I’m slowly working my way through the final four reviews of 2012, and that works in my favor as I haven’t really had time to watch classic films due to all the upcoming year-end and Oscar films that are out. Anyway, today’s film is considered one of the premier works of Alfred Hitchcock, and while it’s great, I don’t consider it my favorite Hitchcock. Dial M for Murder finally introduces me to Grace Kelly who was amazing as I knew she would be. My issue lies in how Hitchcock feels content to throw everything upon coincidence during the climax, leaving the actual ending to feel as flimsy as cardboard. In spite of that, the plot is intriguing and presents an interest discussion on the role of God and control.
Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) is an ex-tennis pro who dreams of killing his wealthy wife Margot (Grace Kelly) after he discovers she’s cheating on him. In a series of carefully planned maneuvers, Tony ensnares a friend to kill Margot for him. Unfortunately, the plan goes awry and the assassin ends up dead.
All of Hitchcock’s works focus on deliberate plans, with the slightest variation ruining everything; but Dial M for Murder feels the most deliberate. So much of the film revolves around characters plotting, and detailing their plots that it becomes funny when one little thing ends up messing up everything. I’m sure something has been written on this film about Hitchcock and the idea of control because this movie proves it. There are several scenes where characters detail the future events within the narrative. When Tony first details how Swann is to kill Margot, the camera enters into an aerial view, aka God’s eye, to create an aerial diagram of the room, and to allow the God of the director and the audience to judge Tony’s actions. When Margot’s paramour, crime author Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings), details the makings of a perfect murder he’s taking the role of God in creating an event that will be passed down to Tony himself. Mark especially brings the idea of the director, or the author, into focus since they are acting as gods of their own.
From the opening frames this film presents you with the working mind that is Tony Wendice. His entire meeting with the hitman/former friend Swann (Anthony Dawson) not only allows the audience to catch a glimpse into Tony’s mind, but also sees him setting the plan into motion before we’re even properly introduced. I think that’s why Ray Milland works so perfectly within this film because you can see the cogs working in his mind through his darting eyes, or the way he wipes off Swann’s fingerprints during his talk with him. That moment in itself is a macabre bit of humor. There’s actually quite a bit of dark comedy in Dial M for Murder that I wasn’t expecting. The opening music, and tranquil scenes of domesticity with the silhouettes of our lovers (Margot and Mark) on the wall imply that this could be a light comedy or romance; boy are you in for a surprise. The third act is where the humor dovetails with the coincidental lack of control Tony has, as Mark, desperate to save Margot from the gallows, details an idea for Tony to take the fall by saying he was plotting to kill his wife! Of course, the audience finds this funny because it’s what we’ve just seen down to the tiniest detail. Either Mark should be a cop, or Tony’s idea is so cliché that anyone could have planned it. You have to love Mark’s telling Tony he should sacrifice himself for his wife, “it would only mean a few years in prison.”
I’ve mentioned Milland’s genius already, but can you think of another actor who could say “I thought of killing her. That seemed a more sensible idea” with such a devilish grin. The way Tony is so intent on sensibility, and doing everything cleanly becomes an obsession to him. He’s so controlling of this plan that to see it fall apart so quickly is both sad, and funny. What ultimately lost me is how the tight control established by Hitchcock is allowed to fray into a series of coincidences. You could tell me that’s the point, that even the best laid plans fall apart, but I loved how tightly wound this film was and I felt that just felt to pieces. The final minutes involve Chief Inspector Hubbard (John Williams) going through a series of motions that would establish Tony’s guilt. It’s fairly convoluted, but ends up focusing on Swann’s key that ends up in Margot’s handbag. As an aside, I think it’s funny how the MacGuffin ends up being a key à la Notorious. Anyway, the key comes into play and damns Tony, but there’s also an emphasis on him using a particular door at the right time that could have never been planned. Furthermore, if the police inspector knew all of this before, as he claims he did, why did he wait until the eleventh hour, literally RIGHT BEFORE Margot is to be executed, to do this? Again, it seemed to be Hitchcock relying far too much on coincidence.
I almost forgot about Grace Kelly, didn’t I? Margot feels incidental to the plot, especially as the film puts her in prison for the third act. The majority of the driving force is the chess match between Tony and Mark. Kelly does beautifully though in a role that could have too quickly placed her in the position of beauty object, although I don’t know any woman who could dress like Grace Kelly does when she’s spending a quiet evening at home. Actually, Hitchcock deliberately decided to have Kelly’s costumes become darker throughout to symbolize her descent into Hell. The few courtroom scenes shown actually do look like Hell as Kelly stands in front of a red background with a dark light shining up at her. Of course, by having Margot take the fall legally for murdering Swann, Tony is able to kill her in the cleanest way possible. I should also bring up the attack sequence. The attack on Margot, by Swann, is a trademark scene in Dial M for Murder. It’s a highly sexual scene that combines sex and pain in the most risqué way possible. She’s wearing a sheer negligée is thrown on a table (attacked from behind), with the camera focusing on her legs. The way Swann pulls on the scarf wrapped around Margot’s neck mimics a thrusting motion, while Margot stabbing Swann is a violent moment of penetration. I included it below.
Dial M for Murder is a taut thriller that analyzes the idea of God within human creation. It does fall down on coincidence far too much by story’s end, and I do feel that lessens the impact of the climax. Grace Kelly and Ray Milland are amazing. Robert Cummings is good, but it’s obvious he doesn’t have the weight of the other two stars.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.