Week 38: ‘Dial M For Murder’ – 1954

Alfred Hitchcock’s second foray into colour and the first use of a widescreen ratio – 1.85:1, and in 3D! ’Dial M for Murder’ has a huge reputation and is the kind of movie everyone knows from countless Sunday afternoon TV showings and its reputation is mainly well deserved. In truth, it’s very good but does at times need a kick up the arras and can feel a tad too pedestrian.

It’s based on a stageplay by Frederick Knott (also writer of the excellent Audrey Hepburn/Alan Arkin starrer ‘Wait Until Dark’) and undeniably feels like a one location picture, the director at times opening the action up but essentially letting the plot run its course in the apartment of Tony and Margot Wendice (Ray Milland and Grace Kelly). Tony is hacked off that Margot has had an affair whilst he has been on a tennis tour (he’s a retired tennis pro) and, when her ex–lover comes a- visiting (Robert Cummings playing Mark Halliday, having previously starred in Hitchcock’s 1942 ‘Saboteur’) he sends them out for the evening and hatches a plan to bump her off. He blackmails an old college chum called ‘Captain’ Lesgate (a.k.a. Charles Alexander Swann, played by Anthony Dawson) to do the deed with various key related shenanigans – but all does not go to the perfect plan.

The film has a great politeness to it, everyone tip toeing around the elephant in the room of Margot’s infidelity. I love the way people talk in these kinds of movies – it’s all so pretty please and proper, with adultery and murder bubbling under the surface. There are neat little touches that are clearly directed and cute: in the opening shot, Tony sits at the breakfast table and knocks the salt over, casually then tossing a little over his shoulder in a (as it turns out) vain attempt to thwart any bad luck.

Hitchcock is sparing in his use of unusual camera angles (aside from the 3D work). When Tony is running through the murder plan with Swann the director logically cuts to a high shot as Tony moves around the apartment and to the vital staircase in the hallway.

It allows him to cover the scene in one shot, the camera simply panning from side to side as Tony delivers his slick – and sick – sales pitch. Milland is great here, running through his masterplan smoothly and efficiently, Hitchcock running the longish scene with no music until Swann takes the £100 (‘on account’) and Dimitri Tiomkin comes in with a music stab, cut to Tony looking triumphant that he has persuaded the already shifty Swann to new heights of criminality.

Tony’s scheme is barely kept on track as he has to persuade Margot to stay in on the fateful Saturday night, she about to go out – he then has to hustle away her latchkey to secrete under the staircarpet: it’s all a bit out of control but he just about manages it, Milland also performing this delicate juggling act well.

Hitchcock’s use of colour is admirably applied throughout – particularly in regards to Margot’s clothing. At the opening of the picture Margot is kissing Tony, she dressed in virginal white – shortly after the snogger is replaced by Mark and she wears scarlet (the harlot). Her wardrobe becomes more and more drab as the film progresses and goes through a more muted red, then grey, then dull brown as the authorities close in on her.

When Margot is later accused of murder, Hitchcock has a field day as he unfolds a really abstract and bold sequence of Margot in medium close up being tried – legal voices offscreen as she reacts – finally enveloping her in hellish red as the ‘guilty’ verdict is delivered: the judge delivering the final decision of ‘execution’ straight to camera. This is bravura filmmaking from a director who has the guts to push himself and his art into even more daring areas of visual representation. It’s really very good indeed and a great way of avoiding all the clichés of a courtroom scene.

The tension leading up to the scene of the crime is expert – Swann is in position behind his curtain, but Tony’s watch has stopped! Will he miss the 11 o’clock ‘dead’line? He gets into the phone booth and we see a trick shot of a massive model finger ringing the eponymous ‘M’ just in time. A nice shot of the mechanics of the telephone system here to further ratchet it up.

The murder/attack scene is especially good and exciting – clearly the highpoint of the picture. The desperate reaching of Margot as she is strangled by the eager Swann is great.

Again – like the rendering unconscious dentist scene in 1934’s ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’ and later in ‘Torn Curtain’ – Hitchcock handles the practicality of killing superbly and you really feel how hard it is to finish someone off. The fatal stabbing of her assailant sends a real shiver up your spine (as I’m sure it does him). You can’t help squirming as Swann falls to the ground and the domestic weapon sinks home. Yee-ouch! Fantastic.

What’s interesting in the structure of the film is that the big action scene happens before half way through and the rest of the film concerns itself with the investigation of the crime and Tony’s ever more desperate attempts to distance himself from any suspicion. Milland is really good at facially expressing his inner churning of story changing and plotting – on the phone to the cops he is asked who did it and he looks at Margot, swiftly realizing a plan ‘b’ for ‘bump her off’.

His subtle positioning of the second stocking under the desk blotter – then revealing it just enough to be found by nudging it with the tea tray – gives Milland a chance to do a cool satisfied look as he leaves the room. Chief Inspector Hubbard (played by the very British bow tie sporting John Williams) starts to unravel Tony’s tangled web, and the finger of initial suspicion is firmly planted on Margot – the detective speaking direct to camera in his inquisition of her.

It’s very wordy and theatrical but moves along at a fair old pace, although you can’t help thinking it could be trimmed down a little to get the same effect and narrative. Hubbard has that slight air of confusion about him that Karl Malden’s Larrue had in ‘I Confess’, obviously a good cop technique for getting nervy peeps to spill the beans. By contrast, once his blood is up in the later scenes, he’s unstoppable as he zones in on Tony – ‘start the ball rolling’ he declares to his men as the complex game of latchkeys and raincoats begins.

Tony remains suave and unflappable to the very end, even when finally busted he coolly pours himself a large one and offers drinks around. Inspector Hubbard looks content and combs his moustache with satisfaction at a tricky job well done. A cool criminal caught by a cooler cop.

I haven’t seen the film in 3D but even on standard DVD it’s noticeable how the director was employing objects to showcase this technology – a row of bottles or a railing in the foreground of the frame. Sometimes this can be clunky though, the first meeting between Tony and Swann having a big old lamp right in the centre of picture in a very distracting way, some of the opening shots featuring guys fairly randomly standing about at the lower part of the frame. It’s most effective in the strangulation scene as Margot desperately reaches for the killer scissors before plunging them into Swann’s back, her hand straight at camera. It was Hitchcock’s only foray into 3D and feels like it was a bit foisted on him – although the temptation to try out a new filmmaking process must have been irresistible to the arch technician in him. If you didn’t know the film was designed for 3D you’d be very confused with some of the apparently rather bonkers compositions throughout.

The performances throughout are fine and perfectly suited. Milland (so superb in his Academy Award grabbing role in Billy Wilder’s sublime ‘The Lost Weekend’) is solid and suspicious, twisting and maneuvering his wife into his trap – I like him a lot (although he seems pretty old to be a tennis pro to me, retired though he is). Grace Kelly – here in the first of three Hitchcock collaborations – is lovely and perfect as the ostensibly prim and devoted Margot, but with a dark and secret centre to her character. The supporting players all do a grand job and, all in all, ‘Dial M For Murder’ deserves its reputation – it’s tense, exciting, entertaining, intriguing and violent, if at times a little too stagey and plodding.

Miscellaneous notes

Mr. Hitchcock gets himself into the picture in the old school photo dinner, seated at the table with Tony and Swann. I have a bug bear about mocked up photos in movies in that they very rarely look convincing (people’s heads plastered onto other’s bodies). How hard is it to do this stuff well?

A little strangely the version I watched (courtesy of Warner Bros.) had an intermission about halfway through, which is odd as the film only runs 105 mins. It does leave you on a complete cliff hanger as it is just at the point the police are there and starting to assess what happened – audience tongues would wag like crazy over their mid movie G&T’s.


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