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Dial M For Murder
Tonight's Feature Presentation

DIAL M FOR MURDER (1954)

Starring: Ray Milland, Grace Kelly, Robert Cummings, John Williams, Anthony Dawson

Written By: Frederick Knott Directed By: Alfred Hitchcock

The Short Version

This is one of the essential Alfred Hitchcock movies.

Traditional mystery assumptions are turned on their ear in just about every way possible.

It is very easy to see why Grace Kelly is one of Hitchcock’s favorite actresses.

Hitchcock takes a talky play where most of the action happens in one room and makes it riveting.

Dial M for Murder is one of cinema’s great crime movies, and well worth owning.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

CHEDDAR.

Sliced and served over light crackers; very tasty and clubbable and all that.


Pairs Well With...

JOHNNIE WALKER RED LABEL.

The one easily identifiable bottle in the Wendice apartment, and the apparent choice of murderers who realize that the game is up.

“I'm afraid my murders would be something like my bridge.  I'd make some stupid mistake and never realize it until I found everybody was looking at me.”


Alfred Hitchcock can do anything.  Dial M for Murder helps to prove it.

He can turn a scheming adulteress into a sympathetic character in a matter of seconds.

He can take a stage play that takes place almost entirely within the confines of a single room (you’re out of it for maybe five minutes) and not make it feel dull or claustrophobic.

He can keep a mystery thrilling even when every single point of what will happen is explicitly spelled out by dialogue before it actually does happen.

He can make the scheming murderer into a character you’re unconsciously rooting for even after you’ve already been appalled by what he’s done.

All of these things and more, Alfred Hitchcock can do, and during the course of Dial M for Murder, all of these things and more, he does.  That is why Dial M for Murder is not only one of the essential Alfred Hitchcock movies, but one of the essential classic movies of all time, period.

As our story begins, we find that former tennis star and current London playboy Tony Wendice (Ray Milland, The Premature Burial) is a man with a dilemma.  He knows that the year before, his wife, Margot (Grace Kelly, Rear Window), engaged in an affair with a visiting American writer, Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings, Moon Over Miami), and he really doesn’t feel that he can forgive her for it, especially with her lover coming back to London, and certainly not after reading one of the love letters they’ve been sending back and forth in the interim.  However, his wife is a woman of means, and what’s left of his own earnings from his tennis career would not be enough to allow him to continue to live in his accustomed style she he simply get a divorce.  How, then, to be rid of his wife and still keep her money?

Hmm.  Why not blackmail an old college acquaintance (Anthony Dawson, Dr. No) with a criminal streak into murdering his wife for him, and use the lover as his alibi, just for irony?  Yes, the just might do the trick…

By any conventional wisdom, Dial M for Murder simply shouldn’t work as a motion picture.  Even if the credits didn’t tell you, it’d be pretty obvious that this is a stage play with only one real set in which 95%+ of the action takes place, and that kind of static environment just doesn’t tend to translate well onto the screen.  It certainly can’t work as a whodunit; you know whodunit before anyone actually does it, because everything that happens is explained aloud and in excruciating detail well before it actually occurs.

Well… almost everything. 

And that little bit of “almost,” along with one of the greatest directorial talents the world is ever likely to see, turns Dial M for Murder from a movie that shouldn’t work into one that works brilliantly.

From the beginning, Hitchcock solves the problem of making the dishonest adulteress – which was a significantly greater taboo in 1954 than it is today – into a sympathetic character before the camera even starts to roll by virtue of casting Grace Kelly to play the part.  She is, quite simply, one of the most captivating and disarmingly charming women ever to step onto the silver screen.  Trying to dislike Grace Kelly is like trying to dislike a puppy; after the first look from her, the last thing on earth any decent human being would want to do is make her cry.  Social mores of the 1950s be damned; it’s just not possible to hate her.

And while we’re on the subject, Grace Kelly also happens to be an incredible actress who very much lives up to the promise of her first name.  Her part in Dial M for Murder is a demanding one, asking her to run the full range from social grace to catatonic despair, and Kelly never misses a beat.  Indeed, she plays her role so well that she earns the compliment “she makes it look easy,” even though we know that it isn’t, especially on such a claustrophobic set, and especially set alongside Ray Milland, who is quite capable of drawing all of everyone else’s air out of the room if given a chance.  She truly is the total package, and it’s easy to see how this lady would go on to become a real life princess.  (And as a aside, whoever thought of putting her in that red dress deserves a medal.)

Moving on to her costar, Ray Milland is also brilliantly cast.  He plays the part of the playboy to the hilt, and cranks the accompanying arrogance to such a level that on the one hand it makes Grace Kelly’s character even more sympathetic while on the other doesn’t turn him into someone completely insufferable.  His presence is powerful to such a degree that it also helps the audience to forget that they’re almost never leaving a single room; they’re too focused on him to notice.  He is also able to spout off his plans and accusations with a confident authority normally reserved for men playing Sherlock Holmes, making it that much more believable to the audience that he really can get away with it because he really is that smart.  The fact that his chemistry with Grace Kelly is a bit off is only natural given the circumstances of the characters, and therefore really doesn’t count as a sin here.

As a sidenote, Milland’s performance in Dial M for Murder is also the source of one of the more amusing behind-the-scenes comments from Alfred Hitchcock.  When Milland messed up his lines during a take, he turned to Hitchcock and apologized.  Hitchcock simply stared at his leading actor for a moment and stated, in his signature dry humor, “I wound it up, put it on the floor, and it wouldn't go.”

And now that we’re behind the scenes, this brings up another of the great Hitchcock anecdotes: one that demonstrates his particular brilliance in knowing what it would take to make Dial M for Murder work on the big screen.  The screenplay is nothing if not expository, but there is that bit of “almost” that was noted earlier that Hitchcock provides.  This is most profoundly demonstrated when it comes to the kill scene.  The screenplay called for scissors, but Hitchcock called for gleaming scissors.

Such a small thing, but it really does make all the difference in the world.  As Hitchcock put it, “…a murder without gleaming scissors is like asparagus without the hollandaise sauce: tasteless.”

It’s paying attention to those little details that makes for a great director, and a great director in turn leads to a great movie.  (At least he does in this case.)  The scissors gleam, and their impact is striking.

As is Frederick Knott’s script, which he adapted from his own stage play.  He starts by intricately planning not only a perfect murder, but also a perfect blackmail scheme to set it off.  When the perfect murder ends up being not so perfect, he then does the most artful twist-up you’re ever likely to see, and what follows after that, however legally improbable, is equally amazing.  It’s easy to see how this would be very effectively on the stage, and Alfred Hitchcock makes sure that it gets the translation it deserves to film without worry for the limitations of its original medium.

At the end of the day, Dial M for Murder isn’t about whodunit; rather, it’s about what ends up being done and whether or not the mastermind will get away with it.  Thanks to the genius of the director, you may even want him to for a while, as long as you don’t have Grace Kelly’s eyes to stare back at you.  This movie truly turns the genre over on its ear – not just once, but several times – and the end result is one of the most riveting, interesting crime movies ever made.

Bottom line, Dial M for Murder is a movie that simply should not be missed.  For mystery fans, it’s an incredible display of craft and the possibilities available to the genre beyond the simple whodunit, and for Hitchcock fans, it’s an example of the man’s finest work.  For everyone else, just watch it and you will be a Hitchcock fan.  Dial M for Murder truly is one of the all-time classics.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, December, 2011


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