Monday, May 16, 2011

#283. Dial M For Murder (1954)

Directed By: Alfred Hitchcock

Starring: Ray Milland, Grace Kelly, Robert Cummings

Tag line: "Is this the man she was waiting for... or the man who was waiting for her?"

Trivia:  Ranked #9 on the American Film Institute's list of the 10 Greatest Mystery Films

Peter Bogdanovich once asked Alfred Hitchcock why he directed 1954’s Dial M for Murder, a thriller based on Frederick Knott’s successful stage play. The reply that he received was pure Hitchcock. “When the batteries are running dry”, Hitch told Bogdanovich, “take a hit play and shoot it”. 

Tony Wendice (Ray Milland), a retired tennis pro living in London, recently discovered that his wife Margot (Grace Kelly) is having an affair with American Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings). Fearing he’ll be tossed aside, and thus cut off from Margot’s vast fortune, Wendice devises a plan in which his wife will be murdered by a complete stranger, clearing the way for him to inherit her money. 

To set his scheme in motion, Wendice blackmails Charles Swan (Anthony Dawson), a former college acquaintance with a shady past, and coerces Swan into killing Margot one night while he himself is out. But things go very wrong, forcing Wendice to quickly concoct a plan ‘B’, the success of which depends on his ability to convince a nosy Inspector named Hubbard (John Williams) that Margot herself may be guilty of murder. 

Hitchcock’s first choice to play the tennis pro-turned-wife killer was Cary Grant, but having seen Dial M For Murder several times now, I can’t imagine anyone other than Ray Milland in the role. Milland is so devilishly calculating as Wendice, so deliciously deceitful, that I was convinced his character had planned the perfect murder. In fact, about 20 minutes of Dial M for Murder is dedicated to Wendice setting his plot in motion, first blackmailing Swan to carry out the killing, then explaining in full detail exactly how he wants his unwilling accomplice to pull it off. Wendice is smart, cunning and manipulative, and Milland is positively magnificent in the role. In him, Dial M For Murder has a lead who successfully conveys a dual personality, bringing his character’s slimy disposition to the surface, then, when necessary, concealing it behind a mask of flawless sophistication. 

Dial M for Murder has been unfairly relegated to the level of ‘minor Hitchcock’, a film that the director himself, with tongue planted firmly in cheek, said he “could have phoned in”. It is a tribute to the Master of Suspense that, even on cruise control, he could thrill an audience so completely.


Anthony Lee Collins said...

Two comments on Dial M for Murder.

1) I've been lucky enough to see it in 3D, as it was intended to be seen, and in that format it's clear that it's one of Hitchcock's best movies. In 2D it can seem a bit stage-bound, but in 3D everything he did makes total sense.

2) On some writing blogs recently we've been talking about the "protagonist," and one writer feels her protagonist isn't likeable enough. Hitchcock is obviously the best argument against this idea, since in a lot of pictures he gets you to root for somebody who is objectively bad but who you're hoping won't get caught, or he gives you a hero who, looked at objectively, is really rather a creep.

DVD Infatuation said...

@Anthony: Thanks for the comment.

I would love to see this film in 3-D. You're right in that, at times, it does appear to be stage-bound (though Hitchcock does what he can, a la overhead shots and such, to keep it interesting to watch).

Personally, I've never minded movies that don't have likeable protagonists. In fact, for me, the whole "gotta have someone to identify with" concept has the inherent danger of stifling creativity. Hitchcock was, indeed, someone who threw this philosophy out the window from time to time (and definitely in DIAL M).

For me (and I accept that I may be in the minority on this), it's all about telling the best story you can. If someone's making a film on Charles Manson, don't throw a milk-toast character in there just to "give us someone to root for". it just feels like a Westernized/Hollywood concept, one that many European filmmakers don't adhere to (compare the original INSOMNIA with Christopher Nolan's remake and you'll see what I mean. Both are great films, but the original has much more of an edge, in my opinion).

Thanks again, and have a great day.

Anthony Lee Collins said...

I was lucky to see it in 3D (at least 25 years ago), and it was interesting because they showed a Three Stooges 3D short before the feature, and that was about what you'd expect (things poking and jumping out of the screen every few seconds). It served (perhaps deliberately) to show by contrast how subtle Hitchcock's use of 3D was.

DVD Infatuation said...

Anthony: Wow! The Three Stooges in 3-D. You know, I'm pretty sure I saw one of their shorts on TV that had that whole 3-D feel (Moe's eye-poking aimed towards the camera as opposed to his cohorts, etc). As with everything else that was 3-D in those days, it's lame without the effect. To see it in 3-D WITH Dial that's an experience!