Dial M for Murder Remains Whodunit Expertise
by Kristin Battestella
Alfred Hitchcock (The Birds) directs the 1954 murder mystery Dial M for Murder featuring Ray Milland as an obsessive husband plotting to kill his adulterous wife Grace Kelly. Yes indeed, despite whimsical music, morning newspapers, and stereotypical bliss, our lady is kissing two men as daytime white robes give way to scandalous red dresses and evening cocktails. The reunited lovers catch up on blackmail, anonymous threats, and whether to tell her husband, but the British accents feel a little put on amid heaps of exposition. Fortunately, the pip-pip cheerio phone manner adds to the fronts presented, and banter about buying a car with his money or hers and who gave up one’s career for whom reveal more than what’s really being said. Dial M for Murder has a lot of laden dialogue, past tense tellings written by Frederick Knott from his stage play, and for some audiences, the meticulous talking about comings and goings we didn’t get to see may be too stiff. However, viewers also need to be informed of each recognition, supposedly coincidental encounter, and unaware pretense as the eponymous request drops so casually. Who’s pulling the wool or has one over the barrel and who’s going to blink first? Devious two-handers elaborately orchestrate the perfect crime via untraceable cash, switched keys, and fatally timed phone calls that can’t prove who really did what. The first half-hour of Dial M for Murder tells you who’s going to be killed, when, where, and why with strategic placements, police scenarios, and assumed deductions. The only person who knows different will be dead, but the victim isn’t where she’s supposed to be, leading to suspenseful slip-ups and costly mistakes. Stag party alibis, nightgowns, behind the curtain veils, roughness over the desk, risque strangulation, and penetrating scissors make for an interesting sexual, even cuckold or homoerotic symbolism. Our husband lets another man enter the home sanctity and do to his wife what he cannot – orchestrating the coughing, gasping, purple bruises, and rough aftermath as an over the phone voyeur. A brief intermission gives the audience some relief before locks, shoes, mud, handbags, and thefts leave holes in the revisionist history. What’s been touched, misplaced, planted, burned? No forced entry and suspicious stockings escalate to lawyers, nightmarish trial montages, and an ominous sentencing. However preposterous or unproven, could there another perpetrator? Jolly good men pour drinks and ponder what if, winking at writing a detective novel and putting oneself in the criminal’s shoes. “Just one more thing” deduction a la Columbo wears down the suspect with crunching numbers and attache cases suspense. Viewers must recall how the chess meets Clue really happened as each tries to outwit and reveal the truth.
Former tennis star now working man Ray Milland (The Premature Burial) is so doting he even sends his wife to dinner and the theater with another man when he’s working late. Unfortunately, Tony Wendice is clearly up to something, lying on the phone and faking knee injuries amid arguments about why he gave up sports and what he would do if his wife ever left him. Of course he knew about the affair – blackmailing Margot with her stolen letter in hopes the ended correspondence meant they would live happily again. His being the charming husband, however, only serves to hide his obsessive plotting on how to kill his missus. Tony is so suave about it, yet the detailed character focus reveals how crazy he really is – excited and pleased with his guaranteed calculations. He calls the police about this ghastly accident before serving them tea, planting evidence, and telling Margot to corroborate what lies he told. Tony speaks for her, too, using her shock for oh yes, but you see explanations and tidy answers. The debonair tall tales, however, only lead to more questions he cannot escape. Likewise sophisticated Grace Kelly (Rear Window) has ended her romance for her husband, contented at home even if she doesn’t like listening to radio thrillers alone and seems like a kept little girl doing what her husband tells her. Margot robotically repeats what Tony says, confused by police and breaking down at the disturbing, intimate attack. Despite being the female victim held, used, attacked, and judged by men, Margot does have one moment of impaling power that disrupts her husband’s plans. She’s both numb and overwhelmed, not recalling his face but the horrible eyes and shamefully embarrassed for the adulterous truth to come out in her official statement. After all, scandalous women with secrets are unsympathetic to a jury. Mrs. Wendice lied about her lover, so why should anyone believe her now? Robert Cummings (Saboteur) as suave American writer Mark Halliday is here to be our lady’s holiday fancy, using his literary perspective to help Margot though he can’t quite put the pieces together thanks to carefully worded hypotheticals and holes poked in his theories. Shady criminal Anthony Dawson meanwhile – who appeared in the stage production with our Chief Inspector John Williams – is the swarthy, rough, killer womanizer able to do what our husband can’t. Fortunately, our inspector knows more than he’s saying, pursuing unnerving evidence and paperwork with jolly good deduction to counter every seemingly airtight explanation. He has a slick mustache, too!
Originally Dial M for Murder was designed for then vogue 3-D showings – evident now with obvious outdoor backdrops and exaggerated foreground objects. In hindsight, it makes no sense to have such a talkative piece presented in 3-D anyway, and if I could choose, perhaps Hitchcock’s surreal Spellbound would have been a more interesting visual candidate. Bar carts in the forefront, moving silhouettes on the wall, cameras following the cast toward the screen, and filming through doorways also lend depth, but those are more about Hitchcock’s voyeuristic audience rather than three-dimensional staging. Exceptional lighting schemes, flickering firelight, and strategic lamps also spotlight areas or divide the frame for players with opposite motives. Keys and staircases play their usual Hitchcockian part amid retro rotary phones, giant receivers, vintage cars, fedoras, furs, cigars, and cigarettes. Dial M for Murder relies on a small two-room set cluttered with furniture and objects to consider in the fatal orchestration – mirroring Dial M for Murder itself as the film tells you the plan then leaves viewers to wonder who gets away with it via panning cameras, overhead angles, killer point of view, and giallo mood. Frenetic notes match the violence as well as the internal simmering from our seemingly so cool characters, and when we do have action, it’s claustrophobic, intimate, and scandalous. His and hers separate beds are moved out of the bedroom while the illicit couple is seen sitting on one bed, filmed through the headboard during conversations about which man has her key. While the DVD has a brief behind the scenes chat about the fifties 3-D craze, a twenty-minute retrospective with contemporary directors breaking down Hitchcock’s suspense whets the appetite for more. Of course, there are similar plots to a Dial M for Murder like A Perfect Murder that makes audiences these days more aware of the outcome. The slow, talky nature may bother some, yet that hoodwink, who’s bluffing dialogue helps the suspense. Thanks to contemporary in your face and special effects, there’s also a certain appreciation in how Dial M for Murder doesn’t need elaborate set pieces thanks to deceptive performances, in-camera assaults, and crime complications. In plain sight sleight of hand, nail-biting clues, charming criminals, and reverse whodunit lies remain entertaining shout at the screen excellence for mystery writers, fans of the cast, and Hitchcock enthusiasts.
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