If you're going to revive a period thriller as clunky and passionate as Dial "M" for Murder, for heaven's sake don't ignore the very elements that make it interesting--go for the noir! The road-show production of the classic 1950s murder mystery now at the Auditorium Theatre features TV and movie stars guaranteed to please the locals, but it has none of the dark style of that era--and neither the guts nor the glory of Alfred Hitchcock's 1954 film version.

Ex-tennis star Tony Wendice marries for money. But when he discovers that his beautiful wife, Margot, has had a brief affair with American mystery writer Max Halliday, he loses his perspective. He conceives an elaborate scheme to have a hit man murder his wife. She's not as dumb as he thinks she is, though, and she foils the would-be assassin with a pair of sewing scissors.

Ever quick on his feet, Tony turns the situation to his advantage and gets his wife convicted of murder in the first--conveniently, a hanging offense in England at the time. Extricating the innocent woman from the clutches of a murder rap at the eleventh hour is the province of both the wily detective Inspector Hubbard and the faithful Max.

Dial "M" was written for the stage, but it made a much better movie. That's because Hitchcock understood the dark realm of the human imagination. The filmmaker used a taut performance by Ray Milland to uncover the workings of a twisted mind; feverish jealousy coupled with calculating self-interest produced in Milland's Tony an icy will. But it was fabulous film-noir lighting and jangling camera angles that produced the atmosphere of dread and evil, thereby conferring a little meaning on an otherwise absurd story. Motive is everything in noir, and the viewer must feel the waste and horror of a man devoting his talents to getting away with murder.

Director Edward Hastings, however, has tried instead to tell his story without any atmospherics at all. The set is handsome but utterly ordinary; the anti-noir lighting is brightly bland. And while you can't light a theater stage the way you do a film, it is possible to create a noir mood. Hastings doesn't even bother to keep the piece entrenched in the 1950s--the costumes are vague, with nary a wide lapel in view. That's a big mistake, since the anachronistic plot makes sense only in a Fifties context.

And worse than the production values are the drab performances, especially John James as Tony and J.G. Hertzler as Max. There is no undercurrent of fire or suspicion between the men, and neither stirs up any chemistry with the more talented Nancy Allen--it's all so much dead air on stage. James's performance is particularly thin. Maybe it's too much television work (he was a cast member on Dynasty), but his English accent slips about uncontrollably, he conveys no hint of psychopathology, and every wooden sentence sounds like TV dialogue.

Allen (lately of Robocop fame) is good, though she'd be a lot better if the men in her life knew what they were doing. In fact, when she's on stage with Roddy McDowall's Scottish Inspector Hubbard, she manages to sparkle a little. Her accent stays the course fairly well, though the authentic lilt of Michael Halsey, in his role as the sleazy assassin, Captain Lesgate, makes the Americans sound rather tinny. Halsey carries menace and nervous self-interest with equal clarity, so that his Lesgate is a loser given over to stupid cons and mildly despicable appetites. His is the most believable, if not the most interesting, performance.

It is something of a pleasure to see Roddy McDowall on stage after so very many movies. He's professional and bright throughout, and he's always inventive enough to keep up a level of excitement. But his talents are wasted here. And he has become a trifle conscious of his status in the provinces, a trifle too adorable as the inspector. It's hard to fault him, though, with so little to work with.

Oddly enough, the audience at the performance I attended ate it all up. It's hard to understand audience attitudes toward name performers who give them so little. After all, the crew at Hunger Artists did the same show last fall with a lot more style and class, and Denver blew them off.

The least this bunch of alleged heavyweights could do is rename the show: Dial "B" for Boring.

Dial "M" for Murder, through January 21 at the Auditorium Theatre, in the Plex at 14th and Curtis, 893-4100.


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