Alfred Hitchcock Dials Up “Dial M for Murder”

14 11 2010

“I just did my job, using cinematic means to narrate a story taken from a stage play. All of the action in Dial M for Murder takes place in a living room, but that doesn’t matter. I could just as well have shot the whole film in a telephone booth.” — Alfred Hitchcock

In May 1954, Warner Bros. released “Dial M for Murder,” the thirty-eighth movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Based on the successful stage play by Frederick Knott, who also wrote the screen adaptation, it is, I believe, Hitchcock’s last movie remake of a theatrical drama. (Knott wrote another well known “woman attacked in her home” drama, “Wait Until Dark.”)

“Dial M” begins when illicit lovers Margot Wendice (Grace Kelly), a married woman, and TV mystery writer Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings, previously seen in 1942’s “Saboteur”), are reunited in London. Although they believe their affair is still secret, Margot’s husband, former tennis player Tony (Ray Milland), is aware of it, and has been coolly plotting his revenge. Margot explains to Mark that her purse had been stolen earlier that year, with the one love letter of his that she had kept still inside. The purse was recovered eventually, but the note was gone – and now, she’s being blackmailed by Tony himself, although she does not know it.

After Tony insists on staying home while Margot and Mark go to the theater, Tony contacts C.A. Swann (Anthony Dawson) under the pretense of wanting to buy his car. Swann, a former classmate of Tony’s, has been exploiting wealthy widows and skipping out on unpaid bills across England. Tony uses this information to blackmail Swann into agreeing to murder Margot, all the while calmly wiping his fingerprints from drinking glasses, doorknobs and chairs.

The next night, Tony and Mark go out after Tony goes to great – almost unbelievable –  lengths to talk Margot into staying home. Finally, she agrees, and Tony leaves a key where Swann can find it. Swann slips into their apartment, but when the phone starts to ring, he hides behind the curtains. Margot gets out of bed to answer it, and Swann attacks her, trying to choke her with a stocking. She manages to break free, and in the struggle she finds a pair of scissors and stabs him in the back. (The editing in this sequence is like a preview of the shower scene in “Psycho.”) He falls to the floor dead, and Margot hears a voice on the phone: It’s Tony, trying to get her attention.

Tony races home, calms Margot and puts her to bed, and deals with the police, believing that he’s committed the perfect crime. He doesn’t have to deal with Swann, and while he waits for the police, he sets things up to make it look as though Margot had killed Swann in cold blood.

The next morning, Chief Inspector Hubbard comes to the apartment, asking questions that cast doubts on Margot’s story, leading to her arrest. Tony acts outraged but has actually planted doubts of his own; the night before, he told the police a version of the events that is at odds with Margot’s story. In a brief sequence that borders on surreal, Margot is seen under different color lights as she is arraigned, tried and sentenced to death, her expression subtly changing with each stage of her trial. The color shifts and her lack of dialogue make the point that Margot is in shock as her ordeal continues.

Hitchcock generally used color in a very subtle way, manipulating in over the course of his career somewhat less successfully than he did sound. Here, however, is an example of Hitch using color to great effect, in what is only his third color feature.

The day before Margot is scheduled to be hanged, Mark shows up at her apartment to beg Tony to say that it was all his doing. Mark has made up a story for him to take to the police that matches what actually happened almost perfectly, arguing that Tony could save Margot’s life, and all he would end up with would be a couple of years in prison. Tony refuses, saying the police would never believe such a wild story, but just then, Hubbard arrives at the apartment, claiming to be investigating another crime in the area.

Mark, hiding in the kitchen while Tony and Hubbard talk, hears Tony telling Hubbard about a stolen attache case, Mark sees it in the kitchen with him, and opens it to find it loaded with money. Mark calls Hubbard and Tony, saying he has the case, and that Tony has something to tell Hubbard. Tony presents Mark’s story as ridiculous, and Hubbard agrees that no one would buy it.

Hubbard leaves, but not before switching his overcoat with Tony’s. After Tony and Mark both leave, with Tony heading to the police station to claim his wife’s belongings, Hubbard slips back into the apartment, followed by Mark. Apparently Hubbard suspects that Mark’s story is close to the truth after all. The next to arrive at the apartment is Margot, escorted by the police. Hubbard tells Margot and Mark that he’s got a way to prove that Tony hired Swann and that Margot is innocent, one that involves a lot of key swapping and fast talk. Tony falls into their trap and reveals his own guilt, but takes it rather well, offering his captors a drink before they take him away.

Hitchcock may have dismissed “Dial M” for several reasons: He was asked by Warner Bros. to make the film when his own project, “The Bramble Bush,” fell through. He did not go through his standard practice of story meetings and rewrites as he was accustomed to, possibly because he was not as invested in this project as he might have been with a project of his own choosing. Also, Warner Bros. insisted that the film be made in 3-D, although by the time it was released the 1950s 3-D craze was coming to an end. Lastly, and this is a more subtle point, the wily Chief Inspector Hubbard may have rubbed Hitchcock the wrong way, as competent police officers in Hitchcock’s pictures are few and far between.

On the other hand, this is the film that first brought Hitchcock together with Grace Kelly, arguably his greatest female star. Although her performance here is very strong, she would have more assertive roles in “Rear Window” and “To Catch a Thief.” The rest of the cast is very good as well;  John Williams as the Chief Inspector has a lot of fun, showing exasperation with Mark Halliday and racing around the apartment while waiting for the arrival of Tony at the end of the picture.

Nearly the entire film is shot in the confines of that one apartment, and Hitchcock, working with cinematographer Robert Burks, looks at that apartment from every conceivable angle. Although the apartment is sunny and bright, it is transformed at night into a moody, claustrophobic place.

Hitchcock makes one of his more clever cameos in “Dial M,” appearing in a photo of Tony and Swann at a college reunion banquet. Oddly, there seemed to be a perfect moment for Hitch’s cameo that he ignored: On his night out with Mark, Tony waits at a phone booth to call home; surely the man finishing his call could have been the Hitch.

“Dial M for Murder” ends up being a very entertaining, if half-hearted, Hitchcock film. The story retains the feel of a stage play through most of the movie, especially given its cast of five characters. Also, some of the proceedings are hard to believe, such as the lengths Tony goes to so that Margot stays at home (prompting her to call him a baby) and the complicated explanation of lost keys that implicate Tony at the end. Undoubtedly Hitchcock was encouraged by how big a hit “Dial M” had been on stage; also, he probably was preoccupied with keeping that one setting, the apartment, visually interesting. On that count, he and cinematographer Burks score.

Here’s a look at the trailer for “Dial M for Murder,” which relies heavily on review quotes.

Next, Hitchcock reunites with James Stewart and Grace Kelly for one of his greatest – and sexiest – pictures, “Rear Window.”

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6 responses

14 11 2010
Keating

With the new 3D technology available on new televisons, I wonder if anyone will bother to release a 3D disc version of this. . .

14 11 2010
adamphilips

I’d like to see it!

14 11 2010
Keating

Yes, me too. While we are at it, let’s see it on the Imax 3D screen in the Imax Theater. . .

As we know, Hitchcock used technological innovations whenever he deemed them appropriate. Or when he was forced to by the studio. . .

15 11 2010
Joel gunz

One of my favorite Hitchcock films!

15 04 2011
“Dial L for Latch-Key” – An Absurdist Tribute to Alfred Hitchcock « Hitchcock and Me

[…] you can revisit my article on “Dial M for Murder” here. […]

25 06 2011
Alfred Hitchcock’s “Dial M For Murder” Takes on a New Dimension in 3D « Hitchcock and Me

[…] was also a revelation to watch the movie with an audience. When I wrote about the movie here, I felt that its humor took a back seat to suspense. Seeing it this week, though, I laughed along […]

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