Alfred Hitchcock, “Dial M for Murder” (1953)
A clever and witty murder mystery with fine acting and sparkling dialogue, “Dial M for Murder” is a highly absorbing and entertaining film. The plot does have a lot of holes and fans of television shows and movies that emphasise earnest crime scene investigations (and lots of violence and supposed hard-edged grittiness) might find fault with the way the police conduct their inquiries but the film’s focus is on underlying themes of class, gender and control which generate the thrills and the motivations for murder.
Tony Wendice (Ray Miliband) is an ex-tennis player married to a wealthy heiress Margot (Grace Kelly) who discovers that she has been having an affair with well-known crime novelist Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings). Wendice sees an opportunity to bump off his wife and inherit her fortune when he comes across an old acquaintance from past university days Charles Swann (Anthony Dawson) who is currently down-and-out and in need of money. Wendice concocts the perfect murder and explains the plan to Swann in detail, in a fine scene shot with an unusual bird’s-eye point-of-view that emphasises the interior setting of the film. Swann follows Wendice’s plan to the letter but Margot turns the tables on him by stabbing him dead with a pair of scissors. His plan in tatters, Wendice nevertheless contrives to salvage what he can of it by manipulating his wife and the police and contaminating the crime scene in such a way that Margot ends up charged, tried and convicted of blackmailing Swann and is sentenced to hang.
Halliday uses his crime novelist sleuthing skills and astonishingly comes to the correct conclusion as to what really happened but cannot prove his line of thinking is correct. Inspector Hubbard (John Williams) comes to his rescue, having initially investigated the case and deciding to return to it because there happen to be a few details involving the travels of two door-keys that don’t quite, er, key in, in the narrative that has sent Margot to prison and certain death.
Once again Hitchcock calls viewers’ attention to the unstable and often dangerous position of women vis-a-vis the men in their lives who control their money and often their fates. Kelly’s Margot is a demure and dependent woman who defers a lot to Tony and Mark. The one time in the film in which she truly takes charge of her life is when she is fighting for her life and she unknowingly wrests control away not just from Swann but from Tony; from this point on, their marriage is finished and it’s only a question of whose downfall is faster and whose is more permanent. Despite Kelly’s restrained acting, her character is never really free and at the end of the film she is no more changed for the better than she was at the beginning.
Miliband steals the show as the slimy and controlling Tony Wendice desperate for money and willing to go to any lengths to get it: he’s not above stalking and then blackmailing Swann, and his attitude towards Swann and Margot after Swann’s death is chilling despite the smarmy charm. Cummings and Dawson play their characters in workman-like mode and Williams lights up the screen with his droll inspector character who displays unexpected depths of resourcefulness.
None of the characters can be said to be moral – even Williams isn’t above deception – and though justice is seen to be done, it’s a grubby patch-up job. The police and court system are revealed as less than impartial and subject to manipulation by a clever sociopath. Only Williams’ own doggedness saves the day but the future is not necessarily “happy ever after” for Margot and Halliday. One day their relationship too will lose its sparkle, they may drift apart and Margot may find solace in another man’s arms, and the unhappy sequence of events may play out once again.
The action takes place almost wholly in one room which gives the film its claustrophobic air. Effective use is made of lighting to increase suspense and terror. The suspense is maintained throughout the whole film in spite of the light plot. Hitchcock pays great attention to details, right down to the clothes worn by Kelly, starting off with a bright red dress that is replaced by blander and duller clothing as the film progresses. In short, this film shows Hitchcock on a creative roll that was to peak in the late 1950s / early 1960s.