Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Dial M for Milland

I love movies with creepy leading characters. From The Talented Mr. Ripley to Night of the Hunter to M that sort of thing never ceases to thrill me. The more I can empathize with the creepster, the better. A baddy with little motivation is pointless and not really worth watching (think Spielberg’s atrocious War of the Worlds – there was no reason why the aliens were attacking Earth, thus they were ineffective antagonists. And yeah, this is only the tip of the iceberg as to why this film was bad, but this is not the time or the place to discuss the film's multitude of flaws). No, you need to be able to get inside your villain’s head in order to craft a truly eerie, bloodcurdling film. I recently rewatched Dial M for Murder, a Hitchcock that I had virtually forgotten about altogether and am happy to report that I was totally creeped out by the brilliance of Hitch’s leading man.

The villain in question is former tennis star Tony (Ray Milland), who discovers that his wealthy wife Margot (Grace Kelly) has been having an affair with sleazy writer Mark (Robert Cummings) and – out of boredom, annoyance and lack of funds – decides to plot her murder. It’s a pretty straightforward story that could have dragged and lost its momentum with a less adept director, but Hitchcock – the self proclaimed “master of suspense” – keeps the ball rolling at an irritatingly gripping pace. I literally couldn’t stop watching.

While the bulk of the film’s dramatic tension and general success should be attributed to Hitchcock, I was no less than bowled over by the subtlety and nuance of Milland’s performance. I am a bit embarrassed to admit that I have only seen four of Milland’s other works, but in all these films he played sympathetic, charming and affable leading men. Even in The Lost Weekend – in which Milland delivers a heartbreaking performance as a deeply troubled alcoholic – he still portrayed a sweetheart for whom you couldn’t help but feel deeply sorry. In Murder, however, his character is cold blooded, calculated and passionless. His hatred for his wife is far from the sort of emotional fury you might expect from a jilted husband; it’s a smooth, detached, quiet sort of hatred that makes him all the more deadly. Seemingly emotionless, he is motivated to carry out her murder as much because of her infidelity and wealth as from a general boredom with his situation in life and a fascination with seeing if he can pull off a perfect crime. He’s a chilling, terrifying character that Milland plays with so much skill that I couldn’t help but find myself rooting for him every excruciating step along the way.

His cool villainous persona is all the more effective in contrast with Kelly’s and Cummings’ characters who exemplify the sort of watered down, irksome blandness it is near impossible not to loathe. I’ve never been a big Grace Kelly fan; I find her beautiful but drearily insipid. Long before she was the princess of Monaco, she was still an ice princess of the first degree and her frigid demeanor distances her from viewers. Also, her wooden, affected speech is grating, pretentious and distracting. No thank you. Cummings’ character is little better; he proficiently plays a hack but the role has little merit to begin with, and is thus not improved with his somewhat limited acting chops. However, the pair's shortcomings only serve to heighten the brilliance of Milland’s performance and further build audience complicity with his nefarious pursuits.

Shot virtually only in one room, it is a wonder that this film doesn’t feel constrained. It is a testament to Hitchcock’s innovative direction and camera choices (fun fact: the film was shot in 3D!), the fascinating plot developments and of course Milland’s phenomenal performance that the film not only doesn't feel fenced in, but rather soars. This is easily one of Hitchcock’s top films and one of his best villains. If you like creepy characters as much as me, or even if you just like suspense, or are merely fond of looking at Grace Kelly, I would highly recommend this film.

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