Dial M for Murder

Written by:
Ben Stephens
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Hitchcock’s second attempt at adapting a stage play set entirely in one room (the first being 1948’s Rope) deals with some incredibly ugly themes, but it does so in such a genteel way that you hardly notice. This flat, prim tone, no doubt suggested by the British play from which it is adapted, is perhaps the most disturbing thing about the film, which chronicles a husband’s plan to have his wife murdered.

The husband, Tony Wendice (Ray Milland), is a former tennis pro who married his socialite girlfriend Margo (Grace Kelly) for her money. The marriage appears completely devoid of passion – the film’s opening shot shows this perfectly, as the camera moves around a completely static, lifeless kiss between the pair – and it comes as no surprise to find out that the young Kelly is seeing an American writer (Robert Cummings) on the side.

Milland is disturbed by the affair, but not for emotional reasons; indeed he seems to be a creature almost utterly devoid of emotion. He is much more concerned with the prospect that his wife will leave him penniless, so he blackmails an old college classmate C.A. Swan (Anthony Dawson) into murdering her.

The gradual change in tone through these opening scenes is perhaps one of the film’s more remarkable aspects, and the key is Milland. We see his cheery domestic manner with Kelly, followed by a short passionate scene between the adulterous couple before Milland returns, still chipper and full of impotent English bonhomie. He blithely sends Kelly out for the evening with her lover, then without breaking his stride sits down at the telephone and calls Swan, the man he intends to enlist for the murder. There is something chilling about the matter-of-fact way in which Milland operates in these scenes. Once Swan arrives, the polite smile never leaves Milland’s face as he switches gears from exchanging pleasantries to blackmail and murder.

There is also a strong class element at play in this, the film’s key scene. Swan comes from a similar background to Wendice (the two were at Cambridge together), but somewhere along the line he has spent some time in jail and slipped a couple of rungs on the social ladder. His plaid coat, shifty eyes and oily moustache mark him as the suave Wendice’s social inferior. It is Swan’s need for money that ultimately causes him to turn murderer; not that the deed is handsomely paid, but rather because Wendice knows all the grisly details of some of Swann’s past moneymaking schemes, and it is the threat of exposure that really clinches the deal. “What makes you think I’ll agree?” asks Swan, “For the same reason that a donkey with a stick behind it and a carrot in front of it always goes forwards and not backwards” responds Wendice, chummily painting a very clear picture of exactly how he views Swan.

Wendice outlines his plan for the perfect murder with almost boyish excitement and eventually Swan agrees. The audience is so taken in by Milland that an element of complicity begins to creep into play – we almost want him to succeed. This is the main problem with the film, in fact. Kelly is innocent, of course, and her infidelity is shown as justifiable if not downright healthy, but she is never particularly interesting, and there a feeling that Hitchcock shares Wendice’s view of her as something of a drag. During the murder scene itself, Hitchcock cranks up the tension in such a way that each setback (Kelly’s unexpected change in plans for the evening, a hiding place for a key blocked by Cummings at a critical moment, a stopped watch, an occupied telephone box, even Kelly’s wavering hand holding the telephone that almost blocks Swan’s access to her neck) prompts a gasp from the audience, a moment of anticipation during which they find themselves perversely anxious that the innocent Ms. Kelly might not end up getting whacked.

Like all perfect murders, the plan does finally go awry, and Wendice is forced to cover himself by improvising a hasty Plan B. During the second half of the film, he makes adjustments to the crime scene, doctors the evidence and answers questions from Inspector Hubbard (John Williams). Williams gives a boost to what would otherwise be a fairly dull second act. He is almost a caricature of eccentric, no nonsense law-enforcement (and a rare example of a sympathetically portrayed Hitchcock policeman). The audience’s sympathies readily shift to him, enabling us to jump the fence and join him in pursuing and punishing the murderer whom we were identifying, if not wholeheartedly rooting for, a few minutes earlier.

The fact that the film was originally shot in 3D leads to what is perhaps its most famous shot (Kelly’s overhead grab into the camera as she reaches for a pair of scissors while Swan holds her down on the desk), but elsewhere it is responsible for some rather awkward compositions (the long scene in which Milland tricks Swan into committing the crime is almost entirely dominated by a series of boxy table lamps). Nevertheless, Hitchcock moves his camera magnificently around the set. The screen view is directed into otherwise innocuous places by swoops, zooms and a series of sharply angled overhead shots that make certain scenes, including parts of the ‘murder’ itself, look as though they were captured on surveillance cameras.

Dial M for Murder is a compact study in the sinister minutiae of domestic life, so it is only appropriate that its climax should manage to milk a high degree of tension from the question of whether a certain character will or will not walk through a door. In all, it is a rare and accomplished example of the work of Hitchcock the Minimalist.

– Ben Stephens

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