Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Dial M for Murder

The Hitchcock cameo appears early in Dial M for Murder, now being revived at Film Forum. The director appears in the photo of a smug Cambridge reunion table surrounded by his two villains. He looks dumbfounded and bemused at the same time. It’s a classic Hitchcock self-portrait and it deserves comment to the extent of how profoundly poker-faced he is, a male version of blind Lady Justice. Dial M was shot for 3-D which acts as metaphor for the post-war era in which the movie was shot. 3-D captured a world of profound reality, not the post-modernism of today where reality in fact feels like a stage play made into movie (which is what Dial M  actually was). One of the wonderful things about British whodunits going back to The Mousetrap is the presupposition of a rational universe. Rationalism is the father figure restoring the Great Chain of Being, that has been intermittently shaken up as in the strange doings of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. You couldn’t write a play like Dial M today or a movie adaptation of it with actors like Robert Cummings playing a writer of mysteries who falls in love with a British heiress (Grace Kelly), married to a cad (Ray Milland). The nature of the evil, so unambiguous and parsable, eludes the imagination in the sinkhole of bankrupt post-modernity. Hitchcock’s camera luxuriates in his wonderful upper crust settings and there are memorable cinematic sleights of hand that take place effortlessly in his confidence narrative world. For instance, as Milland and his counterpart plan out their crime, the camera hovers overhead. You don’t take note of the break from full frontal naturalism until the scene has passed. In this setting the props--a stocking, a key, a dial-up phone-- are free to become icons. Today’s inhabitant of London or New York is suffering from pre-traumatic stress disorder and the gnarled characters that contemporary film directors and mystery writers create reflect an unfathomable evil that’s far removed from the crime that Hitchcock portrays in this delicious piece of nostalgia.

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