From the British website, The Guardarian and its writer Henry Barnes comes this great article about Alfred Hitchcock and Dial M for Murder.In our upcoming book, Love That Bob: The Life and Times of Bob Cummings, we take a look at this classic movie. The book will offer an interesting look at the film and Cummings along with some exclusive interviews.
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According to Hitchcock, his filmography contained only a few “Hitchcock films”. Rear Window was a Hitchcock film, Psycho was a Hitchcock film, The Lodger was the first Hitchcock film. Dial M for Murder should have made the cut.
It’s a film based on a hit play by a writer, Frederick Knott, who hated writing and made by a director who said his batteries were running dry. When discussing the film (officially his 45th) in Francois Truffaut’s A Definitive Study of Alfred Hitchcock – a book-length transcription of 50 hours of conversation between the directors – Hitchcock said the picture was an example of him “coasting, playing it safe”. In the book they’re done with the film within three pages: “There isn’t very much we can say about that one, is there?”
I disagree. Dial M for Murder has a romping plot, a gloriously slimy villain and – thanks to the fact that (as in Rope before and Rear Window after) the action is mostly constrained to one room – some of the weirdest, tricksiest camera work of Hitchcock’s career.
The plot follows Tony Wendice’s plan to have his wife, Margot, murdered so he can collect on her life insurance policy. A former tennis pro whose tour earnings are dwindling, he’s also discovered that Margot is having an affair with a famous crime writer called Mark Halliday, who is visiting the couple from America. Wendice has blackmailed an old schoolmate to do the deed and plans to use a boys’ night out with Halliday as his alibi. But when the murder’s bungled and Margot kills the killer, he’s left having to improvise.
Wendice (played with a snake-like charm by Ray Milland) is a classic Hitchcock villain: the stylish epitome of upper class evil. There’s something wonderfully, obviously false about him, especially in the scenes just before he and Halliday head out for the night. It’s the last time that Wendice believes he’ll see his wife alive and, as he leaves the flat, he turns back to her, pats her on the cheek and says “Goodbye, dear”. The pat on the cheek is contemptuous, the “Goodbye” horribly final. Grace Kelly, acting for Hitchcock for the first time, doesn’t have a lot to do as Margot in the film, but here she gives a haunting reaction, full of hurt and confusion, with a touch of recognition too.
Hitchcock refused to, as Truffaut says, “ventilate the play” – to extend the scope of the story much beyond what Knott had already supplied for the theatre. We rarely leave the Wendice’s flat, so Hitch forces himself to play in the space. There’s a great moment where the camera points down over Wendice as he explains his plan, making the room look like a crime scene, even before any foul play has taken place (later, when the murder has been foiled and the police arrive, the same shot is used to study the forensic team at work). Similarly canny is the quick pan following the bundle of money that Wendice throws to the murderer and the slow tracking shot that follows him around the room as he describes discovering Margot’s affair.
Finally, there’s the attempted murder – as frightening for me as Psycho‘s shower scene. The two note “tick-tock” refrain of the soundtrack as Wendice realises his watch has stopped; the jump cut to the telephone exchange; the painfully – almost comically – long time it takes Margot to hang up the phone before the murderer strikes; Grace Kelly’s neck bulging over the tourniquet as he strangles her; her scrabbling for a weapon and then the scissors stabbing into his back and getting knocked deeper in when he falls to the ground. The close-up as they hit home. Nasty stuff.
I’m not sure why Hitchcock never really owned Dial M for Murder. Perhaps it was because he owed Warner Brothers a film and just wanted it out of the way before his move to Paramount. Perhaps the tacky novelty of shooting in 3D irritated him (although by all accounts he did an artisan’s job of that too, even if most cinemas chose to run the standard version). Maybe he was bored by a story that, bar the attempted murder, relies little on surprise or suspense to entertain the audience: it’s less whodunit, more hedunit and will he get away with it?
Whatever the reason, it’s a shame Hitch chose to dismiss Dial M. It’s a taut, acidly funny thriller. Rear Window would come next, an undisputed classic made by a master whose batteries were fully charged. This is how good he was when running on empty.