Though not To Catch a Thief, Rear Window, Vertigo, or North by Northwest, this trio of perhaps quieter, subtle Alfred Hitchcock fifties films remains top tier suspense.
Dial M for Murder
Stereotypical bliss gives way to scandalous red dresses, blackmail, and stolen love letters in this 1954 treatise. The pip pip cheerio exposition is laden and meticulous, but the eponymous request drops so casually during devious, who’s pulling the wool two-handers. Elaborately orchestrated, fatally timed phone calls tell viewers the who, when, where, and why. Unfortunately, the victim isn’t where she’s supposed to be – leading to suspenseful slip ups, roughness over the desk, risque strangulation, and penetrating scissors. Seemingly doting but obsessive husband Ray Milland (The Lost Weekend) lets another man enter the home and do to sophisticated but adulterous wife Grace Kelly (The Country Girl) what he cannot in a disturbing, intimate attack brimming with sexual, cuckold, and homoerotic subtext. Jolly good men pour drinks and ponder detective novel meta what ifs, trying to outwit the police with fake knee injuries, planted evidence, tea, and debonair tall tales. Our Mrs. is numb, overwhelmed at remembering his horrible eyes as suspicious stockings escalate to lawyers and nightmarish trials. Keys and staircases play their usual Hitchcockian part amid rotary phones, fedoras, and cigarettes. The original then vogue 3-D design is also evident with exaggerated foreground objects. However, the filming through doorways is more about the Hitchcock voyeurism, and panning cameras, overhead angles, and killer point of view invoke giallo mood. Exceptional lighting schemes spotlight the claustrophobic two room action, and frenetic notes match the hoodwinking performances and reverse whodunit.
Strangers on a Train
Robert Walker (Since You Went Away) plots to switch murders with Farley Granger (Rope) in this duplicitous 1951 Patricia Highsmith adaptation. Swanky shoes, railroad tracks, double scotch, and tennis metaphors lead to pairs, bigamy, and divorce as our men sit side by side and tell their infidelities – or who they hate enough to kill. The flirtatious banter gets right to the premise, for there’s no motive if a stranger kills your pregnant by another man, two-timing wife. Filming through windows or fences, private conversations in glass listening booths, repeated criss cross double cross phrases, parallel scene transitions, and hushed phone calls layer the read between the lines of Walker’s flashy sociopath. Hot dog cravings, suggestive ice cream licks, and two boats in the tunnel of love escalate to dual shadows, double meaning dialogue, silent violence, and reflections of the crime in broken glasses. The killer expects his fellow passenger to reciprocate, and camera angles above or below accent the light versus dark reversals. Split screen framing and visual positioning imply homosexual dominance or submission amid black and white contrasts, lookalikes, and mistaken identity. The lengthy tennis game, however, is dry, uneven and intercut with ominous travel and lost lighters. A lack of proper procedures is hair pulling to modern viewers, and our strangers sure harass each other a lot before a preposterous high speed carousel finale with happy winks and no consequences. Fortunately, the duality, technique, and subtext here combine for fascinating repeat study.
The Wrong Man
Real life accusations of a crime he didn’t commit are ripped from the headlines in this 1956 thriller starring the slightly miscast Henry Fonda (Grapes of Wrath). The initial wholesome is dated with kitchen domestics and twee kids, but wife Vera Miles (Psycho) needs dental work and it’s the $300 cost that hurts. They borrow against their insurance policy and make payments but there’s always something assuring you never get ahead. Ninny old ladies mistake our innocent as the man who held them up – melodramatic profiling matching today’s bigotry as harsh detectives claim he “fits the description.” The interrogating police are more like heavies insinuating gambling debts and using his generic first name “Chris” rather than his preferred, more ethnic “Manny” as he’s paraded to the crime scenes for victims to identify in a polluted investigation of contaminated line ups and circumstantial penmanship. The textbook framework is unnecessary, laden like the legalese when the factual locations, fingerprinting, and fleeting glances of the family in the courtroom capture the unease. Spotlights, cell shadows, pacing, and the dizzying camera invoke the night in jail delirium. Viewers feel the xenophobic persecution thanks to paddy wagons, auctioneer-esque arraignments, and a hefty $7500 bail. It’s on the accused to confirm his vacation and injury on the hold up dates as fractured mirrors and pointing fingers ruin the saccharin family life. Though frustratingly realistic, the drawn out scope between procedure and personal is uneven. The hyperbolic prosecutor and smug witnesses grow bored amid courtroom yawns and mistrials while the defendant prays. Fonda anchors the harrowing experience as they chew him up and spit him out, and the bitter, unsettling resolution remains disturbing.