Dial M for Murder

Dial M for Murder. Warner Brothers 1955.
Dial M for Murder. Warner Brothers 1955.

Before watching the movie:

I’ve had this physically on my shelf (or thereabouts) for over a year, and it’s high time I got to it. A classic, obviously. The evocative title is frequently referenced and parodied. But what is it? Nobody seems to go into that. There’s a telephone, and a murder, and that’s about it. The box says there’s a love triangle, and a murder arranged by telephone, but it’s still pretty vague. I expect somebody overheard on a party line, but otherwise, I’ve got nothing.

After watching the movie:

Tony Wendice married into money, and his wife Margot’s affair with Mark jeopardizes the life he’s become accustomed to. But if she were to die, he could inherit that money. To that end, he’s blackmailed Swann, an old college schoolmate into participating in his perfect murder scheme. While out at a party, Tony will call his home in order to bring Margot to the phone, where Swann will wait behind the curtains to strangle her, then make it look like a botched burglary, leaving the window open, but entering and exiting through the front door with Margot’s key. But it’s impossible to plan for everything, and suddenly Tony has to cover his tracks while still dealing with his very much alive wife.

This is a stageplay on the screen. That’s impossible to miss.  Some say that the success of “Dial M” is that Hitchcock makes you not notice it’s a play, but I was quite conscious of that fact. It was just so well-done I didn’t care, and didn’t have cinematic scenes thrown in to make the unedited scenes look small by comparison. Hitchcock believed that doing anything to open up a play for the film adaptation damaged the construction that made the play a success, and while I’ve never really cared for play adaptations, after seeing this, I have to agree with him. Where others attempt to make a movie with a play’s script, Hitchcock has made a play with a movie’s camerawork.

Discussing the actors’ performances cannot help but retread comments made by approximately everyone who ever discussed the film, but they are what drives the film. Not enough can be said about Ray Milland. In the first half of the movie, he oozes charm, class, and intelligence, and makes most people perversely love him for plotting to blackmail a man into murdering his own wife for the inheritance money, and thrill to see him succeed. When his plans go wrong and he tries to get his wife to take the fall, he loses my sympathy, but then the interesting, intelligent, likeable role is filled by John Williams’s Chief Inspector Hubbard. I thought that Mark would finally take the lead at that point, but he remained a nice guy, but uninteresting. Even Anthony Dawson, who isn’t at all present in the second half, had more to work with, playing another sympathetic villain. He’d clearly rather not be trying to murder Margot, but he’s caught between incrimination if he doesn’t and a big payoff if he does. Margot herself didn’t particularly stand out in Grace Kelly’s performance until the trial and end, where she caught my attention by checking out, dead inside from her ordeal.

This film was pressured into being produced in 3D, but I only knew it because the DVD had a featurette about it. There are even some “fly off the screen” moments, but I completely overlooked them. I can always see those gimmicky bits in modern films, because they seem to always be underscored with short lenses exaggerating the space, and more often than not either slow motion or extremely shallow depth of field. They don’t work without stereoscopy. Those moments in this film are very significant moments that make dramatic sense within the plot. Elsewhere, Hitchcock keeps the cinematography interesting the traditional way, and while the 3D effect would probably enhance that with added depth, it works just fine without it. Sixty years later, modern directors are only just now beginning to eschew the gimmicky “jump out at you” shots, but still feel obligated to tack on a few because they expect the audience to expect them. Perhaps they might die out before the 3D fad dies again, but I doubt they will. I wish I could have seen this in 3D, but I’m not sure it’s ever been released for home video that way. This would be a good time to do so though, with BD3D and 3DTV trying to gain a foothold in the living room. While “Dial M” doesn’t need 3D, I think 3D needs “Dial M”.

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