Two Lesser Known Alfred Hitchcock Films

By Gus Edelen O’Brien

Catlin Gabel School, Catlin Speak

Recently, we set our clocks back one hour, leading to longer nights and shorter days. Try enjoying these longer nights with a movie from a master of cinema: Alfred Hitchcock.

Hitchcock made many a great film during his lifetime and directed 53 films in all. Some of these movies such as “Psycho,” “North By Northwest,” and “Rear Window,” still reside in the pop culture canon to this day.

Not every film Hitchcock created was a classic. Some films faded away after years and years, and are reserved for only true fans of the director. However, just because a film isn’t a classic doesn’t mean it’s not a good movie. These two films are from a brilliant director and will draw you into the noirish world of Alfred Hitchcock, even if they don’t have the cultural staying power of some of his other works.

“Dial M for Murder” (1954)

“Dial M for Murder,” taken from a play by the same name, plays out as a typical Agatha Christie murder mystery compete with the moustache-twirling detective. Through Alfred Hitchcock’s mastery of the art form, it becomes something more than your ordinary “Masterpiece Theatre” PBS special.

However, “Dial M for Murder” does not have the fortitude of some of Alfred Hitchcock’s other films. His most famous movies have plots that are original and innovative. Killer birds? Sociopaths? “Dial M for Murder” settles for a pretty “M is for Mundane” plot, but this doesn’t make it a bad film.

The story focuses around Wesley (Ray Mililand,) a champion tennis player who now sells rackets and cricket bats for a living, and decides that his wife needs to die. Why? For only the simplest of reasons: life insurance. Jealousy also plays a role. His wife’s affections have moved to a crime writer, Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings).

Wesley recruits his college friend to do the deed, meaning they can share the insurance. Of course, not everything goes to plan, but I won’t spoil the ending. Margo, played by a simpering Grace Kelly, is Wesley’s unfaithful wife. Enter the beforementioned inspector, who falls for the false evidence against Margo planted by Wesley to incriminate and execute his wife. Typical cat and mouse gameplay.

The real strength of this movie comes not from the plot, but from Hitchcock, who uses a palette of violets and yellow to paint the story. It is amazing how much he does given that 90 percent of the film is shot within a relatively small apartment. The characters blend into the background, and every shot could be its own individual picture. It is a sign of a good movie when each scene is so masterfully shot it stands on its own.

The story is driven by witty dialogue which is delivered in a British accent. The script allows for the viewer to feel as though they are in the movie. A large portion of the movie is pure babbling. Babbling isn’t bad though, and the dialogue is enjoyable and witty most of the time.

The murder sequence is superb and allows for Hitchcock to possibly claim the title of “Greatest Director Ever.” The film may be a little dry, but for those tired of watching helicopters blow up and people quipping at each other in robot suits, “Dial M For Murder” offers a stylishly alternative film with smoking-jacket pockets full of charm and wit.

Catlin Score: Very Good

“Sabotage” (1936)

The plot of “Sabotage” is just as spare as “Dial M for Murder,” but it is superior to it because it has a greater scope and humanizes its characters. “Sabotage” is a thriller that never stoops to cliches or one-sided villains. It is beautifully shot with resonant dialogue, and the death of the protagonist/antagonist is one of the most emotionally potent scenes I have ever seen.

The film is entirely in black and white, and it looks all the better for it. A blackout during the beginning lets Hitchcock use light in a way that would be completely different if filmed in color. The characters are anything but stock, and cannot be pegged with a few words or a paragraph. From Karl Anton Verloc to his adversary, the policeman Ted Spencer, all of the characters are fully realized.

Something that struck me as odd about this film was how emotionally detached all the characters are. When a group of spies find out they are being watched, they pull out the eavesdropper from his hiding place, but then let him go almost immediately even though the spies know he is a policeman. The enemies within this film aren’t shown as merciless killers, but as people just as human as the British characters.

Verloc (Oskar Homolka) and his wife own a small theatre in London that is running out of cash. Verloc needs money to feed his family, and he manages a deal with his native country. He needs to cause a disturbance within London that will distract the British from the war.

Verloc first tries to achieve this by cutting London’s power, but the power is restored within minutes. His employer shows him a newspaper with the title “London Laughs.” He needs to do something with more staying power, but Verloc is quick to point out he won’t kill anyone, showing the Germans in a kinder light. His employer sets him up with an explosive expert, and Verloc is given a time and date to deliver the bomb. A superintendent disguised as a grocer tries to uproot this plan, but instead falls in love with Verloc’s wife (Sylvia Sidney).

Two scenes in this movie are master-class. The first scene that caught my eye is when Verloc sends his wife’s much younger brother to bring the time bomb to the subway station. He is told to get there by 1:45 p.m., but is continually stopped by passersby, all while the clock ticks away the seconds.  We continue to see clocks as they get closer to the allotted time, and that final click of the clock seals the fate of the brother.

The second scene that resonates most powerfully is when Verloc tells his wife about his failed plan. He tells her how the failure wasn’t his fault, but instead was the lieutenant’s fault, who was keeping a close eye on him. She eyes a kitchen knife. She even picks it up and then drops it, almost immediately. Verloc notices and walks over to her, looking her in the eyes the whole time. Right before he reaches her, she grabs the knife and stabs him in the stomach.

This movie is a thriller at its finest, and expands a spare plot into something that cannot easily be put into words. It is minimalistic, but the shots are rendered beautifully, and every piece of dialogue is expertly placed. This is a thriller at its most pared down and bracing, and at its most heart-wrenching too.

Catlin Grade: Excellent

 

About Grace Masback

Grace Masback, 17, aspires to give voice to the voiceless and holds the modest ambition of becoming the voice of Gen Z. Frustrated by the dearth of impactful platforms for teen journalists, she founded WANT, a news, sports, and entertainment website that aggregates the best in high school journalism from school newspapers and teen bloggers around the world (www.wantnewsforteens.com).

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