it’s very difficult to believe



Film My copy of Alfred Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder begins with a BBC announcer suggesting that fans of Columbo will be in for a treat. She’s not wrong; just as Forbidden Planet begat Star Trek, it’s very difficult to believe that the producers of Columbo hadn’t seen this before knocking out their first scripts, so structurally similar are the two. Like Columbo, the film opens with the arrogant murderer carrying out his plot (and in this case explaining it) and we then spend most of the rest of the picture watching the detective bring himself up to speed. He even has a moment were he dips back in and says “Just one more thing…” before indicating the vital clue that blows the whole mystery wide open which had been on-screen already, but we’d simply missed in our fear for Grace Kelly’s safety.

Aaah, Grace Kelly. I think she’s my favourite of Hitch’s famous blondes. He apparently liked her repressed British sexuality, and its true that there’s a china doll aspect to her which is probably why the moment in which she’s attacked in Dial M is so potent – she looks like she could break. But Rear Window and To Catch A Thief both demonstrate her comic ability; neither Kim Novak or Tippi Hedron could sustain the screwball elements of both films which is all the funnier because we can’t believe someone with that face and figure could offer us the kind of Zooey Deschanel like eye-boggles her character gives in Rear Window when Jimmy Stewart’s character is talking crazy and later when she’s heading across to the apparent murderer’s apartment. Similarly, earlier in the later film, Hitch actually attempted to pitch his shots in such a way as to deglamourise her because our attention has to be with Cary Grant. It didn’t really work.

When I was at college, Rear Window was used to demonstrate the difference between diagetic and non-diagetic sound. The whole film was lensed on an elaborate set, and looks like it (perhaps inspiring the ediface Caden Cotard’s theatre director creates in Synechdoche, New York) though for much of the film we can suspend our disbelief because the director fills the soundtrack with noise seeping in from the rest of the city – that’s non-diagetic sound – the sound which has been added in and isn’t being created on screen. Diagetic sound is the click of Stewart’s flash, the bark of the dog, the piano music, anything which is apparently happening within the viewable space. Between the two, despite the artifice, you believe that Jimmy’s apartment, though we only leave once (when we see the death of the dog from the neighbour’s perspective), exists within a much larger space, that the potential murderer and companion are going somewhere other than craft services.

The opening of To Catch A Thief is a demonstration of Hitchcock’s restraint. He’s showing that all of the rich ladies in the local area are having their jewellery pinched by a cat burgler, but he doesn’t want give away the characteristics of the fiend yet – and we don’t discover their identity until the very end of the film. So he reduces each burglary to six or seven shots. An establishing shot of the home; a shot of a black cat heading in its direction, a shot of whatever’s being stolen, shot of the cat leaving, shot of the scream of the victim, shot of the space where the jewellery used to be. Repeat three times and we already know more about the scenario than most modern films what resort to elaborate action sequences, voiceovers or scrolling text. With the possible exception of the rooftop climax, all of To Catch A Thief is as restrained, the minimum number of shot choices for maximum effect; when the director later describes it as a fancy, something he dashed off between more interesting projects, he’s being modest; the same care and attention is at play here as in his more respected projects.

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