The Archivist #114 Celebrating My Birthday with Warner Archive [DIAL M FOR MURDER & A MIGHTY WIND]

Two film geniuses help make it a happy birthday.

The Archivist — Welcome to the Archive. As home video formats have evolved over the years, a multitude of films have found themselves in danger of being forgotten forever due to their niche appeal. Thankfully, Warner Bros. established the Archive Collection, a Manufacture-On-Demand DVD operation devoted to thousands of idiosyncratic and ephemeral works of cinema. The Archive has expanded to include a streaming service, revivals of out-of-print DVDs, and factory-pressed Blu-rays. Join us as we explore this treasure trove of cinematic discovery!

For most folks, the end of January represents being broke from the holidays, being exhausted from the holidays and straddling that line between continuing to put on that extra winter weight or transforming themselves in time for spring. Oh right, and then of course there’s also the Super Bowl. However for me, Diane Keaton, Ellen Degeneres and (while he was alive) Paul Newman, the month of January represents something more. I’m sure Degeneres will throw one of her legendary star-studded parties, Keaton will probably celebrate with her kids (and her own brand of wine) and Newman’s widow Joanne Woodward will lead a birthday tribute to the legendary actor who was also the great love of her life.

As for your’s truly, after a fun dinner with friends, I’ll be spending my birthday with Warner Archive and a couple of top titles from a pair of beloved filmmakers. It need not be a special occasion for Alfred Hitchcock, whose 1954 adaptation of the successful stage thriller Dial M for Murder never ceases to impress. For me, the only great way to follow up such a movie experience (besides with another Hitchcock title) would be to laugh it up with mockumentary pioneer Christopher Guest and his band of always funny troops in 2003’s hilarious A Mighty Wind.

Dial M for Murder (1954)

Based on the famous stage play, Dial M for Murder stars Ray Milland as Tony, a wealthy businessman who has secretly learned of his wife Margot’s (Grace Kelly) affair with an American mystery writer named Mark (Robert Cummings). In an effort to be rid of her (and collect all the money she’s worth), Tony orchestrates his wife’s murder. When things go awry however, the frantic husband does everything he can to keep himself in the clear and stay one step ahead of the inspector (John Williams) investigating the case.

No birthday is a true birthday if there isn’t a little bit of Hitchcock involved. One of the rare stage adaptations the master ever took on, Dial M for Murder cannot help but feel stagey through and through. Seemingly never ending scenes take place in a single location as the dialogue keeps flowing. It would all be such a bore were it not for the fact that the story unfolds in such an involving way. By the time the movie has ended, Dial M for Murder has gone from a suspenseful romantic melodrama to a puzzling mystery seeped in the kind of logic that could rival Sherlock Holmes. Seeing Tony quickly react to every unexpected surprise, beginning with the botched attempt on his wife’s life, with such confidence and panache is quietly unsettling as it is captivating.

Cummings and Williams pull their weight here, but it’s Kelly who is the standout. The actress gave such a mesmerizing performance in what was her first collaboration with Hitchcock. Although this is a stylish production from a top studio, Kelly manages some of the rawest moments she ever put to film as her world begins to feel totally nightmarish. While it’s fair to look at Dial M for Murder as a filmed play, Hitchcock takes plenty of chances to insert some cinematic flourishes, particularly the intense and maddening sequences when Margot finds herself on trial for the events which took place. Using the most vibrant colors, a bare wall and Kelly’s vulnerable face resulted in one of the movie’s most memorable sequences and ensured that Dial M for Murder would always be seen as quintessential Hitchcock.

A Mighty Wind (2003)

Guest reunites with his troupe of actors including Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Ed Begley Jr, Harry Shearer, Parker Posey, Jane Lynch, Fred Willard and others to tell the story of three folk singing groups who reunite for a tribute concert when the music mogul who made them famous suddenly passes away. However as the day of the concert approaches, old romances, deeply-buried resentments and other obstacles threaten to thwart the entire show.

Anyone familiar with the genre knows that actor/writer/director Guest is one of the revolutionary figures of the mockumentary. With the acclaimed Waiting for Guffman and the even more celebrated Best in Show, Guest and his usual team of actors have always turned every project conceived by the director into outright comedy gold. As usual, much of the comedy lays in how straight everyone is playing their scenes. There aren’t many hysterics to be found in A Mighty Wind. The movie is existing in a totally grounded reality that mixes the preposterous with the genuine such as having the new member of a popular singing group remain in his show costume at all times until he’s mastered the numbers, and the overall love everyone has for the music.

As with all of the director’s movies, there are times when it becomes clear that the movie’s subject matters are being laughed at through the “life and death” mentality in each of the characters. But Guest has always managed some sweetness towards the figures in his films by giving them real moments which show them as actual people and what this world means to them. The first of Guest’s efforts to garner an Oscar nomination (appropriately for Best Original Song), A Mighty Wind was the last of Guest’s mockumentary efforts for some time. The filmmaker followed up three years later with the great For Your Consideration (which featured a more traditional narrative) before returning to the genre in 2016 with Mascots, proving that Guest remains the master of the mockumentary.

Dial M for Murder and A Mighty Wind and both available on Blu-Ray and DVD from the Warner Archive collection.

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