Casablanca" is completely unrealistic. It had a fortuitous technical, writing and acting ensemble that worked cinema magic. :-)

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

A very well-expressed analysis, Panavia.

But, I have to wonder if the non-realistic element of "The Women" and "Casablanca" is something only an old movie buff will generously dismiss. I heard friends (who prefer modern films) ridicule "Key Largo" once, a movie I like a lot, and it was interesting learning how the plot and acting of this film through their eyes was something laughable. I have (privately) felt disdain for some of their modern favorites.

I think this is more than a case of people with differing tastes. I think its being blind to the faults of something (or someone) you love, but unforgiving to what does not move you.

But, I agree with you that "realism" is not always important; it's the storytelling that makes the film.

panavia999 said...

I'd like to hear what your friends thought was laughable about "Key Largo".

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

I believe it was chiefly the cigar-chewing patented gangster bravado of Edward G. Robinson, and what they seemed to regard as a rather stiff damsel in distress Lauren Bacall. To each his own.

panavia999 said...

Gosh, I though Bacall was being a stoic, not stiff. Anyway, Mathew at Movietone has posted a great commentary on the art of atificiality in movies.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

I saw Matthew's post, I thought it was great. He hits the nail on the head.

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