Classic films revisited: ‘Dial M for Murder’ – a critical look – warning: spoilers

Before watching Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 classic Dial M for Murder I was a bit confused at what movie I was going to see. I got the title confused with Anatole Litvak’s 1948 thriller Sorry, Wrong Number. And though a telephone figured importantly in both films, Dial M for Murder is a compulsively enjoyable mystery about a man who constructs the “perfect” crime.

Is it possible to commit a perfect crime? In Dial M for Murder, Hitchcock brings Frederick Knott’s popular play to screen, and asks that question. Set in 1950s London, retired pro tennis player Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) hires a grifter acquaintance (Anthony Dawson) to murder his wife, Margot (Grace Kelly), who is having an affair with American crime writer, Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings). Tony’s a brilliant villain – unflappable, with an unerring eye for detail. He puts together a perfect crime with the skill of a consummate craftsman. But as intelligent as Tony is, he learns that even the most perfect of crimes, is far from perfect.

Because the script is adapted from a play, there is a sense of staginess that is slightly betrayed by the film. Hitchcock famously refused to open up the plot significantly, only adding a few scenes outside the major setting of the Wendice’s living room. The choice of having the bulk of the story unfold in such a claustrophobic setting adds to the bewildering tightness that the characters experience. And as he’s known as a brilliant, technically progressive director, the scenes are often filmed from novel and unconventional angles – at times, we’re given slanted, bird’s-eye views of the proceedings, and at other times, we’re looking at the action from the floor up – the villains looming over us – this is especially effective.

Ray Milland Dial M for MurderWe watched Dial M for Murder right after watching Roman Polanski’s 1968 classic Rosemary’s Baby and we noted just how similar some of the themes are, namely a much-older husband deceiving his younger, almost child-like bride. In Dial M for Murder, the evil genius Tony Wendice hopes to have Margot assassinated. Because of his arrogance, he thinks nothing can go wrong: the plan is Margot is lured out of bed at 11.00pm by Tony’s phone call, only to meet an unhappy end. But as Mark explained earlier in the evening, there’s no such thing as a “perfect crime.” There are always elements and difficulties that throw off one’s plans. In Tony’s case, his watch stalls, so he doesn’t get to call at 11.00pm as he planned with his hired assassin, C.A. Swann. Secondly, Tony didn’t take into account that his doll-like bride had more power and moxie in her, and instead of dying passively, she successfully fights Swann off, killing him in the struggle with a pair of scissors. But even with those complications, Tony proves he’s quick on his feet and resourceful, and instead of assassinating his cheating wife, he frames her for Swann’s murder.

It’s fascinating to watch how skillfully Hitchcock tells the story. Our sympathies are all over the place: we feel bad for poor Margot, but at the same time, we condemn her for her infidelity; and when both Swann and Tony are stumbling with their plan, we start to feel sorry for them: I found myself perversely rooting for them, worrying that Tony was being tripped up by his wonky watch, and I was hoping in vain that Swann cuts his losses and leaves the apartment before getting involved in the sordid plot.

Screenwriter Frederick Knott (who also wrote the play) gives us a great hero in Chief Inspector Hubbard (John Williams). Cops aren’t always portrayed in the best light in films – when they’re not corrupt or evil, they’re often shown as goofy and incompetent. And initially we feel contemptuous of the police officers that arrest Margot, because we know she killed Swann in self-defense. But Hubbard is wily, despite his slightly daffy vedy vedy tweedy British exterior. He unknots the mystery and the unfurling of the howhedunit is nothing short of brilliant – much to the confusion and shock of the other characters, it’s Hubbard who manages to nab Tony.

Along with the brilliant direction of Hitchcock and Knott’s satisfyingly twisty story, Ray Milland gives an impeachable performance. Cinematic baddies are always fun to watch, and Millard’s Tony is a dastardly devious guy, but he’s so smart, it’s impossible not to be seduced by his self-confidence (too bad he chooses to use his powers for evil). As the equally-intelligent Hubbard, Williams arrives late in the film, but quickly steals it with a fastidious, fussy performance. As Mark, Cummings is suitably bland, necessarily cipher-like, so that he doesn’t take away from the plot. How viewers will judge Grace Kelly depends on how believable folks think she is: I was never a huge fan. I find her beauty to be transcendent, and her star wattage is fairly blinding; however, I don’t find her acting to be terribly impressive in this film – her shaky grasp at a plummy British accent merely highlights the mediocrity of her work. But her woodenness doesn’t really hurt the film – Hitchcock often had beautiful, cool blondes who were about as animated as cardboard in his films – and he used their stiffness to great advantage. In Dial M for Murder, Kelly gets to act confused and miserable a lot, and she gets all of that done efficiently. But she’s merely a prop for Hitchcock to provide his audience with his views of female sexuality: in some heavy-handed costuming choices, she’s presented as pure and virginal in the opening of the film, when we don’t know of her cheating: she’s done up in snow white; when she’s seen kissing Mark, she’s in harlot red.

Unlike most of Hitchcock’s other films, there isn’t a key, iconic scene a la Cary Grant ducking from a crop duster in North by Northwest, Janet Leigh being murdered in the shower in Psycho, or Tippi Hedren swatting away murderous crows in The Birds. The closest we get is Kelly’s Margot writhing on her back, her arm stretched out, eventually grasping at the pair of scissors, while being strangled by Swann. It’s funny because the DVD cover has a drawn rendition of the scene, and the violence is unclear, and I thought it was a depiction of a love scene. The harsh reality of that scene is very different. But for such an important entry in Hitchcock’s resume and in the film canon, Dial M for Murder falls short when it comes to legendary moments. But that doesn’t mean it’s a disappointing film. In fact, I found the film highly enjoyable – addictively so, and am able to watch it many times, and each time, I still find the confusing violence affecting.

Click here to buy Dial M for Murder on DVD from amazon.com.

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