Dial M for Murder-1954
Director- Alfred Hitchcock
Starring-Ray Milland, Grace Kelly
Scott’s Review #995
Reviewed February 28, 2020
A fabulous offering by stylistic director Alfred Hitchcock, Dial M for Murder (1954) arrived on the scene when the cinematic genius was hitting his stride in the United States, already having found success in England. The late 1950’s and early 1960’s revealed his best offerings, but this one is no slouch either. The film mixes thrills, double-cross, and murder in a way only Hitchcock can- perfectly. It is fast-paced and shot almost like a play, using primarily one set only. Based on the Broadway hit, which came first.
An English former tennis champion, Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) hatches a scheme to kill his wealthy but unfaithful wife Margot (Grace Kelly), who’s embroiled in a liaison with handsome writer Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings). When Tony’s plans go awry, he attempts a second act of deceit, but events spin out of control for him when Margot, Mark, and a sly Scotland Yard inspector (John Williams) begin putting the pieces of the puzzle together.
The film is a popular one by way of story because it is very conventional and pure Hitchcock. The viewer immediately knows who the killer is and what his motivations are- the hunger for wealth and the jealousy of another man. The most fun is when hiccups begin to form, and Tony must fly by the seat of his pants to cover his tracks and think of another way to seal Margot’s fate. If he cannot murder her why can’t he send her to prison? Milland is perfect in the role with perfect eye shifts and head turns.
Set pieces like a key and a handbag come into play giving the film zest. When it is revealed that there are multiple keys the plot gets juicier and juicier. The flat where Tony and Margot reside is beautifully designed with state-of-the-art furniture and decorations making the set a character. Lavish curtains and French doors are utilized during the late-night attempted murder scene, which is thrilling to witness, leaving the astounded viewer with heart palpitations.
The brilliance is that the viewer is not intended to hate Tony, at least this viewer didn’t. While he is not likable his motivations can be somewhat understood. On the flip-side Margot and Mark are not the heroes of the film either and their shenanigans come back to bite them. I dare say that Grace Kelly has had better roles in Hitchcock films. To Catch a Thief (1955) immediately comes to mind. Margot is not a particularly strong character and is quite weak.
Dial M for Murder has commonalities with two other Hitchcock gems that immediately come to mind. As with Strangers on a Train (1951) the use of a tennis star is utilized as a major character and a twisted strangulation is the name of the game. Also, a tit-for-tat technique is used. Like the underappreciated Rope (1948), the one-take sequence style and a film that could be a stage play are traits that are noticed. Those films are good ones to be in the same company with.
The final thirty minutes travels by at break-neck speed as we wonder what will happen next. The cat-and-mouse activities are delightful and remind us that the film is quite basic and stripped down compared to his later films. One set, good actors, and a full-throttle story does wonders to satisfy a fan. The camera movements and techniques are key to the entire film as a shot here or a shot there are timed with flawless precision. Hitchcock used 3-D filming, inventive for this time.
Perhaps not as famous as Hitchcock delights like Psycho (1960), Vertigo (1958), or North by Northwest (1959), Dial M for Murder (1954) serves as much more than a warm-up act to those classics. With a fast pace, twists and turns, and good British sensibilities, the setting of a stylish London flat and good sophistication make this film one to remember.