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Dial M For Murder (1954)

October 12th, 2007 · 4 Comments

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31 days of October. 31 articles devoted to the screen’s maestro of suspense and the macabre, Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980). I’ll be jumping back and forth through five decades in this series. More than half of the films I’ve never seen before, but even the ones I have seen were viewed, researched and written about this month.

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Retired English tennis star Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) and his wife Margot (Grace Kelly) receive a guest to their townhome in London, American mystery writer Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings). Margot has been carrying on a long distance affair with Mark since they met a year ago. She explains to him that a handbag carrying one of his letters was stolen, and that the culprit sent word that unless she paid 50 pounds, he’d turn the letter over to her husband.

Tony unexpectedly cancels plans with the pair. He lures a nefarious college alum named Swann (Anthony Dawson) to his home under the pretext of buying his car. Tony reveals his wife’s infidelity and that he was the one who blackmailed her. He offers Swann £1000 to murder Margot, using his knowledge of Swann’s criminal activities as leverage. He walks the killer through an elaborate murder scenario, leaving nothing to chance.

While Tony and Mark are out, and Margot is home alone, Swann sneaks in with a key that’s been left for him. Tony calls his wife on the telephone, luring her from the bedroom, and Swann strangles her with a stocking. But Margot buries a pair of scissors in her killer’s back. Through some fancy maneuvering, Tony is able to make it appear that his wife acted against a blackmailer in cold blood. She’s arrested and sentenced to death, but a police inspector (John Williams) begins to unravel Tony’s story.

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Production history 
Producer Sidney Bernstein had seen a play called Dial M For Murder in London and recommended it to Alfred Hitchcock. While in New York in the fall of 1952, the director caught a performance on Broadway. Written by Frederick Knott, the story hinged on an Englishman who discovers his wife is having an affair with a visiting American. He plots to murder her in order to gain her inheritance, but the crime does not go as planned.

Hitchcock was under contract to Warner Bros., who owned the film rights to the play. House of Wax had become a blockbuster for the studio in 3-D, and Warner Bros. wanted the director to try the format. Hitchcock was bitter that advertising dollars had been taken away from I Confess and invested in this “new toy.” But he concluded that Dial M For Murder could be cleverly and quickly made in 3-D.

Part of Hitchcock’s excitement was that he had convinced Cary Grant to take on the role of the wife killer. But Warner expected the film to be a big hit in 3-D and balked at forking over 10% of the gross to Grant. Hitchcock had to settle on Ray Milland. For the role of the wife, the director recalled seeing a screen test for a then 24-year-old starlet named Grace Kelly. She was under contract to MGM, but the studio agreed to loan her out for a reasonable price.

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There was no time to Americanize the story, so Knott’s screen adaptation followed his play letter to verse. Filming commenced quickly – in August 1953 – but by that time, 3-D had gone the way of the yo-yo. The film had a brief release in 3-D, followed by a conventional “flat” exhibition. It was a hit anyway, grossing $5 million in the U.S. Hitchcock was dismissive of his contribution and of the film, deadpanning, “I could have phoned that one in.”

Dial M For Murder is lesser Hitchcock, a talkative production stymied by the limitations of the stage, but it has two assets that elevate it to the top of the lesser Hitchcock list: “Warnercolor” and Grace Kelly. “Warnercolor” was simply Eastman Kodak film processed in a studio lab. Cheaper and less refined than Technicolor, the color definition is still far more vivid than modern film. Watching Grace Kelly – the most beautiful movie star of all time – saunter across this color palette is even more luscious.

As opposed to sustained suspense or three dimensional characters, the movie is devoted mainly to hearing people plot a murder. Ray Milland is a cheeky villain though, and the story builds anticipation by making us want to see him get away with it. Remade in 1998 as A Perfect Murder with Andrew Davis directing Michael Douglas and Gwyneth Paltrow, the script was far more realistic, but the result much less memorable.

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Terrence Brady at Dial H For Hitchcock writes, “While not Kelley’s best Hitchcock work, Dial M for Murder was the beginning of the ‘Hitchcock blonde films’ and the plot is just absorbing enough to offset the rather flat characters.”

Dial M for Murder lacks the depth and thematic resonance of Hitchcock masterworks like Rear Window, Vertigo, or The Birds. That said, I’ve always found it one of his most entertaining films,” writes Dan Mancini at DVD Verdict.

Lisa Skrzyniarz at Crazy For Cinema writes, “Though somewhat dated, Dial M is pure Hitchcock, a film that makes you think twice about pissing off your spouse.”

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Based on play · Interrogation · Psycho killer · Woman in jeopardy

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jeff McM // Oct 13, 2007 at 2:17 am

    It’s not a first-rate Hitchcock movie but I have a weak spot for the ‘spouses plotting to murder each other’ subgenre of movies.

  • 2 Pat Evans // Oct 17, 2007 at 1:57 am

    A few years back someone thought it would be a wheeze to screen the 3-D version which frankly added absolutely nothing. I am still fond of this movie although it certainly is a little stagey — but when I saw the unnecessary remake, I appreciated it all the more.

  • 3 Damian // Oct 17, 2007 at 9:38 pm

    Movies like this one, Lifeboat and Rope sometimes make me wonder what Hitch would have been like as a stage director, because he seems to like working with single-set environments and/or claustrophpbic settings.

  • 4 Joe Valdez // Oct 17, 2007 at 10:21 pm

    Jeff: I think you should schedule a series on this subgenre for your site at some future date. War of the Roses comes to mind as the greatest “spouses plotting to murder each other movie” ever made.

    Pat: 3-D was the studio’s idea to cash in on a craze. Hitchcock was under contract and not in a position to fight issues like that, but I agree that the movie has a glee to it that the remake did not. Thanks for your commentary and for increasing my British slang by another word!

    Damian: Excellent comment. Francis Coppola was a theater director at heart, and I think his best films respect the tenure of stagecraft, with emphasis on the script and the actors, not camera lenses or special effects. I see Hitchcock possessing a similar sensibility, in spite of references he made over the years to screenwriters as “stooges” or actors as “cattle”. He respected stagecraft, but I get the impression he wanted a much wider audience than the theater would permit.

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