DIAL M FOR MURDER

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This is one of Hitchcock’s most fiendishly entertaining movies and one of his most brilliant exercises in cinematic craft.

The movie was based on a single-set play and Hitchcock made a canny choice not to “open it up” for the screen.  Almost the whole film takes place in the living room of a London flat, with occasional glimpses of connecting rooms and a hallway outside.  The few exteriors in the film are mostly created using back-screen projections, and not very convincing ones, so the apartment set becomes the most convincingly “real” location in the film.

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One could probably write a book-length study about the dazzlingly complex ways Hitchcock lights and shoots this set, always with a view to heightening the nightmarish claustrophobia of the intricate thriller plot, the creeping dread that is domestic and contained, proceeding from the suffocating dysfunction of a bad marriage infected by infidelity, hatred and mistrust.

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The film was shot in 3D, though it came in at the end of the 3D craze and played out mostly in 2D.  There’s now a wonderful 3D Blu-ray edition of the film which allows you to see it as Hitchcock originally envisioned it.  For the most part he uses 3D in a restrained way, saving the sensational effects for the few big moments of violence and terror, but even the restrained 3D images allow Hitchcock yet another avenue for exploring the interior set visually, varying the sensual experience of it, drawing you into it.

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The acting in the film is uniformly excellent, especially by Ray Milland as a creepily charming villain — and Grace Kelly in 3D is a stunning special effect all by herself.

If you have a 3D capable TV set and a Blu-ray player, add this title to your collection immediately.

VIEW FROM THE REAR WINDOW

Fellow blogger Tristan Forward sent this amazing time-lapse conflation of all the shots in Rear Window taken from the protagonist’s rear window.  It reminds us that Hitchcock didn’t just go to great lengths to make his protagonist’s apartment an interesting space to inhabit, cinematically — he went to equally great lengths to vary and enliven the POV shots looking out from that space.

BLU-RAY

Blu-ray is to DVD what vinyl is to CD — that is, it offers an incremental increase in quality that somehow takes the viewing or listening experience into a new realm. Vinyl sounds more like live music than a CD can, Blu-ray looks more like a projected 35mm print than a DVD can.

The Blu-ray quality is more important for some films than for others — beautifully lit films with shots composed in depth, like The Searchers, take your breath away on Blu-Ray.

It makes a great difference with a film like Rear Window, much of which takes place in a single room. Hitchcock works hard, through lighting and composition, to make that room seem like an interesting place to be confined.  It feels bigger and more inviting when seen in a Blu-Ray presentation, offering the compensations Hitchcock counted on for limiting his male star’s presence to one relatively small space.

ROPE

Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope is a film that really opens up and comes alive in the new Blu-ray edition. (It does so even more with a good print on a big screen, if you’re ever lucky enough to see it that way.)

Rope is at its most basic level a movie about a set, a magical set with walls that can be moved off screen during shooting to accommodate elaborate camera moves through its spaces, which consist of four rooms in line — a living room, a foyer, a dining room and a kitchen. The camera moves in and around all these rooms except the kitchen, which is only seem through its door.

The film is shot in a series of ten ten-minute takes — the maximum shot length possible for a film camera of the time. The camera moves almost constantly to re-frame elements of the shots for dramatic purposes, since Hitchcock chose not to use editing for this purpose. The cuts between the shots are disguised in various ways to give the impression of the film unfolding as one continuous shot.

There is canny calculation in all this.  The elegant movement of the camera through apparently constrained spaces seems magical at first — and the better the print the more magical it seems.  But gradually we come to realize the limits of the spaces, to realize that the camera is never going to to move outside them, and this creates a a creeping sense of claustrophobia.

This formal strategy mirrors the emotional claustrophobia of the drama, which centers on a domestic partnership between two gay men which is coming apart at the seams under the pressure of a neurotic power imbalance in the relationship.

The homosexual subtext is never made explicit, but we can feel it in every interaction between the two partners, and we gradually come to understand that this is going to be the primary romantic dynamic of the film — that all the other romance alluded to in the story will stay permanently off-screen.

This would have been a shocking thing to mainstream audiences of 1948 and would have induced another kind of claustrophobia, a thematic claustrophobia, beyond the claustrophobia induced by centering a movie around a romantic relationship that is unraveling before our eyes and has nowhere to go but into catastrophe.

The film seems radical even today, for its technique and its thematic daring.  By never mentioning its homosexual subtext, not possible in any case in Hollywood in 1948, it also avoids any kind of special plea for understanding, and thus any kind of patronizing of its gay characters.  They are not terribly admirable men, but they are sympathetic on many levels and, more importantly, they are simply who they are — without apology or comment.

Rope is not exactly a pleasurable piece of entertainment — it’s disturbing in many different ways — but it’s a dazzling exercise in cinematic eloquence and dramatic finesse.

Click on the images to enlarge.

ADDENDUM

Facebook friend Catherine Grant reminds me, through this very useful video essay, that not all the cuts in Rope are disguised:

Indeed, the first cut is very much undisguised and meant to startle.  I would still say that, except for that first one, the undisguised cuts are all designed to be as unobtrusive as possible, to create the sensation if not the seamless illusion that the film unfolds as one continuous shot.

THE END OF ENGLIGH

Dr. Drew Casper is the Alfred and Alma Hitchcock Professor Of American Film at the University of Southern California.  He is a published author on film.  I assume that the “Dr.” in front of his name means that he has a PhD.  Casper shows up often delivering “expert commentary” on DVDs.  I assume that he speaks English as a first language but somehow in his journey through academia he has not managed to master the rudiments of his native tongue.

His style of speaking involves a lot of rephrasing, designed, I suppose, to suggest the addition of nuance to the points he's making but adding up only to redundancy.  In his commentary on the recent DVD release of Notorious, for example, he says that Alicia “is out of control — she has lost control.”  These two phrases mean exactly the same thing — one or the other would have served perfectly well.  He refers to the famous key in the film as “a prop — an object, if you want.”  Yes, I will accept that a prop is an object, since a prop is always an object.  It's sort of like saying, “a person — a human being, if you want.”  This is a form of pretentious bloviation.

Casper misspeaks constantly in his commentary.  He says that Alex's mother “yields a lot of power” in Alex's home, when he means that she wields a lot of power.  Of a traveling shot close on Alicia and Devlin, Casper says it suggests that they are “floating on air, existing gravity.”  I'm not even sure what he actually meant to say there — “resisting gravity”?  Who knows?

Casper introduces the subject of Russian Constructivism and then goes on to refer to it more than once as Roman Contructivism, whatever that might be.  Casper also misuses language freely.  He says that German filmmakers “triumphed” the use of lighting as an expressive tool.  He doesn't seem to know or care that “triumph” is an intransitive and never a transitive verb.

The professor is promiscuously careless about details as well.  He refers to the German director “D. W. Pabst”.  He says at one point that Alex is taller than Alicia, when he's just been talking about the significance of him being shorter.  He says that in Hitchcock's films special effects are always in the service of technique, when he means always in the service of story or character.

Is there no editor or director present when Casper records his commentaries?  Doesn't Casper, or someone, listen to them after they're recorded to catch mistakes and suggest retakes?  Or is it the case that any old nonsense from the mouth of a man with a PhD is assumed to be authoritative?

Casper is not an idiot — he has many interesting things to say about the themes and strategies of Notorious — but he seems to feel no obligation whatsoever to present his analysis with even a modicum of intellectual rigor or discipline.  If Hitchcock had had the same attitude about filmmaking that Casper has about film criticism, we wouldn't be watching Hitchcock's films today.  Bloviating about them in such a scatter-brained way is a kind of insult to Hitchcock's professionalism.

Casper's poor language skills offer a terrifying insight into the modern academy, and modern academic standards in the area of film studies.  Presumably Casper doesn't fear that his students will note, much less correct, his mangling of English, though some of them would undoubtedly be capable of doing so.  They want good grades from him, after all.  Presumably, as the occupant of an endowed chair at his university, probably a tenured position, he doesn't fear the criticism of his fellow professors or supervisors, who would have a very hard time removing him from his job.  Perhaps they feel that since film is a visual medium, there's no need to speak about it in precise and correct language.

It's all very depressing.  When a professor at a major American university can get away with such shoddy speech, it's no wonder that American institutions of higher learning are turning out graduates who are semi-literate, who not only speak but think sloppily about film, among other things.