Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Starring Ray Milland & Grace Kelly
Review by Joseph Banham
If you’re a film enthusiast, you probably don’t need me to tell you who Alfred Hitchcock is. It’s no new revelation to state that his contributions to cinema are legendary. His 1954 film “Dial M for Murder”, which was adapted from a play of the same name by Frederick Knott, is among his less celebrated work. In the timeline of his work “Dial M for Murder” takes its place just after the midpoint, just before Hitch’s glorious indian summer of continuous revered hits at the tail end of his filmography. These include “Rear Window” (1954- succeeding “Dial M for Murder” by a few months); Vertigo (1958), which many consider to be his magnum opus; “North by Northwest” (1959); and “Psycho” (1960). Being eclipsed by such masterworks makes “Dial M” no less of a fantastic achievement, albeit a more subtle and unimposing one.
On a personal note, this was the film that acted as my introduction to the grandmaster of cinema. As a kid idly spending a summer holiday afternoon in front of the TV, the film came on after another ( one which I clearly didn’t find nearly as impactful as I’m struggling to remember what it was… possibly the original “Journey to the centre of the Earth”… but I’m digressing). After the typical 11-year-old boy reservations, (“Why would I want to watch anything without monsters or special effects?”), I was promptly gripped to the screen within 10 minutes. I may have been completely unfamiliar with Hitchcock, and never even heard of Grace Kelly, but I knew what I was watching was one of the most viscerally exciting films I had ever experienced.
I think this touches on what makes Hitchcock’s work so universally accessible. The feelings that he often taps into are those of fear and suspense- two very primal instincts of human nature. Even if some audience members don’t understand all of the small plot points or pick up on the deeper themes, everybody bolts up on the edge of their seat when the stakes are life and death.
The film stars Ray Milland as Tony Wendice, an ex-tennis player who now resides with his wife Margot (Grace Kelly) in a modestly cosy flat in London. It is revealed that Margot has been having an affair with a handsome television crime writer named Mark Halliday, something Tony has come to realise. As the two forbidden lovers go to spend an evening at the theatre, Tony invites an old college friend around, originally referred to as Captain Lesgate (Anthony Lawson), under the guise that he intends to buy a used car from him. In the first of the film’s lengthy dialogue scenes it is gradually revealed that Lesgate is a crook who uses a number of aliases (his real name being Swann) to elude the police, information which Tony intends to use against him in order to extort him into committing his adulterous wife’s murder. And so a complex plan is laid out by Tony, in which Swann can surreptitiously sneak in, strangle Margot, and slip back out without anyone ever knowing he was there whilst providing Tony with an airtight alibi.
Of course it doesn’t all go to plan, thanks to some conveniently placed scissors, causing the astute Tony to hastily recalculate, this time framing the scene to implicate Margot. It is then up to the proficient Chief Inspector Hubbard (frequent Alfred Hitchcock Presents actor John Williams) to put the pieces together and prevent Margot from being incriminated and sentenced to death.
The film in essentially split into two halves, quite literally, as there is even an intermission screen at the halfway point (this wasn’t uncommon for older films of a certain length.) The first half deals with a setup of the “perfect murder” whilst the second half deals with the aftermath. The script expertly flips the viewer vicariously into the point of view of several characters, creating an emotionally rich and rewarding experience. In the first half the audience is sided with the conspiring villains, with the camera placing them in the room as the third member in on the murder plot. The second half offers up the extremely gratifying experience of following Hubbard as he gradually uncovers the solution to a puzzle we already know the answer to.
It is a very Hitchcockian trope for his films to feature fiendishly polite villains; Ray Milland’s performance as the well-mannered Tony makes the character all the more insidious. He is without a doubt the film’s most compelling character, making him a worthy adversary for Inspector Hubbard in the latter half of the film. The script juggles the character in a way that makes him despicable as well as completely relatable. We feel his nerves as the cracks in his scheme start to show, bringing him closer and closer to being found out. During the film’s pivotal centerpiece, the actual execution of the murder plot, the tension is wound to its tightest point creating the most memorable sequence in the film. Having set up the meticulous details of the plan in the previous sequence, knowing exactly what needs to happen and when, the viewer is plunged into the excitement of uncertainty when every little thing that can go wrong does go wrong. Our stomach plummets when Tony realises his watch has stopped making him late for the vital phone call to his accomplice; we lean forward in anticipation as he runs to the phone booth only to find it’s occupied etc. It’s suspense building 101 from the master of the craft, not to mention absolutely riveting filmmaking. The suspense would not work if the audience didn’t have a guilty affection for the gleefully sadistic Tony.
This actually leads me to my one major complaint with the film which is that the two main protagonists, Margot and Mark, are simply not very interesting characters. At least not compared to Tony, who completely overshadows them and becomes a more likeable character, leading part of you wishing for him to succeed. This may have been the intention; the film is much more about the machinations of the murderous than the prevailing of the innocent. Margot and Mark are rendered to feel more like plot-devices than fully fleshed out characters, which doesn’t really detract from the core essence of the film but it would have been nice to feel more emotionally attached to Margot’s impending doom.
The film was based on a play, and through the dialogue and staging it clearly shows; this is a very talky film. The vast relaying of facts, especially in the first act by Tony to Swann, requires firm attention so as not to get lost in all the minor details of the scheme. There are also several key items integral to the plot (Hitchcock referred to these as “McGuffins”) including a number of house keys which get swapped around and stolen, making them difficult to keep track of. The dialogue driven scenes with many lines of exposition will not be to every viewer’s taste, who may yearn for the atmospheric simplicity of “Rear Window” or “Psycho”. However if you have a fondness for devilish wit sprinkled with irony, then these scenes will prove utterly engrossing.
Also like the play, the film is mostly confined to one location: The Wendice’s flat. The structure draws instant comparisons to another claustrophobic Hitchcock Thriller, “Rope” (1948), which incidentally is also about two immensely intelligent men trying to commit the perfect murder. The confined space helps amplify the tension; all the answers the police are looking for are always right under their noses, precariously placing Tony on the verge of devastating failure.
Restricted to having only one main set, Hitchcock is reserved in his camera movements. The camera is simply there to subtly frame the action as a quiet observer, accentuating the film’s theatre roots. There is only one instance, during Margot’s trial, where Hitchcock flexes his over-the-top expressionist muscles; The scene sticks out like a sore thumb from the rest of the film as gloriously cheesy, but it works nonetheless.
Its worth mentioning that the film was originally meant to be viewed in 3D. Yes, before the surge of stereoscopic stories brought upon us by Avatar, 3D had a short lived run in the early 1950’s. It was later re-released in 1980 in its 3D glory as well as recently in 2013. I unfortunately have never experienced it in 3D, despite owning the 3D compatible blu-ray ( I am yet to own a 3d TV). From what I hear the extra dimension is well implemented, recieving Martin Scorsese’s blessing. I must say, though, it doesn’t seem like the sort of film that would be necessary 3D viewing; the understated camerawork doesn’t really suit the ostentatious nature of three-dimensional filmmaking. If anyone has experienced this version, I would love to hear your views on it in the comments.
If you have never seen “Dial M for Murder” and are interested in suspense thrillers, I would highly recommend buying the DVD immediately; it’s a classic of the genre. It’s a great shame that it seems to be less remembered than some other Hitchcock films; Hitchcock himself was less than enthusiastic about the final film, something I just do not understand. I’m personally kicking myself I missed the opportunity to see it on the big screen in 2013. It may not have any moments that are ingrained in the history of cinema as much as the church tower scene from Vertigo or the shower scene from Psycho, but the sum of its parts are no less powerful.