Like his earlier masterpiece Rope (1948), Hitchcock‘s Dial M for Murder is based on a play (by the English playwright Frederick Knott), and it’s not difficult to see that it was originally intended as a theatre piece. Not only is the bulk of the film set within the confines of an apartment—as also in Rope—but the cast is small and the action is built around a single dramatic climax. However, Dial M differs from Rope in the position of this climax, and therein lies the former’s greatest weakness. While Rope had us gasping for air to the very end, wondering whether the two young sadists were going to be discovered for the callous murderers they were, the titular phone-call-related murder in Dial M occurs smack dab in the middle, marking the starting point of a protracted, and at times yawn-inducing, police investigation. Still, Hitch’s classic lenticular virtuosity, as well as some stand-out performances, ultimately make Dial M a gripping view.
One performance in particular makes Dial M a must-see: Ray Milland as Tony Wendice, a former professional tennis player turned businessman whose wife, Margot (Grace Kelly) is having an affair with an American mystery writer, Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings). For some reason, Hitchcock seems to like tennis-pro protagonists—witness Guy Haines in Strangers on a Train—but he likes weaselly, sinister characters even more, and Milland doesn’t disappoint. In the complicated scheme he concocts for murdering Margot, his talent for cunning calculation is complemented by his debonair charm, making him a criminal mastermind of the most lethal kind. Tony’s crime is not in any way a crime of passion, lusting as he is for his wife’s substantial fortune.
While Tony’s cleverness might outwit even the most suspecting spouse, his plans are facilitated by Margot’s extreme, almost unbelievable, naïveté. And her lover, Mr. Halliday, is almost her equal in obtuseness. As with most hyper-intelligent villains, however, Tony needs an alibi to ensure his deadly deeds are brought to fruition. Enter C.A. Swann (Anthony Dawson), a Cambridge college acquaintance who, as we will soon find out, is pictured alongside Tony in a reunion photograph on his wall. (Hitchcock certainly doesn’t skimp on the disturbing details.) Tony blackmails Swann into murdering Margot in exchange for not divulging some of the outstanding malfeasances on Swann’s rap sheet—and further promises deliverance of a hefty sum of cash to Swann as part of the agreement.
Swann is the focus of many of Hitchcock’s wonderfully subtle camera angles, which are deftly integrated with Robert Burks‘s atmospheric cinematography. In one example, Hitch captures a profile view of Tony and Swann from behind as they converse on the sofa, a shadow drawing over Swann’s face as the realization of his inability to extricate himself from the plot of his murderer-seeking “employer” begins to dawn on him. As spectators, we become additional unwilling accomplices as our eyes, like Swann’s, open wider in disbelief and repugnance at each syllable that passes Tony’s lips. When nightfall comes and it’s time for the dirty work, Swann is shown as a gloom-enveloped figure approaching the Wendice residence; gradually his face penetrates the blackness aided by the light of the moon. It’s a marvelous chiaroscuro effect that has a noir-ish feel to it. And the murder itself, a quasi-operatic grappling contest, capitalizes on Hitchcock’s unrivaled flair for the melodramatic as Margot’s and Swann’s illuminated forms jerk to and fro in ferocious intertwined contortions.
Alas, the almost orgasmic intensity of this peak moment ultimately serves to highlight a polar contrast against the rapidly ensuing anticlimax as a team of police led by Chief Inspector Hubbard (John Williams) begin to dispassionately cobble together the evidence of the crime. The cavalier but sharp-witted Williams, a veteran of both the stage and the screen whom I remember also playing a detective in at least one episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, was nevertheless an ideal choice for the role. Breezily civilized banter is his forte, and initially the naturalness of his pleasantries makes him seem like your average friendly, bumbling British chap. But he ultimately proves the paragon of perspicacity, his keen nose for justice ultimately sniffing out the truth masked by Tony’s planting of a pair of stockings and a duo of latchkeys.
If only the interrogation didn’t drag quite so much; the second half of the film unfolds like a Q&A session as Hubbard enters into an interminable series of interrogations. In Dial M, the suspense lies not in the murderous act itself but in waiting to see whether the perpetrator will be brought to justice. It’s a structural technique in which action becomes subservient to dialogue, thereby building momentum at a more calculated, cerebral pace. Hitchcock would later perform a similar ill-advised experiment in one of his final films, Frenzy, in which an equally affable police chief drudgingly ruminates about discovering the originator of a series of necktie murders. Like Frenzy, Dial M is far from the auteur work of Vertigo and North by Northwest, but it’s a solid thrill nonetheless. Despite the film’s shortcomings, I enjoyed eavesdropping on the other end of the screen.
Joe’s Grade: B