I love all things Hitchcock and I have yet to encounter a film of his that I haven’t liked or at least appreciated on some level. I’d place Dial M for Murder among the second tier of his films – with films like Rebecca, Marnie, Rope, and Suspicion. By second tier, I mean that they don’t quite reach the level of genius, but are still remarkable and worthy films. And, in case you’re interested, I consider his top tier films to be Psycho, Rear Window, Vertigo, Birds and North by Northwest. You’re truly missing out if you haven’t seen at least one of those films.
In some ways, this one reminded me a great deal of Rope – a lesser watched, but absolutely stellar Hitchcock film (seriously go watch it!) – in that it takes place almost entirely in one room, features a fairly small cast of characters and tells the story of a perfect crime foiled by a minor detail.
Tony Wendice is an aging tennis star who fears that his independently wealthy wife, Margot, is about to leave him for another man, thus withdrawing her financial support from his lazy, pampered lifestyle. And so he hatches a nearly flawless plot to have her murdered so he can be done with her and inherit her fortune. He’s so incredibly clever and cunning that even when things don’t go quite to plan, he quickly switches to an equally devious and devastating plan.
And here’s the remarkable thing – this movie about murder all set in one room should feel super claustrophobic and heavy, but it doesn’t. Sure there are tense moments, but those are delicious, but mostly it’s just an incredibly fun film to watch and that’s the magic of Hitchcock!
Ray Milland, whom I’ve mostly only seen play sympathetic characters, was absolute perfection as the suave and scheming husband. He truly steals the show and that’s saying something considering he was starring opposite a living goddess. He’s such a delight to watch that we find, a bit to our discomfort and horror, that we’re slightly rooting for him to pull this thing off! His final scene is perfection.
Grace Kelly is absolutely physically captivating as she is in just about everything I’ve seen her in, but there is something ‘off’ about her character. On one hand she’s clearly meant to be a sympathetic character. Sure, she’s a cheating harlot, but we’re meant to understand that her husband is a bit of a ne’er do well who has it coming. However, she’s such a weak, wet noodle of a character character to whom everything just happens that it’s rather hard to ever really be on her side completely. Her character in Rear Window is so much better and is one of the (many) things that elevates that film to genius status.
The lover is played by Robert Cummings and, quite frankly, he didn’t do a whole lot for me. His character seems dull and stereotypically American surrounded by all these posh British accents. You never can quite get on board with the romance. None of this really matters, however, as his character is really just a bit of a place holder.The inspector who unravels the whole thorny plot is played very well by John Williams. Sometimes he gives the impression that he has no clue what’s what, but in the end he’s nobody’s fool. He helps gives the film a sort of lighthearted feeling that bizarrely works.There is a fifth and final important character, the actual murderer played by Anthony Dawson. His gaunt face and skinny mustache makes him the perfect sleazy criminal who can be easily coerced into killing an innocent woman for a measly 1,000 pounds.
One of the things that I love most about this film is that it’s constantly playing around with perspective, both literally and figuratively. Literally, the camera is all over the place – sometimes up above giving us a birds eye view of the apartment, sometimes zooming in super tight on a critical detail – like a finger dialing M†! Figuratively, our sympathies are constantly shifting. In the very beginning we see things mostly from Margot’s perspective. We feel her anguish over the affair and her fear of the impending blackmail. However, for the majority of the movie we see everything from Tony’s point of view and we can’t help but feel a great deal of reluctant admiration for his elaborate plans. Paradoxically, we feel both his anxiety *and* Margot’s relief when things don’t go as planned. However, in the end, we shift to the side of justice and the law as they attempt to sniff out Tony’s plans at the eleventh hour. It’s all a really exciting and exhilarating experience and, again, is part of what made Hitchcock such a genius.
Another thing I love, which is present in every single Hitchcock film is the minute attention to detail, the impeccable sense of style. That just speaks to me on so many levels. There are no throw-away lines. There are no set pieces or costumes that don’t serve a specific function – Tony’s old tennis trophies on the mantle, Margot’s red lace dress at the beginning and her drab gray woolen one at the end – all of it serves a purpose whether you notice it or not.
I just find his films to be a near perfect blend of fun and clever. As such, Hitchcock is one of many litmus tests I use when seeking kindred spirits. You don’t have to love Hitchcock to be my friend, but it sure helps!
†The reason Tony is dialing M is because the couple lives in the upmarket neighborhood of Maida Vale in London, and at this time period all phone numbers would have started with a three letter alphabetic exchange code associated with a particular district. As such the Wendice’s phone number would have started with the letters MAI.
Title: Dial M for Murder (based upon the play of the same name by Frederick Knott)
Genre: Mystery, Psychological Thriller
My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Favorite Quote: People don’t commit murder on credit.