Notes on Alfred Hitchcock’s underrated 3-D murder mystery and King Vidor’s underseen silent-era masterpiece, screening in retrospect at the New Zealand International Film Festival.
Sizing up the New Zealand International Film Festival’s retrospective programme this year, it’s little wonder that the conversation has trended towards the big screen revival of Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, and for Aucklanders only, the live cinema presentations of Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman and Goblin plays Suspiria. Receiving less attention, and unfairly so, has been the announcement of another Hitchcock classic, Dial M for Murder (in 3-D), and most significantly, King Vidor’s silent-era masterpiece The Crowd, to be accompanied by a 12-piece ensemble performing a new score composed by Johannes Contag.
Audiences need no encouragement when it comes to filling seats for North by Northwest—a towering crowd-pleaser from the moment Saul Bass’s striking title sequence slides into view and Bernard Herrmann’s score sparks to life, through to its iconic Mount Rushmore climax and parting ‘money shot’—and there are few films better suited to the magnificence of The Civic and The Embassy than Hitchcock’s most entertaining watch. Which is all the more reason to go into bat for Dial M for Murder, a film largely dismissed by Hitchcock as it was being consigned to the early, fumbled history of 3-D innovation. Tangled in the stereoscopic craze of the ’50s, and not properly released in 3-D in cinemas until 1980, this new digital restoration promises to enhance the depth and perspective of the camerawork—limited in creativity by the cumbersome 3-D equipment of the era and use of Eastman Color (a new film stock that was less flexible in terms of exposure), but this being Hitchcock, still endlessly fascinating to scrutinize. I for one am looking forward to the strange and subtly inventive orientation of Hitchcock’s shot setups in relation to the interior architecture being brought into sharp relief—for the film is, after all, a model of economy and restraint when it comes to 3-D productions (both past and present), with its one and only ‘outie’ delivered during the signature strangulation of Grace Kelly, which culminates in the rather lurid self-impaling of her would-be murderer.
Whether viewed through 3-D glasses or in plain old flat-o-vision, it’s also necessary to stress—especially against the energetic thrill seeking of North by Northwest—how much fun Dial M for Murder is. Flawed and silly, yes, but an absolute hoot in spite—or because—of its ridiculous sportsmanship and Midsomer Murders-style enclave. (The beauty of this, and the majority of Hitchcock’s murder mysteries, is that it is not a whodunit but a howdunit.) Based on the hit stageplay by Frederick Knott (the playwright also responsible for Wait Until Dark), Hitchcock’s film version beckons towards comedy much like his earlier stunt chamber piece, Rope (1948). Talky, intricately detailed, and confined to a single apartment, it’s well in keeping with Hitchcock’s pet themes of blackmail and murder, and can even stake its claim as possible inspiration for Woody Allen’s Match Point: about an all-British tennis player (Ray Milland) who schemes to off his wife (Grace Kelly), together with Crimes and Misdemeanours it might as well be considered the genesis for that film. Following the botched attempt on Kelly’s life, the plot regains momentum with Milland scrambling to cover up his complicity. After a no-nonsense inspector (John Williams) arrives on the scene, the powers of deduction begin, with proceedings dovetailing into a neat, if all-too-genteel finale: sure enough, the culprit is caught, but not before offering those involved a sporting drink in defeat. This hilarious surrender to decorum—as if criminal and detective had just played Wimbledon—wouldn’t fly without the terrific Ray Milland, who strikes a villainous balance between smarm, cunning, and gentlemanly arrogance.
There’s something to be said for the film’s abstract theatricality, which plays to the notion of an audience while also freely inviting them into its contrived cinematic space. The effect is not that of watching a play or a sitcom, where the room is cut open for our benefit; rather, it gives us a corner seat in what is an elaborate parlour game, where we’re at once in on the action and able to preside over it from various, curious perspectives. (David Bordwell discusses the permutations of Hitchcock’s camera placement and editing in this comprehensive analysis of the film.) Whether Dial M for Murder sneaks into the realm of ‘meta’ is debatable, however as riveting artifice, it’s as gripping, resourceful, and cheeky as you’d expect from the master of suspense; all the more remarkable given Hitchcock, who was unhappy with the circumstances, effectively dialed it in—punched out with minimum effort, to maximum effect, as only he was capable of.
Difficult to see and therefore sadly underappreciated, The Crowd has appeared to struggle for cut through against The Cameraman in the live cinema stakes. There’s much more to silent film than Keaton and Chaplin, of course, and I would hasten to add that if you’re not even the slightest bit excited about seeing The Crowd (but would rather gripe about The Cameraman not screening in Wellington—a shame, yet hardly a tragedy), then you simply don’t care about silent cinema.
Vidor, though often overlooked, is far from a minor name in the annuals of American film history, having helped pioneer the industry; “an old master who practically put Hollywood on the map,” says Martin Scorsese. He’s perhaps best known for directing Duel in the Sun (1947), an imperfect, fulsome Technicolor western of indelible imagery and passion—a film that he abandoned before completion due to differences with its meddling producer, David O. Selznick. Prior to the advent of sound, he helmed the powerful WWI drama The Big Parade (1925), a sweeping success that enabled him to embark on his pet project, The Crowd. Around the same time, he was also instrumental in showcasing the comedic wares of Marion Davies—another example of a major talent overshadowed by the cult of Keaton and Chaplin—in back-to-back silent comedies, Show People and The Patsy (1928). Davies, whose Hollywood legend remains impossible to dissociate from William Randolph Hearst, was no ‘patsy’ despite the newspaper magnate playing the role of obsessive impresario in her life. She produced the majority of her own features, and in these two delightful Cinderella stories, her gift for facial expression and mimicry is front and centre. The Patsy, in particular, finds Davies at her most adorable, skittery, and elastic—a template for the manic pixie dream girl if ever there was one.
Vidor’s direction of Show People and The Patsy is serviceable and lightweight, but then that was in keeping with his strategy of alternating between one for the studios, and one for himself. At the other end of the spectrum, The Crowd is a visionary epic of everyday struggle and resilience bold enough to forgo the rote escapism and sentiment that the entertainment industry was founded on and the studios heads swore by (although in this rare instance, were willing to let slide). Vidor does a number of interesting things with the film: he casts a virtual unknown in the lead role (James Murray, his prototypical everyman), he expands the storytelling and scene-setting to encompass life on an unwashed street level (using real locations where possible, and even going as far as to conceal his camera), and he distills social commentary into a personal journey that, at times, feels almost novelistic in approach.
As with most silent era movies, the intertitles can have a reductive effect on the intensity of the images—their function often to spell out what we can already clearly see with our own eyes—however The Crowd is one film that can never be accused of being maudlin or crude in its dramatic delivery. Still, for all its stark realism, The Crowd does not deny its young lovers (Murray and the lovely Eleanor Boardman) moments of ecstasy or overwhelming awe, and Vidor obliges with some of silent cinema’s most enduring sequences: the plunge down the slide at the carnival; the Niagara Falls love scene (cheesy visual metaphor aside, reminiscent of Frank Borzage’s sensual The River); the incredible final crane shot over the stalls in a packed theatre; or the film’s grandest gesture, a rising shot up and through the window of a high-rise building to reveal a sea of workers hunched over a vast archipelago of desks (as far as tracking shots go, its up there with marquee moments in Seventh Heaven and Intolerance.)
If this deep perspective shot of uniformly arranged work stations in a soulless office space looks familiar, it’s because you’ve seen it paid homage to before in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, or in Vidor’s own The Fountainhead (1949). Yes, Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, adapted for the screen by a filmmaker whose early output leaned towards the socialist left. Apart from being a great artistic achievement, The Crowd teems with social and political relevance—a cynical view of the American dream and modernity that was followed closely by Our Daily Bread (1934), a Depression era sequel of sorts framed around a farm cooperative as socialist microcosm. That Vidor went from The Crowd to The Fountainhead, with its heavy-handed propagation of the individualist over collectivist ideal, is a bizarre contradiction possibly explained by the rise of McCarthyism. (Vidor in fact became a member of the anti-communist group the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals along with Rand.) Set aside Rand’s obnoxious objectivist manifesto though, and Vidor’s intention, and the film’s credibility, becomes clearer. The Fountainhead is an artistic statement about authorship by a director who, like the story’s hero architect, Howard Roark, did not like to compromise his vision. (It’s also wildly expressionistic, hugely quotable, and overtly sexual in the tradition of Duel in the Sun.) In reality, Vidor was adept at being an “on again, off again team player” (to quote Scorsese again). When the moguls let him experiment, he rose to the occasion with masterworks like The Crowd.