Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Hitchcock always said he filmed Dial M for Murder straight because he admired the
incredibly tight construction of Frederick Knott's play and didn't want to crudely
open it up - see The Caine Mutiny for and example of that. Hitchcock's respect
for the material energized his creative juices to augment and support it for the screen, a
perfect arrangement for a director so skilled in visual communication.
With its fine set of star performances, this is one of the best entertainments from the Master of Suspense.
Tired of living on an allowance in a small flat, Tony Wendice (Ray Milland)
devises a complicated plot to murder his wife Margot (Grace Kelly) for her money. He blackmails an old
acquaintance named Swan (Anthony Dawson) to do the deed while he develops an alibi. When the
murder plot goes totally wrong, Tony has to concoct another plan - to frame his wife
People who sneer at filmed plays should give Dial M for Murder a close look as it's
probably the best adapted stage play ever done. Hitchcock keeps the action confined mostly to a pair of rooms.
A trial sequence is done in straight-on single shots of Grace Kelly with expressionistic lighting. Even the exteriors
are mostly rear-projections, a depthless outdoors that keeps things claustrophobic.
Four perfect actors inhabit the key roles. This is probably Ray Milland's best movie, as the scheming
Tony Wendice is perfectly adapted to Milland's urbane dryness. He's intelligent, crafty, and knows
exactly how to show his inner tension whenever the other actors turn their backs to him.
John Williams has a field day in the best role ever written for a snooty detective, Inspector
Hubbard of Scotland Yard. He asks questions,
shows his dismay at troublesome witnesses, and cooks up a proof of Margot's innocence as if
inspired by the ghost of Sherlock Holmes. Dry English wit as delivered by Williams often isn't as
witty as it should be, but Dial M for Murder allows him a character instead of the usual refined
attitude and smart but empty dialogue. 1
Anthony Dawson is a fine sympathetic killer and is really the victim of the piece. His villainy
gains a special tension when we find ourselves rooting for him in the big murder scene. Hitchcock
often takes advantage of difficult tasks to make us identify with unsavory characters, and
Dawson is creepy enough to make us very nervous.
Robert Cummings's performace has been disparaged as unromantic and uncharismatic, but I find him a perfect bland
hero for the beautiful but icy Grace Kelly. Kelly is a bit like Nicole Kidman - a great looker capable of playing
particular roles well, but cold around the heart. I never for a minute liked or believed The Country Girl.
In Dial M for Murder she's Hitchcock's perfect trophy blonde, much more than a mannequin but still playing
the glamorous, helpless female as a stock part.
They're all stock parts, really. Dial M for Murder doesn't try to do a postmodern post-
mortem on the chamber mystery the way Sleuth does, but it's possibly the most adept straight
chamber mystery we've got. The villain is diabolical and the hero detective has to be diabolically
clever to catch him. That leaves the romantic couple as supporting accessories. Margot Wendice and
Mark Halliday are adulterous lovers, which doesn't make them villains but also doesn't build much sympathy for
them. Although jealousy isn't Tony's main motive for his perfect crime, being cuckolded always has appeal.
Dial M for Murder is a mechanical play. We listen to all the scheming and counter-scheming
in the first person. Several sections of the play are devoted to acting out murder scenarios, before
and after the fact. Only an Agatha Christie fan can keep up, even with Hitchcock's help in placing
relevant objects and clues right under our noses. Neither he nor the play cheat, withhold evidence or
play narrative tricks ... no "lying flashbacks" here.
Hitchcock lays out a murder plan like a rehearsal for D-Day complete with overhead analysis of the
battlefield, one small apartment. When that murder falls apart we have just enough information to
follow Tony's quickly-improvised Plan B, yet not nearly enough to intuit Inspector Hubbard's inspired
retaliatory scheme. Hitchcock must have been challenged to stay ahead of it himself, and I confess
to not having it all figured out either. It's just too much fun to be carried away by the show.
Perhaps driven batty by David O. Selznick, Hitchcock spent six years or so playing with visual
gimmicks and offbeat techniques, sometimes for their own sake. For
Under Capricorn he experimented
with long takes and complicated dolly shots that mostly impressed other filmmakers. In
Stage Fright and I Confess he
tried to push the narrative language of film to show a secondary reality, with flashbacks from
'unreliable' flash-backing witnesses. Those didn't work so well. He also made time to
see what he could do with color stylization.
Dial M for Murder tackles both color and a real gimmick, 3-D. His is probably the best 3-D picture
ever made simply because the depth illusion is built into the design of every shot. Only a couple of objects
project out into the audience but everything else in the movie is designed in depth. Shots are often low-angled
to show pieces of ceiling beyond, and every composition has a foreground object (in dialogue scenes, usually a table
lamp) to balance the frame and provide something for us to 'look past' to see the actors. When the camera moves in
Kiss Me Kate we feel like we're going for a roller
coaster ride. In Hitchcock's picture we glide through a space with characters who seem to be in a living 3-D Viewmaster
image. If anything, the 3-D effects are sublimated; I've seen the show projected well in depth and it makes it
even harder to concentrate on the mystery.
Dimitri Tiomkin contributes a nervous, romantic score that makes good use of the brassy Warner Brothers orchestra. It's
said that Warners' music tracks were unusually impressive in the middle fifties because of the way the music
was arranged and recorded. It was also mixed hotter than usual.
Last observation - the actual murder scene with the pair of scissors never seemed right to me. Maybe Margot Wendice is a
powerful tennis player but penetrating a man's back at that angle is like stabbing a telephone pole, from the other side.
How can she get any power behind the scissors? Perhaps Hitchcock realized this when he followed up the shot with a
painfully graphic angle of the victim being impaled by his own weight when he falls. Ooof. One look at that convinces
Hitch must have been censor-proof by this time. If one does not know the film, its poster artwork makes it look as though
Grace Kelly is being raped, not choked. I can't help but think that the director approved the campaign while envying
the role given Anthony Dawson. Hitchcock was far too portly to 'rehearse' the scene with Kelly, to show his actors
how to do it.
Warners' DVD of Dial M for Murder has a snappy color transfer of this flat full frame film. Actually, the full
frame is a matter of interpretation, as the title credit blocks are clearly formatted for 1:66, and the trailer
included as an extra is matted at 1:66 as well. I understand that a lot of 3-D films were projected 1:33 for
simplicity's sake, but it didn't have to be so. At any rate, despite a little looseness at the top of the frame, the
show looks fine at this ratio. 2
The extras are basic but good. The Laurent Bouzereau docu uses critics as spokesmen because everyone
associated with the film is long gone. The added short 3-D A Brief History does the format a disservice by
claiming that people hated 3-D or derived terrible eyestrain from it. Part of that rap came from CinemaScope flacks,
and some from the fact that the system was indeed unwieldy to work with. And, I suppose audiences did have to sit
up straight and keep those glasses on. 3-D failed because it didn't translate into extra profit for exhibitors.
Most 3-D movies were lousy because the producers depended on the gimmick to make up for production shortcomings,
like Anne Bancroft being carried away by a guy in an ape suit. Also, exhibitors figured out
the perfect system when they dropped individual nickelodeons in favor of projection. Patrons in huge numbers only had
to park their bodies in a seat to enjoy the show. The glasses were an added factor that required organization and
attention. 50s movie houses were palaces of patron concern compared to the anonymous boxes we have today, but the
exhibitors liked to keep things simple back then as well. There were always problems, like people who couldn't see
the picture properly, complaining loudly for their money back.
Finally, with all the technology we have and the interest in 3-D, why aren't the big companies engineering 3-D DVDs
of them? That's a lot simpler to answer. The studios don't want the grief either. There are good video 3-D systems but
that would require a studio to invest in somebody else's technology. The only time that ever happened was with
Fox's CinemaScope, which was so popular all the studios had to play ball. Everybody wants to own the player
and the software and the underlying technology. 3
Also, frankly, the studios figure they're constrained enough by enthusiasts who want letterboxing and 16:9 transfers,
and don't want to complicate the market with 3-D. There's not enough money in it, didn't you hear?
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Dial M for Murder rates:
Supplements: two featurettes, trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 17, 2004
1. They don't even try
to do drawing room mysteries any more. In Gosford Park the mystery and the detective are a
shallow joke, as nobody's really trying to solve anything - they might as well call themselves the
Sweep it Under the Carpet Squad.
2. At the big 2003 3-D festival at the Egyptian last year, all the films were shown 1:37
for obvious reasons - setting up the projector alignment is difficult enough, usually requiring several hours even with
experienced personnel. That's why GOG and Revenge of The Creature were shown 1:37 even though they want
to be much wider.
When I saw Dial M for Murder at the Tiffany 3-D festival in 1979 it was 1:37 and looked fine there too. I did
see It Came from Outer Space in full polaroid 3-D at
about 1:66 or so and it was much improved by the cropping.
3. It's similar to the Microsoft-FCC model for stifling innovation. That's the same reason
we got stuck with the lousy NTSC (Never Twice the Same Color) television standard and can't settle on a decent
future HDTV standard. Competition doesn't work when some involved are disproportionately powerful.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson