Friday, July 15, 2011

DIAL and DIAL Again!

"Can’t a fellow look beyond a tennis net without being out for something?" Farley Granger in Strangers on a Train (1951)

This week's TotED post salutes Dial M for Murder, both seriously (Alfred Hitchcock's classic film version) and funny-side-up (Scott Fivelson's one-act play Dial L for Latch-Key)! (Mind the spoilers!)

Dial M for Murder (1954)

From Woman in White with Tony
To answer Granger's question: not in an Alfred Hitchcock movie! Former tennis champ Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) comes off all smooth and debonair, but unlike Farley Granger as Guy Haines, Tony’s not a nice Guy! In Frederick Knott’s smashing, diabolical 1952 stage thriller, Dial M for Murder (DMfM). Tony makes caring, husbandly noises around his beautiful, wealthy wife Margot (Grace Kelly), but in the wordless opening sequence, it becomes clear that she’s really just a meal ticket to Tony. No wonder she and her former boyfriend, American TV writer Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings, a Hitchcock alumnus as the hero of 1942's Saboteur) are picking up where they left off.  To be fair, Margot and Mark seem to feel a little guilty, wanting to do the right thing, but those crazy kids are stuck on each other. Tony feels stuck as well, clearly realizing his days of sponging off Margot are numbered. To borrow a line from Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth, Tony is finding murder less burdensome than alimony. So Tony hatches a cunning plan, involving blackmailing a fellow blackguard from his college days, one Captain Lesgate…or is it C.A. Swann? (Either way, he's played by Anthony Dawson from Dr. No, among others.) Like Cary Grant’s character in Charade (1963), Swann seems to have aliases aplenty, not to mention a trail of debts and at least one dead body: “Poor Miss Wallace....” So Swann falls in with the plan, which involves keys under a staircase carpet and the split-second timing of a fatal phone call. But you know what they say about the best-laid plans…. Lady in Red with Mark!

A smash hit on London’s West End and Broadway in 1952, it didn’t take long for Hollywood to come a’knockin’. Warner Bros. was keen to get Alfred Hitchcock to direct the 1954 film adaptation, and Hitch signed on, although his heart wasn’t quite in it. In Adam Philips’ excellent review of DMfM in his blog Hitchcock and Me, he also pointed out that John Williams’ character, Chief Inspector Hubbard, “may have rubbed Hitchcock the wrong way, as competent police officers in Hitchcock’s pictures are few and far between.” But once Hitchcock met his new leading lady, Grace Kelly, an actress-director dream team was born! Hitchcock and Kelly collaborated on three movies before she traded Hollywood royalty for Monaco royalty, the other two films being Rear Window (1954) and To Catch a Thief (1955). But the team-up with Kelly wasn’t the only “first” here for Hitchcock: it was also the first—and only—time Hitchcock used the original 3-D format. With that particular 3-D process being a big fad at the time, producers attempted to woo TV audiences back into theaters, complete with the original 3-D glasses, annoying though they were. Warner Bros. insisted that Hitchcock capitalize on the 3-D fad. The stereoscopic technique was a clunky, cumbersome nuisance, but Hitchcock agreed to use it, only to have DMfM released in a “flat” version anyway! Vinnie and I actually got to see the 3-D version several years ago in my hometown, at New York City’s Film Forum. Despite the glasses’ shortcomings, we thought it was pretty darn cool, especially the scene where our gal Grace manages to grab the scissors and kill Swann in self-defense! Admittedly, sometimes it also had us snorting with laughter for the wrong reasons, like when the liquor bottles on the Wendices’ wet bar seemed to be jumping out at us moviegoers. It got me wondering what a 3-D version of The Lost Weekend starring DMfM star Ray Milland might have been like!

Have you seen your husband, baby, standing in the shadows?
Considering DMfM was filmed in color (WarnerColor, no less! Technicolor, Schmechnicolor!), it makes great use of shadows and angles, especially when the camera slowly maneuvers upward. It’s almost as if God Himself is sternly looking down on Tony and Swann plotting Margot’s murder, thinking, “You two are gonna get it! Taste my wrath, you evil jaspers!” I love the look on Swann’s face as Tony shares his juicy story of stealing Margot’s love letter and blackmailing her. They’re almost like yentas gossiping over coffee and cake—or, considering this is set in England, tea and scones. And all the while, Tony is matter-of-factly wiping down incriminating fingerprints, the shifty old slyboots!

Vinnie Can’t Resist Chiming In: There was a Hallmark Hall of Fame version of Dial M... done back in 1958 – the only returning cast member was the wonderful John Williams. He too is a recurring figure in Hitchcock’s work. In addition to Dial M... and To Catch a Thief, Williams appeared on Alfred Hitchcock Presents eight times, playing functionally the same police inspector character three times, one being the epic three-part "I Killed The Count." John Williams had a heck of a career before he started telling us about the themes from “A Stranger In Paradise’ we first found in The Polovtsian Dance No. 2 by Borodin.

As Tony Wendice, Ray Milland gives one of his most compelling performances; indeed, I’d go so far as to name Tony among my Top Five Hitchcock Villains. Look at the way he manipulates Margot into staying home doing his “boring clippings” instead of going to a movie as she’d originally planned. After Tony gets home to discover that would-be victim Margot fought back and ended up killing Swann in self-defense, you can almost see the calculating in Tony’s eyes as he figures out how to make this “ghastly accident” work in his favor, the meticulous son of a bitch! (I still wince every time I see Swann fall on his back, plunging the scissors in deeper!) Grace Kelly won my sympathy as she proved to be perhaps the quintessential Hitchcock Blonde. (It didn’t hurt that her entrance is accompanied by Dimitri Tiomkin’s lushly romantic music.) Having said that, for me, North by Northwest’s Eva Marie Saint was a darn close second! In any case, John Williams steals the show as Chief Inspector Hubbard. He’s almost like a more dapper Columbo in that he can seem slightly absentminded, but when things get serious, he turns out to be a sly fox after all. When he does, you find yourself glad to be on his side!

Guess who came to dinner? Hitchcock's cameo!
Robert Cummings always seems to be written off as a lightweight, but I nevertheless found myself liking him as Mark Halliday. (Wonder if his character was named after crime author Brett Halliday?) Maybe it’s because I’m predisposed to like affable mystery writers, having known a few. Also, it seemed to me that Mark truly loved Margot, and vice-versa. I’ve always liked that bit in the apartment where Mark looks at Margot while talking about how it’s hard to write a perfect murder because “things don’t always work out”— and we know darn well he’s not talking about crime stories. C’mon, cut the guy some slack! He did save his sweetie, albeit with a little help from Hubbard. I thought Tony would soil himself when Mark unwittingly suggests a way to save Margot that sounds an awful lot like Tony’s murder plot. I always feel like cheering when Hubbard turns out to be truly on our heroes’ team: “They talk about flat-footed policemen. May the saints preserve us from the gifted amateur!” And such a British ending: cocktails in the face of adversity!

Dial L for Latch-Key (2010)

When fellow blogger Adam Philips of Hitchcock and Me reviewed Scott Fivelson’s 2010 comedy Dial L for Latch-Key (DLfLK) this past April, I thought it sounded hilarious, and I would have loved to see the much-praised live stage production if it had been within a reasonable distance of my Pennsylvania home. Alas, it was only playing at the New End Theatre in London, England, and the airfare alone was too rich for my blood. But in June, I got the next best thing: an invitation from Rick Tannenbaum of Hen House Press ( , inviting me to read and review the paperback edition of Fivelson’s one-act play.

I’m pleased to say DLfLK was great fun to read, and chock full of affectionate madcap spoofing of not only DMfM and Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite tropes, but also Hitchcock-inspired thrillers ranging from The Manchurian Candidate to Charade. I could see the play’s zany absurdist shenanigans in my mind as I read it. The plot starts off in a Dial M for Murder vein, then veers cheerfully off in the wildest directions. Even the props—like the trunk festooned with such travel decals as “Tower of London” and “Alcatraz”— are a hoot. So are the stage directions. For example:

(Enter RAYMOND, an impeccable sophisticate with an insufferably self-satisfied air. Tropical shirt. Perfectly pressed Bermuda shorts. High socks. Brand new tennis shoes. Slicked-back shoe-polish dark hair. In a buoyant mood.)

(Enter G and BOB…G is grace personified. Her golden blonde hair and radiant bearing doing all they can to raise her above her current circumstances, mink coat only partially concealing the old-movie-style striped prison uniform worn beneath it.)
(At her side, Bob, American, a handsome cipher. HIS overcoat draped over one arm. Bob is at all times reining in a boundless, featureless energy, happy to be anywhere he is. Because HE’S there. In a word, American.)

You could make a drinking game out of the references to Hitchcock-style elements! (I’m a teetotaler, so I’ll be the designated driver.) DLfLK is grand smart-alecky fun, with a broad, affectionate wink to the thrillers we grew up loving, whether we first saw them in actual theaters or on TV. Hen House Press is also producing a radio play of Dial L for Latch-Key for an NPR affiliate in New York, so keep your eyes and ears open for further developments. For more information on Dial L for Latch-Key, contact Rick Tannenbaum at Hen House Press via Twitter (@eHenHouse) or e-mail (

Inspector Hubbard combs every inch...

Is there no end to the hot smooching?


  1. No matter how many times you see it, you can't help but be supremely entertained by "Dial M for Murder". Tiomkin's score stays with me for days. The plotting scene between Tony and Lesgate makes me giddy, with such lines as "I'm almost resigned to living on what I earn."

  2. Caftan Woman, I'm delighted -- but not surprised -- that a gal with your excellent taste in movies enjoyed DIAL M FOR MURDER as much as Vinnie and I did, for the reasons that you did, and more. I forgot to mention the scene with the tight close-up on Margot's stunned (and stunning) face during her trial, with ominous multicolored lights accentuating her silent anguish.

    Tony and Lesgate/Swann's plotting scene has always been one of my favorites. Like you, I love the line "I'm almost resigned to living on what I earn." Oh, the horror, the horror! :-)

  3. Dorian,

    A wonderful review and look at a Hitchcock favorite. I saw the film a bit differently though with the two men in Margot’s life. I found Cumming’s character a whinny an annoying pain (lol) while Milland’s character more suave and sophisticated, kind of a low rent Cary Grant (Grant would have been great in this role). I always wondered what she saw in Cumming’s character. True, Milland’s Tony wants to kill her, not a good thing. She really has lousy taste in men!

    You may want to check out my own review when you have a chance.


  4. love love love the movie and especially this post! DIAL M & REAR WINDOW were the first "old" movies that truly grabbed me, so they have a very special place in my memory and I've seen them many times. I only state all that to lead into the fact that you pointed out something i never noticed (duh) in all my viewings, and that's Grace's white vs red dress. Very clever. this is why your posts are so cool, i learn something new every time. I too appreciate Robert Cummings, btw. great post. -- Kristina

  5. Once again, Team Bartilucci has proven itself to have one of the best and most entertaining blogs on the Internet!

    I have to admit that I wasn't the biggest fan of "Dial M for Murder." be perfectly fair...that's probably because I watched it while on a plane and I associate EVERYTHING that I do mid-flight with discomfort....

    I'll definitely look for the remake, though!

  6. John, it's nice to hear you appreciate DIAL M FOR MURDER, too! I very much enjoyed reading your own DIAL M... blog post. While I liked Robert Cummings' character better than most viewers (apparently :-)), I agree that perhaps Margot needed to screen her love interests more thoroughly. Perhaps she needed to hire the detective firm of Prurience and Pry from SLEUTH! :-) Thanks for your praise and for joining the conversation, John, as always!

    If anybody here hasn't read John's DIAL M... blog post over at TWENTY-FOUR FRAMES, note that link again:

  7. Kristina (Kino, to those in the know :-)), thanks for your enthusiastic praise and for joining the DIAL M FOR MURDER conversation! Isn't it wonderful when you find yourself being truly "grabbed" by a great classic movie? Glad you enjoyed the bits with Grace Kelly's white-to-red wardrobe (not to mention the increasingly somber colors she wears as things start looking darker for her before Bob and John save the day). And hooray, another member of the Bob Cummings Appreciation Society! :-) Glad you enjoyed the post!

  8. Nate, you're too kind: "Once again, Team Bartilucci has proven itself to have one of the best and most entertaining blogs on the Internet!" Thanks so much, my friend; I'm glad you enjoy our TotED posts as much as we enjoy your posts and Blogathons!

    Admittedly, watching DIAL M... as an in-flight movie isn't the optimum way to watch any film, but it could have been worse: at least you weren't watching one of those AIRPORT movies or SNAKES ON A PLANE! :-) Thanks for joining the conversation!

  9. Team B!
    LOVED this tribute to the Dial up and scare me films. (Well they tried scaring me but we all know I've sat through The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and survived.)

    I saw A Perfect Murder before watching Dial M so the subtle comparisons were interesting to watch. I have to say though that it rates low on my Hitchcock favorites. I preferred Kelly in To Catch a Thief so I went into Dial M with a lot of hope. Your review was hysterical and left nothing out! I certainly enjoy Team B's sense of humor being insane myself.

    Now, Dial L I had never even heard of but I'll definitely keep an eye out for it.
    Another top notch post that I've featured on my sidebar so nobody misses it.

    Oh, I left you a comment under the Marnie post.

  10. Page, we of Team Bartilucci are tickled pink (not blood red like Grace Kelly's dress as she makes kissy-face with Robert Cummings!) that you got a kick out of our pixillated little salute to both DIAL M FOR MURDER and DIAL L FOR LATCH-KEY! Also, thanks a million for featuring that nice sidebar about DIAL M... on MY LOVE OF OLD HOLLYWOOD, as well as your comments on your MARNIE post from the Hitchcock Blogathon; you're a dear!

    I saw A PERFECT MURDER back in 1998 when it was out in theaters. I liked it well enough, although making Gwyneth Paltrow more proactive was both good and bad, in that she looked out for herself SO well that it kind up muted some of the suspense for me. Then again, I might feel differently if I watched it again after all these years.

    After I catch up with other writing deadlines, I look forward not only to your future blog posts, but also finding your other posts that I asked about over at ...OLD HOLLYWOOD. Thanks for your praise, Page, and keep that awesome pictorial zaniness coming!

  11. Dorian and Vinnie,
    I sent you an email with the other snarky photo review links to make it easier when you're ready to have a laugh and shake your head at my insanity.
    Oh, I just couldn't resist putting this post on the sidebar. It's a good one.

  12. Page, you have the most amazing timing! I got your e-mail with your links to several of your other delightful MY LOVE OF OLD HOLLYWOOD pictorials. I'm looking forward to spending the rest of the weekend reading and enjoying the heck out of them, and that goes for my better half Vinnie, too! Thanks a million!

    If there's anyone out there who, by some bizarre twist of fate, hasn't read nearly enough of Page's side-splitting pictorial blog posts, here are the links:

  13. And Page, you're a total sweetie to showcase the DIAL M FOR MURDER/DIAL L FOR LATCH-KEY post on the sidebar of MY LOVE OF OLD HOLLYWOOD! Many, many thanks to you for so kindly spreading the good word about DIAL M... and TotED!

  14. Your article was funny and so good -- I think my favorite part was Vinnie's remark about cocktails at the end. I love DMFM, but that always made me laugh. The dastardly husband asks for a drink and the intended victim says "Of course" and FIXES it for him. Here's a guy who is sorry she wasn't STRANGLED to death, and she's making him a drink. As an American woman, I would just hit him over the head with the bottle.

    DLFLK sounds like a hoot, and I'll have to find out more about that. Great post, guys!

  15. Dorian, I love this movie. And I'm with you, John Williams is The Man. In truth he's the only male in this film I'd want to know. He's always a stand out. Remember him as Sabrina's (Audrey Hepburn) chauffeur farther? Love him to pieces.

    And I love Ray Milland as the coldly diabolical 'killer' hoisted on his own petard.

    But honestly, can you blame him for wanting to rid himself of that simpering icicle of a wife? Is it possible to be a beautiful drudge? Kelly comes close.

    I'm sorry but I am not now nor have I ever been a member of the Grace Kelly fan club. I've only ever liked her in one film, REAR WINDOW. Other than that, you can have her. To me she was always a cold dud. A walking talking mannequin detached from what was going on in front of her perfect nose. It is possibly this quality that Hitchcock liked most and that's telling you lots about him as a man. I can see him genuflecting at the altar of Kelly. But let's now go there.

    But despite my diatribe against Kelly, I still love this film for its tricky plot and for John Williams and slightly less for Ray Milland.

    Bob Cummings, I have a hard time with. He starred in a show on tv many MANY years ago, a comedy about, I think, a photographer (can't remember) - anyway, I could never take him seriously as a straight actor. I always thought he had that goofy gene. Sort of like having Dick Van Dyke play the lover.

    The smooching between Cummings and Kelly was, I'm afraid, cringe-worthy.

    And still, having said all that, I love the film. Go figure.

    Love your review too, Dorian, needless to say.

    By the way, that parody sounds like a hoot. :)

  16. See, Becky, this is the difference between those posh Brits and us wild, untamed Americans; we're more likely to use a bottle of gin to smack would-be murderers upside the head than make a nice, sociable but hypocritical drink! On the other hand, maybe Margot mixed a slow-acting, untraceable poison into evil Tony's drink! :-) Speaking of drinks, the remark about cocktails at the end was actually my idea, but since Vinnie loved it, too, I'm calling it a Team Bartilucci joint! :-)

    The one-act play DIAL L FOR LATCH-KEY is now available in paperback from! If you can order a copy, you'll be glad you did! Thanks ever so much for your praise, Becks!

  17. Yvette, it's a free country, so if you're not into Grace Kelly, that's your right as an American, this being a free country and all! :-) But I'm glad you liked DIAL M FOR MURDER and my review of same overall despite your quibbles, and that we both agree that John Williams, Actor (as opposed to John Williams, Composer, who's talented in his own field) is indeed The Man!

    Robert Cummings had at least two TV shows that I know of: THE BOB CUMMINGS SHOW and MY LIVING DOLL, the latter being much loved by robot and mannequin fans (seriously!). I've always liked Cummings best as a light comedian, myself, but I thought he did a good job in DIAL M..., even if I'm in the minority. :-) Glad you agree that Kelly was terrific in REAR WINDOW, though! Thanks for joining the conversation, Yvette; you always keep things fun and frisky!

  18. Dorian, I consider DIAL M to be second-tier Hitchcock, but that doesn't mean I don't enjoy it. The challenge for me is that Tony is so much more interesting than Mark. Really, I can't figure out what Margot sees in that guy! As a result, I find myself rooting for the bad guy...which actually makes DIAL M interesting. I think Hitch was always more intrigued with the baddies than the good guys. MY LIVING DOLL...that was Julie Newmar...sigh.

  19. Rick, much as I enjoy DIAL M... as is, you make a good point about how Alfred Hitchcock's villains are often more likable than the heroes; Ray Milland's character certainly fits the criteria. Case in point: in NOTORIOUS, Nazi Claude Rains is way more charming, tender, and affectionate to Ingrid Bergman, while "fat-headed guy" hero Cary Grant's feelings for her are, shall we say, more complicated. Well, nobody ever accused Hitchcock of making things easy for his characters or us movie fans! :-)

  20. Another wonderful review and I might sneak away and try to watch "To Catch A Thief" tonight. Following Hitchcock would be like trying to sing the National Anthem at the Super Bowl, but it sounds like Fivelson is doing a great job!

  21. Desert Rocks, thanks so much for your upbeat comments about my DIAL... double-feature! You're absolutely right that "Following Hitchcock would be like trying to sing the National Anthem at the Super Bowl, but it sounds like Fivelson is doing a great job!" I hope you had a chance to watch DIAL M FOR MURDER as well as TO CATCH A THIEF on TCM last night. If not, at least both films are available on DVD. :-) Thanks for joining the conversation!