Dial M for Murder (1954)    3 Stars

“If a woman answers…hang on for dear life!”


Dial M for Murder (1954)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Cast: Ray Milland, Grace Kelly, Robert Cummings

Synopsis: An ex-tennis pro carries out a plot to murder his wife. When things go wrong, he improvises a brilliant plan B.




WARNING – This review contains SPOILERS from the outset!

Tell me, was I alone in hoping that Tony Wendice (Ray Milland — The Lost Weekend, Frogs) would get way with his plan for the perfect crime in Dial M for Murder? He seemed a decent enough chap, was devoted to his cheating wife Margot (Grace Kelly — Mogambo, The Bridges of Toko-Ri) for months following the apparent end of her duplicitous relationship with American crime novelist Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings – Saboteur), and is unfailingly polite to Halliday when he eventually met him. He even offers to pay Lesgate (Anthony Dawson), the man he blackmails into killing Margot for him, and shows apparently endless reserves of resourcefulness when his clever plot goes awry. By contrast, Margot is an unfaithful wife (for whose infidelity no good reason is ever convincingly given) who shows no guilt over her breaking of her marriage vows and whose collection of press clippings are shockingly neglected, while Halliday — well, Halliday is something of a weasel when you get right down to it: not only does he sleep with another man’s wife, but he then tries to get the poor chump to make what he thinks is a false confession just so he can resume their affair.

And you know what? I’m pretty sure both writer Frederick Knott and director Alfred Hitchcock (Psycho, North by Northwest) felt the same way, because they never really give us any reason to care for Margot. Consider the attempted murder scene. Does Hitchcock ratchet up the tension by making us fear for Margot’s well-being while Lesgate skulks around her flat? No, he doesn’t. He builds all the suspense around whether Wendice will make it to the phone in time in order to place his wife in a position where Lesgate can throttle her. We worry more about Wendice’s plan going awry than we do about the life of his wife. It was a favourite ploy of Hitchcock’s — he used the same trick of putting his audience in the bad guy’s corner in both Psycho, when Norman Bates anxiously watches Arbogast’s car pause during its slide into the marsh behind the Bates Motel, and in Marnie when Tippi Hedren’s character is attempting to depart the scene of her robbery from the Rutlands without being seen by the office cleaner — and it’s one of the many tricks that distinguished his movies from those of other directors.

It’s clear from the way that the bulk of the action in Dial M for Murder takes place in the Wendices’ apartment that it was adapted from a stage play, but the movie never suffers from that claustrophobic feeling so common to stage adaptations in which the director chooses not to open out the story. Of course, Dial M for Murder was directed by a wily old master whose command of his craft is evident in every scene. He establishes the condition of the Wendices’ marriage, and Margot’s unfaithfulness, with admirable economy in a brief opening sequence free of dialogue, and from this simple opening he constructs a progressively complicated plot aided by Knott’s clever screenplay. Lesgate botches the murder he’s been blackmailed into committing and ends up with a pair of scissors in his back which, while saving Wendice a Grand, still leaves him with that unloving wife whose on the point of leaving him on his hands. But then Wendice sees a way to turn the situation in his favour by turning that wife from potential murder victim into murderess…

The trouble with movies in which someone tries to commit the perfect crime is that the manner in which their plan unravels is almost always down to outrageous coincidence or a piece of superhuman detective work. Sadly Dial M for Murder fails to buck the trend in the way it traps Wendice into giving himself away. To be honest, the spot-on theory hatched by Chief Inspector Hubbard (John Williams — Witness for the Prosecution) of exactly who is responsible for the attempted murder would be beyond the deduction skills of Sherlock Holmes on a good day. But the fun in the movie is in the ingenious ways that Wendice first devises his plan and then adjusts it to suit constantly changing circumstances. Milland rises to the challenge with aplomb, his eyes gleaming mischievously behind a poker-face as he pulls the strings of those around him. There’s a tremendous devilishness about Milland’s performance which is nicelly complemented by his response to eventually being rumbled. You get the impression he views the entire episode as a game of strategy and skill and that even though he lost, he knows he played well.

(Reviewed 24th April 2014)

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