Dial M for Murder (1954)

(warning: spoilers contained within review)

Before I first saw ‘Dial M for Murder’, I’d always assumed that while it was a respectable enough film,in terms of Hitchcock’s output at least it was a fairly minor-levelwork. When I did get around to watching it recently, I was pleasantly surprised how engrossing and captivating a film it was.

One thing should be stated at the start; while the name everybody associates with this film is director Alfred Hitchcock , Frederick Knott as screenwriter (based on his own play) should be credited as the real driving force behind this film. Especially as Hitchcock (wisely imo) doesn’t try to artificially open up the film version of the play and explicitly put his famous directorial style on it. If Hitchcock had taken his name off the credits only his traditional cameo (very amusingly done here) would be the giveaway that this is his film.

The plot involves former tennis player Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) enacting an elaborate plan to murder his unfaithful wife Margo (Grace Kelly). He entices a rather slimy old school classmate called Swan (Anthony Dawson) to commit the murder while he’s away at a function and therefore has the perfect alibi (as no one has any knowledge of the connection between the two men). Even though the murder plan goes wrong, Wendice turns the situation to his advantage and appears to have gotten away with it. Or has he?

The underlying reason this film works is the strength of the plot. It’s tricky and complex but one that viewers can follow, and more importantly is engrossing and logically stands up well (for the most part). Indeed in terms of plot structure DMFM reminded me of another film based on a Knott play, the excellent 1967 movie ‘Wait Until Dark’.

As well, while Hitchcock’s famous directorial style is quite muted by his standards, I was impressed by some of the subtle touches he put in the film. The attempted murder itself is done with his usual tension and excitement, but I especially enjoyed how he filmed the meeting between Wendice and Swan. This imo was the key scene in the film; not only because it sets up the murder plot but it reveals the greatest insight into Wendice’s personality and his motives for his actions.

Hitchcock sets up this lengthy scene in three stages. First, as Wendice is talking to Swan about his personal plight Hitchcock shoots this segment intimately to highlight how friendly and accommodating Wendice is to Swan initially. Secondly, as soon as Wendice reveals his true motives for inviting Swan over Hitchcock shoots in a much more tense style. Finally we get a lengthy shot from overhead so we can clearly see the elaborate plan Wendice has for Swan to murder his wife. Overall this scene was very well structured by the master director.

Another major strength of the film is Ray Milland’s performance as Wendice. Without relying on overt viciousness, he creates a convincing persona of someone capable of committing murder. Hidden under a constant veneer of smooth charisma he’s superficial, callous and selfish and knows that without his privileged lifestyle (based largely on Margo’s wealth) he’s totally insignificant. My favourite bit of his performance is in the final scene when he’s finally exposed as the culprit. For the only time in the film a look of genuine emotion appears on his face as the shock hits him, but an instant later he’s back to his superficial charming self, offering to pour a drink for those who trapped him! It perfectly encapsulates his personality and tops off a fine performance.

The other key actors are good as well. Considering she’s playing a character that’s committed adultery Grace Kelly is very sympathetic and innocent as Margo. John Williams gives a subtle performance as the Chief Inspector of Police who investigates the case; in his early scenes he appears to be a standard, rather dull policeman but the more we see of him the more intelligence and different shades he reveals. Especially enjoyable is his exasperation at Margo’s lover Mark Halliday (Bob Cummings) interfering in his plans at exposing Wendice. He’s also quite effective at showing his affection for Margo in the closing scenes when he’s finally validated in his hunch that she is innocent of murder.

The film isn’t perfect; the chief inspector’s plan to expose Wendice in the closing scenes I found a tad convoluted and unlikely (especially the bit with swapping the latch keys). It could’ve easily been tripped up at several stages and one thinks there could’ve been a simpler way to expose Wendice.

But overall, this is a most satisfying and enjoyable movie. It might not be top shelf Hitchcock, but it’s a film I’veenjoyed watching repeatedly since I first saw it a few months back and that’s a pretty good recommendation for a film.

Note: Image taken from http://www.fictionontheweb.co.uk/top250films/


2 thoughts on “Dial M for Murder (1954)

  1. It’s a fun film. Semi-interesting note: John Williams, who Wagstaff points out played the detective, is probably best known to Americans of a certain age for a TV commercial he did pitching a collection of classical music records. From Wikipedia:

    “Outside his movie career, Williams gained fame as the star of a television commercial for 120 Music Masterpieces, a four-LP set of classical music excerpts from Columbia Records. This became the longest-running nationally seen commercial in U.S. television history, for 13 years from 1971 to 1984. It began, “I’m sure you recognize this lovely melody as ‘Stranger in Paradise.’ But did you know that the original theme is from the Polovetsian Dance No. 2 by Borodin?” The commercial became so familiar that it was spoofed by Charles Rocket on Saturday Night Live.”

  2. Aside from a few issues with plot contrivances (as you mention) this is one of Hitchcock’s most purely satisfying films. Although it doesn’t make use of the confined location as well as Rear Window (or features the brilliant character perspective), it’s a much more dramatic piece than the similarly staged Rope.

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