‘Dial M for Murder’ at 70 – Review

‘Dial M for Murder’ at 70 – Review

Dial M For Murder (1954)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenwriters: Frederick Knott
Starring: Ray Milland, Grace Kelly, Robert Cummings, Anthony Dawson, John Williams

After a possibility to direct an adaptation of the 1948 novel “The Bramble Bush” fell through, Alfred Hitchcock, as he was to do on many occasions, turned to the stage for his next project. This time, his attentions went to “Dial M For Murder”, with playwright Frederick Knott writing the adaptation for the screen himself, and both John Williams and Anthony Dawson appearing in the film in the same roles as they had played on stage. This familiarity with the plot and the roles is very much needed, as it’s a fairly simple yet elaborately plotted thriller that is set in (for the most part) just one single location. In the film, Ray Milland is Tony Wendice, a former tennis player married to Grace Kelly’s Margot. But Margot has been having an affair with Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings), and Tony knows it, so he blackmails a former classmate of his (Dawson) to murder his wife whilst he’s out at a dinner with colleagues. Tony will phone Kelly, and when she’s at the phone, that’s the signal to strike.

It’s a Hitchcock picture in many obvious ways. There’s the paranoia, the voyeuristic themes, the thriller genre, a McGuffin, and a love triangle at the centre of this tempestuous storm of madness and mayhem. If those are all on your Hitchcock bingo card, consider it a full house. And yet, Dial M For Murder is also an incredibly anti-Hitchcock picture in that so much of the film is told through dialogue. Being adapted from a stage play, that’s not surprising, but for a director who prized the art of cinema and the visual storytelling aspects of film over dialogue, the sheer amount of talking is out of character. Thankfully, the entire cast manage to pull off their roles superbly. Of particular note is Grace Kelly, in her first of three roles for Hitchcock (the others being Rear Window and To Catch a Thief), who embodies Margot’s torn and tortured trials and tribulations with superhuman grace and simplicity.

Thanks to the cast bringing to life a great group of characters, with Ray Milland perfecting the sly, sinister husband of Tony Wendice, Hitchcock can focus on dragging as much of the visual style and drama out of the script as he can. Using all the skills he has built up over the previous three decades, he utilises every camera move, angle, and editing technique to deliver a tense, gripping narrative. It takes a few minutes to get going, and the first thirty minutes or so are filled with lots of words about plots and plans, but when it gets into full flow, it charges headlong.

With it being mostly filmed without a fourth wall (a very traditionally theatrical fashion), Hitchcock gets inventive to ensure the film doesn’t become a soap opera filmed by a three-headed monster. One of the more creative ways to escape this is to give a long God’s-eye top-down shot when the murder plot is being explained, characters pacing the room as they go. It gives the feeling of looking down on a map or blueprint, like models being moved around a big war room with brooms to push them along or sweep them away. Everything is thought out, and yet of course, it all goes badly wrong.

The famous shot of Grace Kelly’s hand reaching back away from her as her murderer squeezes the life from her is, despite the film not being in the absolute top level of Hitchcock’s filmography, still iconic. The entire murder sequence, the crosscutting between Tony at his meal and the apartment where horror is taking place, shows Hitchcock’s masterful technique at full force. Even with very little to work with, he still crafts an immortal sequence.

Despite its magnificence, the film has issues. A large portion of Dial M for Murder revolves around the location of specific door keys and their moving back and forth, and it can become contrived and confusing upon first viewing, especially with much of the explanation given through dialogue, which was never the director’s favourite way to get important information to the audience. And, once again, it takes a while to get off the starting blocks. Yet, once it is out of the traps, the film is a top level, controlled, tight thriller well worth a watch or revisit. It’s not Alfred Hitchcock at his impossible level of genius, but damn if it isn’t a better picture than most other directors could dream of.

Score: 19/24

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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