Hitchmania: Dial M for Murder (1954)

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Alfred Hitchcock “bought the construction” when he purchased Frederick Knott’s Dial M for Murder, a hit play that the filmmaker would transform into a 1954 motion picture. Hitch changed very little from the source material because he was very fond of the sleuthing, murdering and blackmailing contained in the little apartment.

Dial M for Murder is another of his “confined” thrillers, operating on a suffocating stage not unlike Lifeboat or Rope. Like with the latter, Hitchcock’s understanding of the macabre turns the space into a tension-filled arena. It brims with sex, violence, money, and deception.

Ray Milland stars as former tennis pro Tony Wendice. He’s married to the wealthy Margot (Grace Kelly), but there is trouble in paradise. Margot is having an affair with mystery writer Mark (Robert Cummings) and Tony is aware of this. He’s also aware of the fact that his meal ticket might be running out on him, so he plots to have her killed.

The murder is nearly perfectly planned, with Tony making use of an old school chum (Anthony Dawson) to do the job. Unfortunately, something goes wrong on the night of the crime and the best laid plans begin to unravel. Despite thinking on his feet and closing up some key loopholes (pun intended), Tony soon finds himself pursued by Chief Inspector Hubbard (John Williams).

The best Hitchcock works are conducted like a symphony and Dial M for Murder is no different. There is an elegance to every movement and glamour in every note struck, making this film a masterwork of craftsmanship. Hitch’s camera glides around the camera, selecting various vantage points like an overhead shot of the planning stages.

Along with Hitchcock’s confined-spaces direction, the picture gathers steam from its cast. Kelly burns up the screen as the woman who finds herself peril but winds up finding a way out. She wasn’t quite a bit star when she came to work with Hitch for the first time and would act in two more pictures for him.

Her tremendous magnetism is the fulcrum of where everything that’s wrong about Tony’s plan actually goes wrong. For all his meticulous planning, the variables just aren’t covered. His watch stops and human beings act in unpredictable ways, no matter how much scheming is involved.

This anticipation of how people would react leads to tremendous suspense in Dial M for Murder. There is a lot of guesswork involved in cracking the case – and Hubbard admits that – but the Knott-helmed screenplay wisely switches the figureheads and thus swaps the audience loyalty.

Dial M for Murder, therefore, swings from the planning of the killer to the detective work of Hubbard. Where Tony plans his course based on patterns he thinks Margot follows, the Chief Inspector tries to crack the case by anticipating Tony’s movements and how he’ll react when a key piece of the puzzle doesn’t quite fit where it should.

Dial M for Murder was filmed in 36 days and isn’t among Hitchcock’s favourites. He made the movie in 3D, so the play-staging effect results in the fact that the camera is more stationary than usual. It swings back and forth more than it advances, which makes the actors do most of the movement. For a filmmaker with a love for “pure cinema,” this sensibility is never going to ultimately satisfy.

Regardless, this is a great movie. It is aesthetically fascinating in many ways and it packs some tremendous performances from Kelly, Millard and Williams. As far as tales of blackmail, murder, night-time sensuality, and deceit go, Dial M for Murder is one of the very best.

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