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Dial M for Murder (1954)
Written by Frederick Knott
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
1954 was a big year for director Alfred Hitchcock and marked what critics refer to as his “peak years.” This is the period most people think of when they hear the filmmaker’s name. His television series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, would start in 1955 and run for a decade. He’d helm pictures like Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, The Birds, and more. In 1955 Hitch became an American citizen and began making his pictures for Paramount. He would work with some of his best actors like Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, and Grace Kelly. He’d also infamously terrorize actress Tippi Hedren in The Birds & Marnie, revealing some genuinely dark and disturbing psycho-sexual issues of his own. Hitchcock was a very problematic guy but at the same tapping into the depths of the human psyche.
Tom Wendice (Ray Milland) is a retired tennis pro married to Margot, a wealthy socialite (Grace Kelly). A year earlier, she had an affair with Mark Halliday, an American crime fiction writer. A letter Mark left for Margot disappeared around that time, and she was blackmailed into paying money to an unseen person. Of course, Tom is the man who found the letter and has planned for an entire year to kill his wife for revenge. He’s chosen Charles Swann, an acquaintance from the University of Cambridge who has fallen into a life of ill repute. Swann moves under different aliases, shacking up with older wealthy women and blowing their money on gambling. Tom threatens to reveal Swann’s ruse unless he murders Margot. Everything is set up so Margot will be alone in the house one night, and Swann can enter as he pleases. But things don’t go so well, and Mark, as well as Inspector Hubbard of Scotland Yard, are trying to piece together what happened in that London flat.
It’s pretty apparent Dial M for Murder is based on a stage play, and it feels like it on the screen. The vast majority of the action occurs in Tom & Margot’s apartment front room, with only a few short moments outside of that set. If you are expecting a lot of action, then you’ll be in for a disappointment. I would say this is not one of my favorite Hitchcock films. As we’ll see in the next review for Rear Window, he’d do a much better job with a single setting picture right after this one. What the film does have going for it are the performances. Milland and Kelly are fantastic, and Scottish actor Anthony Dawson, who plays Swann, does great for a part that doesn’t make it out of Act One. John Williams, who appears in Billy Wilder’s Sabrina this same year, is a fantastic detective as Hubbard, keying into Tom’s obvious guilt but having to hammer out all the details.
I was reminded a bit of Hitchcock’s movie Rope, where we get most of the narrative from the killer’s point of view. I think it was done a little better in Rope, and that probably has to do with the fact that Dial M for Murder was made as part of the 3-D trend in American movies at the time. After only a handful of showings, the audience was not responding well to the gimmick, and so that filter was removed from the movie, making it a standard 2-D affair. However, there are still scenes that are obviously meant for 3-D as you have characters moving towards the camera or depth being used as an element.
Dial M for Murder is ultimately an exercise in blocking and creative camera angles. Because the story takes place in one space, Hitchcock has to find interesting places to place the camera to keep the picture from becoming too stale and stagey. There are some truly inspired moments. He also methodically moves his characters around the set to indicate shifts in power dynamics, something consistently present in his work. Ultimately, this feels like baseline Hitchcock. The heights, as we will see, are going to be so much higher that Dial M for Murder ends up feeling pretty basic. It’s a very entertaining murder mystery with the audience knowing sooner or later, Tom will make a mistake. That said, an average Hitchcock movie is leagues beyond your typical formulaic crime picture. Dial M for Murder will definitely keep your attention, but it’s Hitch’s next film that will begin to show us what he is capable of.