It takes a lot to be a household name director -- a Spielberg or a Kubrick. These names suggest the very best of what movies can offer. When you're speaking Hitchcock's name, however, you're suggesting not only a good movie but a look at the very worst of humanity... displayed in a light that makes it seem somehow fun. At 9 p.m. on Sunday, KCET will screen "Dial M for Murder," a classic Hitchcock thriller that squeezes as much as possible out of just a handful of characters interacting almost exclusively in a single room. It's riveting, but in case that's not enough to get you to tune in, here are nine more reasons.
The blonde. As far as pop culture is concerned, blond women are sunny, sexy, maybe a little simple. (You debate the merits of this stereotype on your own time.) For Hitchcock, however, blondes are characters that we could most kindly describe as "morally complex." They're femme fatales and doomed damsels, and this film's blonde -- Margot Wendice, an adulteress whose husband sets out to bump her off -- makes for an especially unlikely heroine to root for. Of course, her appeal probably stems from the actress playing her...
Grace Kelly. She's a jewel on screen, but by that I don't mean some flashy, sparkling thing. No, as always, Kelly has an understated beauty. She's wonderful to watch on screen, and you have to hand it to an actress who can make adultery look classy.
One really long conversation. Perhaps you've heard the golden rule for writing: "Show, don't tell." Frederick Knott's screenplay for "Dial M for Murder" breaks it and totally gets away with doing so, and it's kind of a kick to watch it happen. Basically, starting at the 11-minute mark and continuing almost to the 30-minute mark, the cuckolded husband (Ray Milland) lays out his entire plan to kill his wife. However, it's well-written and well-filmed to the point that you will not feel like you're sitting there, watching him essentially say "Hi, this is what I'm going to do." When it's done, you'll be surprised you were on the edge of your seat through 20 minutes of one guy talking.
The cameo. As with all of his films, Alfred Hitchcock makes a cameo. It happens about 13 minutes in, in a photograph. Point it out. Make everyone you're watching this with think you're super clever.
No. 9. Though it's definitely more or a thriller than a typical mystery, "Dial M for Murder" was ranked ninth on the American Film Institute's top ten mysteries of all time, right between "Blue Velvet" and "The Usual Suspects."
Cary Grant does not appear. And that's a good thing, Grant's remarkable onscreen presence notwithstanding. According to the film's Wikipedia page, Grant wanted the role of the murderous husband after he saw the Broadway play on which "Dial M for Murder" was based. It's for the best, perhaps, as you have to wonder if Grant could have mustered the darkness that Milland brings to the role.
Intermission. It's easy to see that this film was based on a play. About 40 minutes in, you may suddenly realize that the action hasn't left the Wendices' living room. In keeping in that spirit, the film also has an intermission. Today, that seems quaint and charming. To think -- back in the day and long before the advent of the pause button, it would have given everyone an opportunity to freely talk about what they thought would happen next.
Kelly's costumes. According to IMDb, Hitchcock underscored the gradually darkening tone of the film with the clothes worn by Kelly's character. She starts out wearing scarlet -- which, if you think about it, is an appropriate hue for an adulteress -- and then, as the movie progresses, her clothes lose their brightness. It's a subtle touch that you might not notice unless someone pointed it out to you.
It was filmed in 3D, but you don't have to bother with that nonsense. And that is probably the strangest trivia I can offer about "Dial M for Murder." There's little of this film that would seem 3D-friendly, at least by today's standards, and yet Hitchcock still bought into this trendy moviemaking technique. Maybe that fact excuses contemporary directors who decide to make needlessly 3D movies... maybe.