DIAL M FOR MURDER (1954) – Warner Bros. – Rating: ★★★★
Color – 105 minutes – 1.33:1 aspect ratio
Principal cast: Ray Milland (Tony Wendice), Grace Kelly (Margot Wendice), Robert Cummings (Mark Halliday), Anthony Dawson (Lesgate/Swann), John Williams (Chief Inspector Hubbard).
Produced and Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Written by Frederick Knott, based on his play
Director of Photography: Robert Burks
Film Editing: Rudi Fehr
Original Score: Dmitri Tiomkin
We open on an idyllic marriage scene, in a small but well-furnished London flat, the happy wedded couple locked in a kiss. Cut to the same married couple, eating breakfast. The wife is reading a small notice in the newspaper, about an American author due to arrive in England on the Queen Mary that day. Cut to attractive man disembarking from the Queen Mary. Cut to this attractive man, locked in a kiss with the wife, in the same London flat we just witnessed a moment ago! Alfred Hitchcock, who got his start in silent films, and never lost his flair for visual storytelling, has given us a complete set-up to the story in two minutes, with no dialogue.
The wife, Margot Wendice, and the author, Mark Halliday, had a fling the previous year, when Mark was last in London, and Margot’s marriage was in turmoil. Now, Margot tells Mark, her husband Tony is a changed man. She won’t leave him, because he has become the perfect husband. She also tells Mark that she destroyed all of the letters he wrote to her, except one, which was stolen from her purse. After the theft she recieved two anonymous letters of blackmail, and even after she paid the requested sum she never recieved the letter back.
At this moment Margot’s husband Tony returns to the flat, and his wife introduces Mark as a friend of hers. Tony sends the couple off for an evening on the town, saying he is too busy with work to accompany them. He then makes a phone call summoning a man to the flat, on the pretext of buying a used car. This man, named Swann, was an old college schoolmate of Tony’s, and Tony uses a very subtle and charming method of blackmail to convince Swann to murder his wife, for the sum of one thousand pounds. It turns out that Tony knew about the affair all along. He is the one who stole the letter from his wife’s handbag, and he wishes to dispense with her and inherit her considerable fortune.
The murder is to take place the following evening, when Tony and Mark will be at a stag party, and Margot will be home alone. Tony will hide a key outside the flat so Swann can let himself in, then at an arranged time Tony will make a phone call to the flat, summoning Margot from bed to the phone, where Swann will finish her off. There is a very suspenseful build-up to the moment of the phone call, and as it happens Margot is able to grab a pair of scissors from the desk and stab Swann in the back. He falls to the floor, impaling himself and dying instantly. Margot summons Tony home, who, instead of despairing at seeing his plans foiled, sends Margot to bed, then rather adroitly manipulates the scene so it will appear that Margot wilfully murdered Swann.
Now Chief Inspector Hubbard (played by the always solid character actor John Williams) arrives on the scene. It is established rather quickly that Margot is indeed convicted of murder and sentenced to death. It seems that Tony’s plan will succeed, but Inspector Hubbard is a very cool character, and knows more than he lets on. The climax of the plot hinges on something as simple as a key, with Hubbard playing a hunch that turns out to be correct.
Why does this film work as well as it does? It is 80% dialogue, 20% action. It takes place all in one small flat. It is considered a “minor work” of Hitchcock, and justifiably so. And yet it is thoroughly entertaining. For me it is Ray Milland that saves the day. The wrong actor in the Tony Wendice role would send the film irrevocably off the rails.
Performance: The performances are all solid, with the exception of Robert Cummings, who seems a little soft in his role as the boyfriend, and fails to generate any sympathy. Ray Milland really carries the movie, as yet another sympathetic Hitchcock villain, charming from his first scene to his last. John Williams is fantastic as Inspector Hubbard. (Film lovers may recognize Williams as Audrey Hepburn’s chauffeur father in the movie Sabrina, also released in 1954.) Both John Williams and Anthony Dawson reprised their roles from the original New York stage production of the play. And then there’s Grace. Has any woman ever looked as gorgeous on screen as Grace Kelly? Although she had an other-wordly beauty, she always created characters that female moviegoers could identify with.
Hitchcock in 3D? Yes, this film was initially released in the 3D format. Alfred Hitchcock did not wish to use 3D in the way it was typically employed at that time, with lots of very obvious moments of long narrow objects poking and jabbing at the audience. He only employed that twice in the film, once with scissors and once with a key. Rather, in anticipating the way 3D is used today, he framed the scene with objects along the proscenium, like a lamp, or a bottle, that gave added depth to the scene. The film has not been available to view theatrically in 3D since a brief re-release in 1982, but is just as visually compelling in the 2D format.
Source material: Frederick Knott adapted the screenplay from his own successful stage play, and changed very little. All of the major plot elements are in place in the play, and many lines of dialogue are lifted directly from it as well.
Hitchcock moment: The scene in which Tony Wendice outlines his plan for murder to his old schoolmate Swann would be enough to derail most movies, but here it works brilliantly. For 22 minutes of screentime (that’s 1/5 of the entire movie!), we have two characters in one small room, talking. The camera does move, as do the characters, and the staging and filming are perfect. But the scene is entirely dialogue driven, and not only the dialogue but the acting could not be better. Ray Milland does a vast majority of the talking, and he is completely charming, winning over not only Swann but the audience as well. If Milland does not succeed in doing so, the rest of the movie does not work. This scene alone makes the film worth watching. (I will attempt to do a deconstruction of this scene, as a separate entry, at a later time.)
Keep it closed: In the Truffaut interviews, Hitchcock talked about directors adapting movies from stage plays, and how they would frequently “open up” the play, taking it beyond its original setting. He felt this was a big mistake; it was the original story and setting that made the play successful, so he felt one should not mess with success, but rather keep it in its original setting.
Guilty as charged: Since the theme of guilt and innocence seems to be the most prominent throughout Hitchcock’s works, it may be worthwhile to look at how the concept applies to the characters in this film. Tony Wendice is guilty from a criminal respect; he first plots to murder his wife, then works to have her hanged for murder. Yet there are many moments in the film when the audience sympathizes with Tony. Certainly Margot and Mark are guilty of infidelity, and while this is not an act deserving of murder, it certainly colors the way that viewers feel about them as characters. Mark is never a sympathetic character. Lesgate, or Swann, is also criminally guilty. It would appear he has had the makings of a thief for many years, and he rather quickly agrees to commit a murder for a fairly small sum. Many would argue he gets what he deserves. Yet once again, Hitchcock manipulates the audience in such a way that we feel a bit sorry for Lesgate, who is really just a pawn in Tony Wendice’s grand plan. Even Inspector Hubbard carries a guilt, for he manipulates the Wendices as well, in order to prove his theories. So on a psychological level, there are no innocent people in this film. And Hitchcock, primarily through the story and brilliant cutting, has the audience shifting its sympathies almost from moment to moment.
Recurring players: Robert Cummings had earlier starred (in much more convincing fashion) in Hitchcock’s Saboteur. John Williams had appeared in 1947’s The Paradine Case, and would later become the go-to guy for the Alfred Hitchcock Presents television show, appearing in numerous episodes. Harold Miller was also an extra in Saboteur. Sam Harris (man in phone booth) was also an extra in Foreign Correspondent, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Saboteur and The Paradine Case. Forbes Murray, (the judge) would later appear as an extra in Vertigo. Grace Kelly would go on to star in the unforgettable Rear Window, and she would have the pleasure of sharing the screen again with John Williams in To Catch A Thief. And let’s not forget Bess Flowers, “the Queen of the Hollywood extras.” She appeared (primarily as an extra) in over 700 films, far and away the most of anyone in movie history. In addition to being “woman departing ship” in this movie, she was also an extra in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Notorious, Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Vertigo and North by Northwest.
Legacy: This movie would be remade twice for television, in rather forgettable versions. It was also updated for the big screen in 1998’s A Perfect Murder, directed by Andrew Davis and starring Michael Douglas, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Viggo Mortensen. This version has the husband (Douglas) convincing his wife’s lover to commit the murder for him. It does not share too much in common with the original film, and while the plot twists are somewhat clever and original, it does not have the dramatic intensity of the earlier film.
Where’s Hitch? How would Alfred Hitchcock insert a cameo into a film which takes place almost exclusively in one room, with a very small cast? No problem! In the school reunion photo hanging on the wall, in which we see Tony Wendice and Swann sitting side-by-side, there is a familiar face on the near side of the table, turning to look at the camera. This very clever and effective cameo comes at about 13:11 into the film.
What Hitch said: Alfred Hitchcock was very dismissive of this film, saying that he was just “coasting, playing it safe.” On the surface this is understandable as there really isn’t much to this film. And yet it works; for a dialogue-driven movie in an enclosed space, it is completely compelling and entertaining. All Hitchcock would ultimately say was: “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.”
Definitive edition: Warner Brothers released a 3D blu-ray version of this movie in 2012, and it is well worth the extra expense to pick it up. Even if you do not have a 3D TV, you can still play the movie in 2D. The 2004 DVD version was a decent print, but it was also in standard format. Apparently it was easier (and cheaper) to project 3D movies in the standard screen format. I always assumed that was the aspect ration in which Hitchcock shot the film, so imagine my surprise when the blu-ray began playing and the movie was in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio! It is like watching an entirely different movie. The widescreen, the colors, the depth of focus are all quite good. Many techies have complained about the quality of this transfer, but I can assure you that Dial M has never looked this good on home video. Not even close. Why on earth did Warner release the DVD in standard format? At least they have corrected that mistake. The blu-ray also includes a ho-hum 21 minute-documentary, not so much a making-of as it is contemporaries lavishing praise on the movie. You hear from Peter Bogdanovich, M. Night Shyamalan and others. Also included is the theatrical trailer (also in widescreen.)