1954’s Dial M for Murder is, in many ways a curiosity. A British-set film, at the height of Alfred Hitchcock’s American era of films; a film designed for and shot in 3D, from a director never working in that format again, before or after – indeed, Hitchcock described the format as a “nine-day wonder”; a film noted for one-off collaborations with composer Dimitri Tiomkin and screenwriter Frederick Knott, on whose stage play the film was based. This is a film that at once doesn’t look or sound very Hitchcockian at all, yet is unmistakably his work.
Dial M for Murder marks Hitchcock’s first collaboration with future Monegasque Princess Grace Kelly, who he would go on to direct in the same year’s Rear Window, along with the following year’s To Catch a Thief. It was also his sole collaboration with leading man Ray Milland, perhaps most celebrated for his role as an alcoholic writer in The Lost Weekend (1945).
The film is largely set in a single Maida Vale location – the home of ex-professional tennis player Tony (Milland) and wealthy socialite Margot (Kelly) Wendice. The plot focuses on a bungled attempt by Tony to have his wife murdered: blackmailing an old college friend, Swann (a pre-Dr No Anthony Dawson), into doing the deed, by using the particulars of an affair between Margot and Robert Cummings’ Mark Halliday into framing Swann as a blackmailer. When the attempted murder goes wrong, Tony then attempts to frame his wife’s self-defence as premeditated, whilst all the while convincing as the devoted and concerned husband. It is only the determination of Halliday and Chief Inspector Hubbard (John Williams, reprising his role from the stage play) that can save Margot from the death penalty and uncover Tony’s nefarious scheme.
Dial M for Murder stands out for a number of reasons. First, it is probably one of the few times in Hitchcock’s career where the camera really isn’t moving that much. Whilst 1948’s Rope had a single, apartment-based set, that film experimented with a faux one-shot approach, using the hidden cuts to play with lighting and scenic backdrop, and pre-dating Birdman by close to 70 years. In the case of Dial M for Murder, this truly does play like the filming of a stage play – and little more.
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It also features that sole collaboration with composer Tiomkin, who has produced an over-bearing score that does little but distract. This leaves the film not sounding like 1950s era Hitchcock. Finally, the film’s bravery in portraying the leading lady as an adulteress, and her lover as a good man with the best of intention, cannot be understated. This is still in the era of the restrictive Hays Code (aka the Motion Picture Production Code) which set strong restrictions on the behaviours that could be depicted on screen. Whilst adultery does not appear to have been listed explicitly as forbidden, its inclusion does reflect Hitchcock’s repeated willingness to challenge conventions on the depiction of human behaviours and frailties.
On a positive note, Ray Milland makes for an excellent lead. His performance at once convinces his fellow characters of the purity of his motives, whilst clearly allowing the audience a glimpse at the fun he is having at everyone’s expense. It would not have been out of place for his character, Tony, to break the fourth wall, and to talk directly to the audience. The plot is detailed, well thought out, and with a central plan that has been considered, with any potential holes in Tony’s plan and motives closed, where possible. Whilst never a whodunit, there is genuine pleasure to be had in watching Hubbard and Halliday work through the possible permutations of not only what might have occurred on the night of the killing, but also through possible thought processes and motives.
Less enjoyably, the film is, as suggested, wildly over-scored, with a turgid staginess that leaves it slightly outstaying its welcome, which is possibly because we tire of the same location, faces and sounds – without the compensations found in Rope’s ingenious structure and wordplay. As a side note, the film also features one of the most unintentionally hilarious onscreen deaths of all time, as Dawson’s Swann character massively hams up his final moments.
This is the decade in which Alfred Hitchcock gave us such enduring classics as Rear Window, Vertigo and North by Northwest, and, as such, this remains a lesser work. It is, however, a work that draws the viewer into an intriguing plot, anchored by excellent lead performances and, as such, is very worthy of investigation.
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