Dial M For Murder (1954) Director: Alfred Hitchcock
“In stories things usually turn out the way the author wants them to;
and in real life they don’t…”
Based on the successful stage play by British playwright Frederick Knott (first featured on the BBC in 1952), Alfred Hitchcock initially intended for Dial M For Murder to be screened as an early 3-D film, however the concept of 3-D films would not be popular for several more decades to come. This amusing bit of history is yet another example of Hitchcock standing alone as an anachronism, far ahead of his own time, taking risks and making great movies. And despite being a simple film in concept, Dial M For Murder is a remarkably challenging film from Hitchcock that explores the place and position of an audience’s perspective.
Dial M For Murder is a delightful anti-“whodunnit” story. Throughout the most of the film, we know who the culprit is, and what’s more, the audience is placed mostly in a single room a la Rear Window (1954), right beside the scene of the crime, giving us a privileged perspective on the situation. Only Hitchcock can get away with making an audience deeply anxious while keeping us cooped up in an enclosed space for an entire movie. Dial M For Murder is rife with dramatic irony as Hitchcock toys with his audience. The story follows a retired tennis star named Tony Wendice (brilliantly played by Ray Milland), who has secretly discovered that his wife Margot (Grace Kelly) is having an affair with a mystery writer named Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings). Rather than confront her about the affair, Tony decides to create an elaborate ruse involving an old schoolmate named Charles Swann (Anthony Dawson), who also goes by several other names to hide from his criminal past. Tony blackmails Swann into killing his wife one evening –and the plot is laid out in a lengthy scene of exposition wherein we are presented with the anticipated murder via a variety of unique angles positioned around the room. It really is a marvelous achievement for Hitchcock to not only hold the audience’s attention in such a way, but also to successfully build the tension for the forthcoming attack. We love to watch a sinister plot unfold, but perhaps even more so, we love to watch an evil plan fall apart, putting a calm and confident genius on the defensive. Tony’s cool charisma is just begging to be unraveled and his hubris stands precariously atop a house of cards. Our anxiousness over Tony’s guilt is funneled into particular modernist images placed within the camera’s foreground –Margot’s handbag, a telephone, a stocking, a key, a suitcase, and a prominent photo hanging on the wall (this use of imagery is rife throughout Hitchcock’s great films like Notorious 1946 which comes immediately to mind). All while the room is being displayed we are assessing Tony –is he justified in the murder of his unfaithful wife? Or is he simply a madman? As an aside, during this long but riveting scene, we are introduced to a school photo of Tony and Swann. In the photo, seated at a table is none other than Alfred Hitchcock –this is the filmmaker’s famous cameo in Dial M For Murder.
At any rate, the planned murder goes awry and Swann is the one actually killed in the scuffle. This foible changes the whole course of the film as Tony desperately tries to cover his own tracks in order to avoid being prosecuted for the incident. We follow Chief Inspector Hubbard (John Williams) as he pieces the clues together. How did Swann enter the room? Perhaps he climbed in through the window, or perhaps Margot invited him inside. How did he attempt to strangle Margot? Well, perhaps she actually staged the attack with him. Why did he attempt to kill Margot? As it turns out, Tony sent several false blackmail letters to his own wife which gloss over this situation. The pièce de résistance comes when Mark Halliday, the murder mystery writer, crafts a narrative which identifies Tony as the true villain –a narrative which is remarkably close to the true string of events (only Tony and the audience are aware of this fact). As the films progresses, Margot is actually blamed by the London police for staging the attack while Tony breathes a little easier, believing himself to be released from legal entrapment. The day before Margot’s scheduled execution, Tony is questioned about a suitcase full of money he is seen lugging around. As his story about the suitcase (and the money within) continues to change, Chief Inspector Hubbard manages to finally enclose Tony in his own ruse, by revealing the location of the second key which Tony had left under the stairs outside his flat. And when Tony re-enters his apartment, he is greeted by none other than Margot, her lover Mark Halliday, and Chief Inspector Hubbard. The fox has been outfoxed. It is a fitting end for a man who is likely facing an unpleasant prison sentence. Instead of getting away with the perfect murder, we are offered a gratifying conclusion despite being kept in uncomfortable anxiety for much of the film.