Dial M for Murder (1954)

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

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Much like Strangers on a TrainDial M for Murder is about the plausibility of carrying out the ‘perfect murder.’  It’s a film that takes place almost entirely in a single apartment, with a first act that announces the plan for murder, followed by the attempted murder itself, before we finally watch the consequences of the failed murder.

Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) finds out that his wife, Margot (Grace Kelly) is having an affair with Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings).  Tony writes Halliday letters in an apparent attempt to blackmail him, but we soon learn that this is part of an even deeper plan.  Tony brings by an old friend, Charles Swann (Anthony Dawson), and blackmails him, making it seem as though the sinister letters were written by Swann himself.  With this information, and a substantial cash offering, Tony coerces Swann into killing his wife, which he will stage to look like a break in.

In a long exchange, Tony lays out the plan in great detail, like he’s explaining to the audience the rules of a game about to be played.  Then we watch the plan unfold, with knowledge of every intricate detail of the plan, and quickly it goes awry, with Margot killing Swann in self-defense.

Forced to improvise, Tony thinks quickly and rearranges the evidence to make it seem as though Margot killed Swann in a clear act of murder rather than self-defense.  Again, the film takes us through the intricate details, as a police inspector talks through every aspect of the crime scene, and we can sense Tony’s plan falling into place.

Later, everything seems to go according to plan (from Tony’s point of view), as Margot is set to be executed, the following day.  The problem arises when Halliday, himself a successful crime writer who takes pride in being able to think like a criminal, puts the entire case together, implying that Tony had wanted Margot dead.  Tony is able to poke holes in this version of events, but soon Halliday finds the briefcase full of money set to be paid to Swann for the would-be murder, and from there Tony’s plan collapses.

This is a very talk-heavy movie.  It takes its time stating the plan and analyzing every last step in that plan, both before and after the murder, and breezes through the conventional action.  In many instances, a character will ask for clarification on a part of the plan, and after the murder, Tony will ask the inspector certain questions about his version of the crime, constantly clarifying the course of the investigation.  The audience is always right there with Tony, meaning we never know more or less than him as the murder goes down.

Like in Psycho and, to some extent, Rope, this is a Hitchcock movie that delves into the psyche of the criminal.  The film’s protagonist is Tony even as he is also the villain of the film.  Like in Psycho, the perspective shifts over halfway into the movie, but for the most part, the film immerses us in Tony’s headspace, as if attempting to normalize his behavior so that it takes you a minute to remember that he’s plotting to murder his wife. It’s such a carefully-constructed plan that it almost starts to feel harmless and then you quickly remember what he’s up to.

Dial M for Murder came out at a time when Warner Bros. was trying to capitalize on a brief 3-D fad.  The film was shot with a 3-D camera rig, and certain shots seem constructed specifically for the 3-D effect…

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Notice Margot’s hand extending into frame in the second shot, seemingly looking right through her, almost as if we’re meant to be looking through Margot’s first-person perspective.

For the most part, though, the movie would seem to not make great use of the 3-D technology.  Like Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, shot on 70 mm film, it’s a lavish effect used on a story contained almost entirely inside a contained space.

The story behind this film is that Hitchcock kind of mailed it in while focusing most of his attention on his next film, the highly celebrated Rear Window.  Still, Dial M for Murder feels like another classic Hitchcock film, meaning it’s no better or worse than any of the others save for maybe Psycho.

Put it this way, so many of his films seem to me to be glorified B movies.  They celebrate twisted characters and unlikely but sensational plots.  They’re rarely about the characters above the plot, but the stories are only possible considering the distorted world views of these characters.

Tony Wendice is appropriately slimy and conniving, every word out of his mouth made more evil by his British drawl and slick hair.  These are conventionally high-status, high-class individuals going to extreme depths to solve a problem usually created by feelings of their own insecurity and even mortality.  Tony’s plan is an elaborate one designed only for revenge, and it’s a wild overreaction to his wife’s infidelity.  The film never attempts to show us the happier times, implying that there may never have been any.  We can picture the much younger Margot only marrying Tony because she was trapped or forced to.  There is never any indication that they once shared anything resembling love.

But the story is about the murder plot and not about the people involved.  Like in so many Hitchcock movies, the characters feel as though they’ve been built up to justify such a crazy plot.  He has the situation in mind and then creates the characters that we believe could carry out such a thing.

 

At the end of the film, Tony gets what he deserves, and it’s not really until the final twenty minutes that we leave Tony behind and start to see him from the outside, the way everyone else sees him.  Before that, we get the impression that his plan is working, and this is the first time we see for sure that his charms have worn away.  Dial M for Murder suggests a type of evil, like so many Hitchcock films, lurking beneath the surface but one that cannot last.  The good guys win in the end as they often seem to do.

I have to think that if Hitchcock were making his movies today, there would be no happy endings.  The closest thing I can think to a Hitchcock story is Black Mirror, a Twilight Zone-esque show about the dark side of humanity and technology.  In Black Mirror, so many of the episodes end in a haunting fashion, but Hitchcock most often gives us the happy ending that people must have expected from every movie they saw in the theater at this time.

Up Next: Gun Crazy, (1950), LBJ (2017), The Savages (2007)

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