Blog Directory CineVerse

Speaking up about a silent masterwork

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

In Cineversary podcast episode #31, host Erik Martin wishes a happy 90th birthday to Charles Chaplin's City Lights with film historian Jeffrey Vance, author of the book Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema and film archivist for the Chaplin family's Roy Export Company. 
Jeffrey and Erik will explore why this movie is worth celebrating all these years later, its cultural impact and legacy, what we can learn from the movie today, how it has stood the test of time, and more. 
Jeffrey Vance

To listen to this episode, click here or click the "play" button on the embedded streaming player below. Or, you can stream, download or subscribe to the Cineversary podcast using Apple PodcastsStitcher, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Breaker, Castbox, Pocket Casts, PodBean, RadioPublic, and Overcast.

Learn more about the Cineversary podcast at tinyurl.com/cineversarypodcast and email show comments or suggestions to cineversegroup@gmail.com.

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A good film born under a bad sign

Monday, January 11, 2021


Perhaps the finest film about serial killers and related police procedurals/investigations made since The Silence of the Lambs, David Fincher’s Zodiac serves as an enthralling exercise – one that stays true to the facts, historical records, and period details while also expertly telling a story cinematically, showcasing a skill and craftsmanship that lesser filmmakers cannot emulate. Our CineVerse group pulled out the files and pored over the clues to learn what makes this movie tick. Here’s our take (to listen to a recording of our group discussion of Zodiac, click here):


What did you find different, unexpected, surprising, or fulfilling about Zodiac, especially compared to other serial killer films and police procedurals?

  • It’s less concerned with asking and answering the question “who was the Zodiac killer” than it is with addressing how these crimes happened, why they happened, and the people that were affected by them. You could come to the conclusion of the film and be frustrated by a lack of true resolution, as the killer is never verifiably identified or brought to justice, and, like gray Smith, we are left in doubt. But the movie can still thoroughly satisfy as an exercise in the process of trying to complete a puzzle and admiring how the pieces fit together, despite several pieces missing.
  • Zodiac sidesteps hyperbole and stylistic exaggeration. The director doesn’t indulge in shootouts, chase scenes, explosions, or overly gori-fied violence. While the murders are depicted with bone-chilling realistic accuracy, they aren’t amplified for dramatic effect as they would be in a horror film. In fact, most of the serial killer violence occurs in the first half of the film, leaving us to focus more intently on the aftermath of each crime and the police and newspaper investigations. When analyzed in retrospect, not much actually happens in Zodiac other than people talking, asking a lot of questions, making phone calls, and taking notes.
    • Instead of over-inflating things, Fincher and crew try to stay accurate to the facts of what we know, focusing on extremely fine details (reproducing, with admirable authenticity, for example, the look, fashion, and culture of the San Francisco Chronicle newsroom), consulting with anyone alive who had been affiliated with the case, and engaging in many retakes to get the perfect shot.
  • As Roger Ebert posited, the movie follows the template of a classic newspaper film, such as All The President’s Men, and we accompany the investigators closely as they follow up on every clue, lead, and dead-end. We also see the inner workings of a busy metropolitan newspaper and how the editorial team makes decisions regarding how to treat and publish the Zodiac news and letters.
  • The characters as depicted are inherently human, limited, and flawed. Consider Graysmith, who takes on this case as a personal cause at the expense of his own family and appears to be naïve and tunnel vision about the possible consequences on his safety and mental health. Think about Avery, as well, who had to endure years of investigating the Zodiac killer only to come to a fruitless and in which he’s removed from the case, which seems to come as a relief.
  • The entire undertaking is quite impressive, considering that so much is left unresolved about the true Zodiac killings. Fincher and company decided to tackle this story, despite not knowing for sure how many total murders the serial killer was responsible for or who the serial killer truly was. Additionally, the filmmakers wanted to be sensitive to the survivors of these crimes and honorable to the memory of those murdered, without exaggerating or exploiting matters. That’s not an easy line to walk in a film genre where audiences demand gripping suspense, eye-opening violence, and resolution by the dénouement.

This film is segmented into three primary acts. Can you identify each act in the style/approach imbued within each?

  1. The first act concerns the serial killer’s impact on the media, as represented through our introduction to Gray Smith and Avery. As Village Voice critic Nathan Lee wrote: “Part one climaxes with the rupturing of the media’s sense of its own inviolability. The zodiac sends a letter, and a swatch of blood-soaked fabric, directly to Avery.” In this first part, the filmmakers employ the color yellow – a lighter hue that exemplifies the naïveté we in the public have with the Zodiac and representing a faded time in history.
  2. The second part becomes more of a police procedural in which the authorities thoroughly investigate the crimes, clues, and suspects. The message of the second part is “the limits of law enforcement, the lunge and parry of a police procedural destined to go unresolved,” wrote Lee. Debatably, the primary color at work in part two is light brown or beige, mundane colors that signify the hard, meticulous, and frustrating work that investigators have to do.
  3. Part three underscores the personal journey and obsession of Graysmith, who is driven maniacally to uncover the truth and pore through endless bits of information. “It is only here, nearly two hours into the tale, that a recognizable human story enters the picture. Delaying that contact is one of Zodiac’s shrewdest maneuvers; by the time we’re dropped into Graysmith’s drama, we’re almost as overloaded with information as he is,” adds Lee. Blue is arguably the color that dominates this third section, perhaps symbolizing the true blue nature of Graysmith’s cause and passion.

Films that Zodiac reminds us of

  • M
  • Dirty Harry
  • All the President’s Men
  • JFK
  • Silence of the Lambs
  • Copycat
  • Spotlight

Other films directed by David Fincher

  • Seven
  • The Game
  • Fight Club
  • Panic Room
  • The Social Network
  • Gone Girl 
  • Mank

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Meet the father of Scrooge

Friday, January 1, 2021

Who really invented Christmas? While the obvious answer is Christ and his followers, our contemporary and secular vision of the holiday was certainly influenced by numerous individuals and forces, not the least of whom was Charles Dickens, author of A Christmas Carol and conjurer of one of the most unforgettable characters in English literature: Ebenezer Scrooge. Our CineVerse group unwrapped a fresh gift of a film last week, The Man Who Invented Christmas, which explores the author’s life and the factors that inspired the creation of this classic Yuletide tale. Here’s a recap of our discussion (to listen to a recording of that group conversation, click here):


What did you find unusual, unforeseen, striking, or significant about this film?

  • It turned Charles Dickens the man into a fascinating figure. This Dickens is relatable to modern audiences in how he is challenged and stressed on multiple fronts, despite his literary talents. Dickens struggles with financial issues, family conflicts, and work-related pressures, as many of us do.
  • It provides an intimate depiction of what’s involved in the writing process – how characters can inhabit the writer’s mind, how authors struggle with writer's block, and the degree to which new and familiar faces can inspire the path of creativity. The filmmakers take an otherwise mundane and straightforward narrative and infuse it with color, humor, and vibrancy by envisioning a dialogue between Dickens and the fictional characters he’s giving life to.
  • As with many biopics and films based on “the true story behind the story,” this picture plays loose and fast with the facts. The movie is a somewhat liberal adaptation of the author’s true life and the circumstances and people that may have truly inspired him to write A Christmas Carol.
    • Actor Dan Stevens said in an interview: “Frankly, whether it’s historically accurate I’m not that concerned about. I was interested in that moment of the creative process, watching a great man struggle – to me, that's dramatically and comedically interesting. Certainly, I was keen not to play Dickens as a bearded old sage.”
  • The title seems deceptive and leaves unresolved questions by the end of the film. If Dickens truly is the man who invented our modern version of Christmas, which is highly debatable, how exactly and to what degree did he and his story influence the way we celebrate Christmas? He certainly wasn’t most or solely responsible for shaping our contemporary vision of the holiday: Clement Clarke Moore wrote ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas earlier, in 1823; Prince Albert is credited with bringing German Christmas trees and evergreens to England after wedding Queen Victoria in 1840; and big corporations have played a major part in the commercialization and iconography of Christmas (Coca-Cola’s depiction of Santa Claus in the 1930s was a major influence on the way we picture Santa today).

Themes crafted into The Man Who Invented Christmas

  • Write/create what you know. This version of Dickens is inspired by everyday people around him who serve as precursors or models for the characters in his story. We also see how Dickens is a generous, kind, and attentive figure but can quickly change, acting cruelly, selfishly, and with little regard for those close to him.
  • Ghosts of the past can either haunt us or inspire us to rise above – it’s up to us to choose. We see how Dickens as a child was forced to labor in a workhouse after his father was taken away from him and imprisoned. Dickens is besieged by these visions in his nightmares, but he also summons inner strength from these recollections, which he uses to reconcile with his father and, presumably, with his past.
  • Every person is capable of redemption. Dickens demonstrates this by writing the character of Scrooge, who ultimately chooses to make amends by the end of his story. The same is true of Dickens himself, who, despite his many flaws and negative character traits, is a better man by the end of this story, having patched up matters with his father and his wife, rehired the dismissed housekeeper, and impressed those around him who previously doubted his abilities.

Other movies that come to mind after watching this one

  • The Wizard of Oz
  • Professor Marston and the Wonder Women
  • Mary Shelley
  • Goodbye Christopher Robin
  • Saving Mr. Banks
  • Rebel in the Rye
  • Tolkien
  • Finding Neverland

Other films directed by Bharat Nailuri

  • Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day
  • Spooks: The Greater Good
  • Killing Time

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Dancing delicately between two relationships

Sunday, December 20, 2020


Michelle Williams has demonstrated that she can command the screen with sheer acting chops. These talents were on full display in Take This Waltz, an offbeat exploration of the classic love triangle film that not only manages to surprise viewers by its conclusion but also showcases Seth Rogen in a more serious role that deviates from the stoner shlub/slob characters he’s been typecast in. Our CineVerse group examine this 2011 romcom/dramedy with fresh eyes and made the following observations (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here): 

In what ways is Take This Waltz refreshing, unexpected, or memorable?

  • This story doesn’t rely on the stereotypical characters and situations you’d expect in a love triangle movie. Lou, the husband, isn’t a brute or oaf; Margo is not a sultry nymphomaniac, gold digger, or homewrecker; and Daniel is incredibly patient and respectful of Margo’s hesitancy.
    • In fact, Margot and Lou share a lot of humor in their relationship and know how to comfort one another. Likewise, Margot seems happy and accepted by her in-laws. Collectively, this would seemingly contribute little in the form of conflict within the story.
  • The filmmakers are also quite nonchalant and forthright about showing the female body in a non-sexual way.
    • Austin Chronicle reviewer Kimberley Jones wrote: “There is also a casualness about bodies – I call it European, but this is a Canadian film through and through – that explores without didacticism the range of human physicality, from the functional ho-hum of showering and evacuating waste to the exhilarating extremes of sexual pleasure, and chronicles without comment how the human form ages and changes.”
  • It’s possible that, near the end of the film when we see the montage of Margo being physically intimate with Daniel (and a few others) and assumedly experiencing life to the fullest, this is a fantasy or exaggerated sequence exposing Margo as an unreliable narrator. Consider that we soon see her leaning next to the oven door in virtually the same pose and state of melancholy that she displayed at the beginning of the movie – in a kitchen that looks remarkably similar to the one she shared with Lou.
    • Ask yourself: what is the likelihood that her new kitchen with Daniel is a carbon copy of the one in her previous home with Lou? And isn’t that second kitchen a bit of a downgrade for the trendy, upscale type of home (with its giant, open floor plan) that Daniel and Margo share? This suggests that either we can’t trust the second kitchen scene or we can’t trust the intimacy montage before it – or both.
  • There are some small world implausibilities here. First, what are the odds that Daniel would end up living right across the street from Margo? Second, how believable is it that they seem to run into each other everywhere? Third, considering how often Margo and Daniel intersect, wouldn’t Lou have seen them together a few times earlier or later?

Themes at play and Take This Waltz

  • Newness and novelty eventually wear off, and all honeymoons end sooner or later. The secret to keeping things fresh is to be open, honest, and realistic in your expectations.
  • Life and relationships are not perfect. As sister-in-law Geraldine says: “Life has a gap in it… It just does. You don’t go crazy trying to fill it in like some lunatic.”
  • Beauty is only skin deep. We see many interesting, intelligent, and likable women throughout this film, including many in unflattering full nakedness during the shower scene. We also witness a consistently makeup-free Margo (and Michelle Williams playing her) who the filmmakers aren’t afraid to show in less than glamorous moments, such as wearing the same shirt to bed every night, using the toilet, and undressing to enter the shower in a very non-titillating way. The implication here is clear: Female characters in movies don’t have to be physically attractive, erotic, or feminine to a clichéd degree to be worthy of our attention and admiration.

Movies that Take This Waltz bring to mind

  • Brief Encounter
  • Blue Valentine
  • Hope Springs
  • The Story of Us
  • To the Wonder
  • Celeste & Jesse Forever

Other films directed by Sarah Polley

  • Away From Her
  • Stories We Tell

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Buzz and Woody strike silver

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

In Cineversary podcast episode # 30, host Erik Martin and animation professor, historian, author, and ex-Disney animator Tom Sito travel to infinity and beyond in their admiration of “Toy Story,” which turns 25 this year. Erik and Tom examine why this film is worth celebrating all these years later, its cultural impact and legacy, what we can learn from the movie today, how it has stood the test of time, and more. 
Tom Sito

To listen to this episode, click here or click the "play" button on the embedded streaming player below. Or, you can stream, download or subscribe to the Cineversary podcast using Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Breaker, Castbox, Pocket Casts, PodBean, RadioPublic, and Overcast.

Learn more about the Cineversary podcast at tinyurl.com/cineversarypodcast and email show comments or suggestions to cineversegroup@gmail.com.

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Three acts, one unforgettable character

Sunday, December 13, 2020

One of the finest films to authentically capture the modern Black experience in America is Moonlight, the 2016 breakout picture written and directed by Barry Jenkins that surprised audiences with its honesty and depth of emotion. Our CineVerse club stepped into Moonlight mode this past week and engaged in an intensive discourse on the merits and majesty of this movie (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here).

What did you find impressive, surprising, offbeat, or memorable about Moonlight?

  • This was the first movie to win the Academy Award for Best Picture that had an all-black cast.
  • It’s brilliantly segmented into three parts, each given roughly equal length and importance, that depict the growth and maturation of an African-American male.
  • Instead of using a hip-hop or urban-flavored soundtrack, the film employs an orchestral score, although one that plays upon hip-hop and R&B motifs.
  • The timing of the release and embrace of this film is appropriate, considering how many in our culture are increasingly supportive of black lives and LGBTQ rights.

Themes examined in Moonlight

  • The struggle for identity, particularly black male identity in a world in which African-American males are often taught to act tough and masculine, suppress tenderness and emotions, and avoid looking or acting effeminate.
  • Exploring the black experience and the perceived powerlessness felt by many black males.
  • Coming-of-age and transitioning into adulthood
  • Water, and its power to cleanse, heal, comfort, awe, baptize, embolden, and inspire.
    • We see Chiron interact with water in several key scenes, including when he is taught to float and swim by Juan, when he immerses his face in ice water, when he takes a shallow bath, and when he explores his sexuality with Kevin on the moonlit beach.
    • In one scene, Chiron talks about crying so often that he feels as if he could simply transform into liquid and roll into the ocean.
    • Fittingly, the last shot of the film shows Little looking out upon the ocean, as if to suggest that he has come to embrace his destiny.
  • The dangers of toxic masculinity and a culture that rewards violence and aggression and punishes weakness and subservience.
  • Appearances and names can be deceiving. The film is interestingly titled “Moonlight” for reason: The title reminds us of the story that Juan relates to Chiron about how a stranger once told him: “In moonlight, black boys look blue.”
    • We hear Juan say that he abandoned the nickname “Blue” so that he could forge a new identity.
    • Likewise, in the third act, Chiron has adopted the nickname “Black” as well as a drug dealer lifestyle and the affectations (e.g., wearing gold teeth caps) that come with it.
    • When he reunites with an adult Kevin, Kevin sees through this façade and says this isn’t who Chiron truly is. By the end of the movie, we have hope that Chiron will embrace his true nature, stop hiding from his identity as a gay black man, and accept the love and affection he deserves.

Moonlight makes us think of other films, including:

  • Boyhood
  • Call Me By Your Name
  • Blue Is The Warmest Colour
  • The Florida Project
  • Blackbird
  • Fresh
  • Killer of Sheep
  • The 400 Blows, which also features a stunning final shot of a boy staring at the ocean.

Other movies directed by Barry Jenkins

  • Medicine for Melancholy
  • If Beale Street Could Talk

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Listening closely to what The Conversation has to say

Sunday, December 6, 2020


Here’s an amazing thought: Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation is arguably his weakest directorial outing of the 1970s – after all, he also made The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, and Apocalypse Now in that amazing decade – and it’s still a masterpiece. For proof, consider the points our CineVerse group espoused during last week’s discussion of this movie (which you can hear a recording of by clicking here):

Even though it was not a box-office hit, how was this film indicative of the period of its theatrical release and reflective of the mood of the country and events affecting it?

  • Americans were growing more suspicious of authority and distrustful of government in the wake of Watergate (in fact, the Watergate cover-up was exposed just before this film’s release), the Vietnam War, the Warren Commission findings, and the assassinations of major leaders.
  • There was a pervading, brooding sense of paranoia and cynicism in the culture, and conspiracy theories were becoming more popular to explain political mysteries.
  • Many Americans felt helpless to affect change and ignorant of what might really be going on.
  • This is one of several dark, brooding, pessimistic thrillers that examined themes of paranoia, corruption, and disillusionment in the 1970s; other examples include:
    • Executive Action (1973)
    • Day of the Dolphin (1973)
    • The Parallax View (1974)
    • Chinatown (1974)
    • Three Days of the Condor (1975)
    • All the President’s Men (1976)
    • Capricorn One (1977)
    • Winter Kills (1979)

What’s unique about this picture as a suspense film/political thriller?

  • It relies on very little action: most of the plot involves watching Harry eavesdrop on people.
  • Other thrillers typically include chases, explosions, sex, violence, etcetera, to keep your attention.
  • The villains in this story (some anonymous corporation) remain primarily out of sight; the bad guys prove to be enigmatic, elusive, and difficult to pinpoint.
    • Essayist Megan Ratner wrote: “An often neglected aspect in discussions of America in the 1970s is the shift in corporate identity. No longer were businesses merely commercial entities – they began to be individualized. Brands and the corporations behind them started to take on aspects of personality, the marketing ever more sophisticated. Sharing a Coke and wearing Levi’s jeans became more than just soda and dungarees: it was a way of life, a corporate dogma. And the corporation as grand manipulator is at the very center of The Conversation.”
  • In keeping with its voyeuristic themes, many of the shots are composed and staged from a voyeuristic point of view.
  • It has the DNA of a horror film, with its taut suspense, amorphous villain, and grisly murder elements.

What is curious, different, and unique about Harry Caul as a movie protagonist?

  • He’s actually not very good at his craft. As Roger Ebert put it: “Here is a man who is paid to eavesdrop on a conversation in a public place. He succeeds, but then allows the tapes to be stolen. His triple-locked apartment is so insecure that the landlord is able to enter it and leave a birthday present. His mail is opened and read. He thinks his phone is unlisted, but both the landlord and a client have it. At a trade show, he allows his chief competitor to fool him with a mike hidden in a freebie ballpoint. His mistress tells him: ‘Once I saw you up by the staircase, hiding and watching for a whole hour.’” Additionally, his actions may have resulted in the deaths of a mother and child. And throw in the fact that he’s a hunter who has become the hunted; a surveillance man who is now being watched and bugged himself.
  • He’s a bland, quiet, lonely, anonymous man who has very little to distinguish him as distinctive, other than his saxophone and jazz records.
  • He’s fixated on maintaining his privacy, yet ironically works as a wiretapper invading other people’s privacy.
  • He’s fittingly named: “Caul” means the membrane that enwraps a fetus, and also mean’s a spider’s web.
    • We see “Caul”-like images of various sheets, opaque surfaces, and membranes throughout the film: Consider Harry’s see-thru raincoat, the plastic curtain inside his office, the telephone booth he stands inside, the glass partition separating the hotel balconies, and the shower curtain.

What themes are espoused in The Conversation?

  • Privacy, and the limits to which we can enjoy and assume it. Coppola was quoted as saying: “I wanted to make a film about privacy using the motif of eavesdropping and wiretapping, and centering on the personal and psychological life of the eavesdropper rather than his victims. It was to be a modern horror film, with a construction based on repetition rather than exposition, like a piece of music. And it would expose a tacky, subterranean world of wiretappers: their vanities and ethics."
  • Guilt, and the extent to which we are personally responsible for the well-being of others through our actions, even if we don’t intend them harm.
  • The dangers of relying too much on technology. This story has been called an “Orwellian morality play” in which technology is employed against the person using it.

Other films that you may think of after watching The Conversation

  • Enemy of the State, which also features Gene Hackman
  • Antonioni’s Blow-Up, which has a similar plot that focuses on photography instead of sound recording
  • Brian De Palma’s Blow Out, which also spotlights a sound recordist protagonist involved in a murder conspiracy
  • Hitchcock’s Psycho, which also depicts the murder of a woman in a hotel and the flushing of a toilet as a small plot point
  • Chinatown, released the same year and featuring a similar backstory in which the main character is haunted by the consequences of his actions that occurred years ago in another locale.
  • Serpico, which delved into similar themes of corruption
  • The Lives of Others

Other films directed by Francis Ford Coppola

  • The Godfather trilogy
  • Apocalypse Now
  • The Outsiders and Rumble Fish
  • The Cotton Club
  • Peggy Sue Got Married
  • Bram Stoker’s Dracula
  • The Rainmaker

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Painting on a celluloid canvas

Sunday, November 29, 2020


Innovative animation doesn’t start and end with Disney/Pixar. There are many filmmakers who have advanced the art of animation over the decades, with the last 10 years being no exception. For instance, Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Weichman collaborated to direct a visually stunning work that celebrates the life – and probes the death – of genius artist Vincent van Gogh in their 2017 experimental cinematic treatise Loving Vincent. Our CineVerse group studied this work with the enthralled curiosity of an art collector hunting for hidden masterpieces and came away with these conclusions (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here):


What struck you as interesting, surprising, novel, or puzzling about this movie?

  • It looks like a living, kinetic work of art, and for good reason: It’s the first completely painted animated feature-length movie, containing over 65,000 frames, each an oil painting on canvas and made employing many of the same techniques that van Gogh used. A total of 125 painters from 20 different countries collaborated on this project, which took more than six years to complete.
  • The artists followed two different styles: a rotoscoping approach in which the actors were filmed and the animation copied their actions – as represented in the black-and-white flashback scenes; and an homage approach that mimics van Gogh’s style, in which his original paintings help inspire a shot or scene.
  • Interestingly, the movie’s characters were all painted by the artist, as demonstrated in the end credits scene that compares the film’s version of the character to the van Gogh original.
  • It’s easy to marvel at the meticulous craftsmanship on display here, although there is a risk that those with less patience or interest in the subject matter may find this animated approach to either be distracting or gimmicky.
  • The performances shine through, despite being rendered by artists. Consider that it would be easy for the actor’s performance to get lost in all that animation. Arguably, the film is helped by the casting, which includes familiar actors like Saoirse Ronan and Chris O’Dowd.
  • While the narrative is propelled by a mystery – what led to Vincent’s death and who is responsible – solving this riddle proves to be less important than discovering the man and the people who knew him.

Themes at play in Loving Vincent

  • The best way to understand an artist is through his or her art.
  • The impossibility of truly knowing someone else. We hear different accounts and opinions of Vincent from the people whose lives he crossed, with some who liked and admired him and others who thought he was wicked or worth ridiculing.
  • The mysteries of the heart: If Vincent was shot and didn’t try to commit suicide, it’s interesting that he would apparently not blame anyone and resign himself to this fate as the best outcome possible under the circumstances.
  • The allure of the quest for knowledge. Roulin is increasingly intrigued by the mysteries behind van Gogh’s death as well as his passions, interests, and motivations. The harder and deeper he looks, the more absorbed and obsessed he becomes.
  • Legacy, and what we leave behind after we die.

Other films we think of after watching Loving Vincent

  • A Scanner Darkly and Waking Life, two innovative animated films by Richard Linklater
  • Citizen Kane, which shares the same narrative structure in which an investigator tries to learn more about a deceased person by interviewing those who knew him
  • Lost For Life, Vincent and Theo, and At Eternity’s Gate – three different van Gogh biopics
  • Frida, based on the life of artist Frida Kahlo
  • Amadeus and Immortal Beloved

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Far from phoning it in

Monday, November 23, 2020


It may not be a major Hitchcock work, but Dial M for Murder is a thoroughly fulfilling suspense thriller to most watchers – even those less accustomed to Sir Alfred's penchant for pulse-pounding excitement and intrigue. A fresh watch reveals a precision clockwork-like script that impressively revolves around a minimum of characters and a flair for chromatic stylization. After a healthy discourse on this feature last week, our CineVerse group came to these observations (to hear a recording of that conversation, click here):

How is this film different from or similar to other Hitchcock movies you’ve seen?

  • Like Rope, it’s a film version of a popular stage play that primarily features one interior set, creating a claustrophobic environment for the audience.
  • This was the first film featuring one of Hitchcock’s favorite icy blondes – Grace Kelly, who also appeared in Rear Window and To Catch A Thief.
  • Dial M for Murder represents the one and only time the director attempted a 3D movie. This was an interesting choice or a three-dimensional film, considering how there are so few settings and characters and little opportunity for action, which would seem to limit the effect.
  • This story is not a mystery or whodunit but a supreme study in suspense, in which the audience is given more information than many of the characters and sequences are drawn out and extended for maximum tension. Hitchcock always preferred suspense to shock or mystery.
  • Lead actor Ray Milland exemplifies the clever and amoral Hitchcock villain who exudes debonair sophistication and superior intelligence. Interestingly, he is the lead despite being the antagonist.
  • As with Norman Bates in Psycho, Hitchcock brilliantly manipulates us emotionally by making us identify and empathize with both Tony and his killer-for-hire Swann when their carefully laid plans go awry and disaster looms. It’s easy to put yourself in Tony’s shoes when he realizes that his watch has stopped, the phone booth he needs to use is occupied, and Swann has shockingly been killed.
  • This is a rare example of a Hitchcock picture in which we admire and root for an officer of the law. Chief Inspector Hubbard demonstrates keen insights and shrewd instincts in trying to guess the scheming husband’s moves and motivations and he is capably played by John Williams.
  • While he uses interesting camera angles and points the camera exactly where it needs to be to focus our attention on key details, Hitchcock is, for all intents and purposes, simply shooting a stage play. Further proof that he’s keeping the proceeding simple is the montage we see of Margo on trial and being sentenced – with blank backgrounds surrounding the actors in that montage.
  • This was only Hitchcock’s third color film, but arguably it’s his first strong attempt to use color stylization. Proof of this is his emphasis on strong primary colors, such as red – donned by Margo to convey passion and sexiness when she is shown kissing her secret lover Mark.
  • It can be debated that the true star of this film is the intricate plot – if you can keep up with it. Blogger Tim Brayton wrote that this movie “consists of really just one thing, which is presented in a narrative structure that resembles an essay. First, the concept is explained, then we see the concept put into execution, then we see the concept re-explained, then the concept is deconstructed. It’s about a murder plot… And really nothing else.”

Themes crafted into Dial M For Murder

  • Voyeurism. We are given a privileged and intimate view into the private life of a husband-and-wife, including her adulterous affair and his conniving murder plot.
  • Pride comes before the fall. Arguably, Toni’s undoing is his arrogance and prideful conceit; he’s not afraid to cavalierly discuss details of his “perfect crime” with others, including Halliday, Swann, and the police inspector, not hiding his superior attitude.
  • Entrapment. Like a master chess player, Tony concocts a fiendishly brilliant blackmail scheme, an airtight murder plot, and an impressive spontaneous contingency plan on the fly.

Where can Hitchcock be spotted (his clever cameo)?

  • In Toni’s framed photograph, he is seated among the men attending the college reunion.

Other films or works that spring to mind after watching this one

  • Rope
  • A Perfect Murder, one of two remakes of this film
  • Gaslight
  • Knives Out
  • Match Point 
  • Sleuth

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