Friday, July 1, 2011

Dial "M" for Murder

Since this week focuses on plot, I thought I’d further illustrate good plot with an old classic film from Alfred Hitchcock. This one’s based on a play, and it’s obvious because there’s not a whole lot of scene changing going on in it—which better illustrates one of my assertions about good plot; that the writer doesn’t have to go all Hollywood 3D on his readers in order to tell a cracking good story.

Ray Milland plays Tony Wendice, the villainous cuckolded husband, a former tennis pro. He runs into an old college chum, Lesgate, and manipulates him into going along with a carefully constructed “perfect crime”. Wendice wants to off his own wife, Margot Mary, played by none other than the legendary Grace Kelly. The plan involves a late night phone call and a roll of the dice on our oh-so-human propensity to live our lives by a set routine. I don’t want to spoil things if you haven’t seen it, but suffice it to say that there’s plenty of twists and turns as the perfect crime comes unraveled and improvisation comes into play.

I love the way the villain, Wendice, is written—and acted. He’s a cool customer, a man probably descended from aristocracy (though he’s far from an aristocrat in the story—he’s rather motivated by money). He never loses his cool, he always has a plan, and he’s not accustomed to being refused by anyone.

The sub-villain, Lesgate, is also perfectly presented to us. He’s the ultimate compliment to Wendice, very much his opposite and therefore indispensible to the plot. He comes off slightly dirty and common, and it’s his eagerness for easy gain that makes him what he is. His character is the wild card on which the plot turns, in fact.

And of course Grace Kelly is golden age Hollywood glamour; the soft counterpoint both visually and structurally that helps carry us through the story. She shames the starlets of today, all of them too quick to disrobe, too stupid to understand proper nuance, proper femininity...and portray it with dignity.

That brings me to my Andy Rooney-esque point. They just don’t make movies like this anymore. Well, maybe they do, but they’re rare. I see an alarming overreliance on 3D and digital effects nowadays in our popular films. What’s worse is that most of the writing that forms the construct of their storylines is vapid, limp, disgusting warm air. I hope and pray that it’s not because we are considered by filmmakers too stupid to appreciate a properly stimulating and complex storyline. It's almost like Hollywood writers are making their movies for the kind of people who star in them these days. In others words, morons. But Dial “M” for Murder delivers good plot in spades. It’s just another example of why I love old movies. And why you won't  find me at the theater very often.