Dial M For Murder

Dial M For Murder


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

When adapting a play for the cinema, most directors take pains to expand upon it, to make it look more natural and more picaresque. Hitchcock was always at his best when going in the other direction. Here, as in Rope, he works with a handful of actors in a tightly confined space to deliver one of his tightest thrillers. Rather than seeking to add colour and backstory, he focuses on details of action and expression too small to work on stage, further enhancing the subtexts of the story. He uses the claustrophobic locations to parallel characters' sensations of being trapped.

The first of these characters is Tony (Ray Milland). He feels trapped in a loveless marriage - not that he ever loved his wife, or so he implies, but he fears very much that as she no longer loves him she may leave, taking with her the money he has come to depend on. So he seeks out an old acquaintance, Swann (Anthony Dawson), and, with a mixture of blackmail and bribery, convinces him to murder her - the will will take care of the rest. He has worked out his plan down to the last detail. The trouble is, there's no accounting for chance.

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When things go awry, Tony proves adept at improvisation. The fluency of his explanations and excuses is brilliant enough to draw even the cognisant viewer into his orbit. Alongside him, Robert Cummings provides a more wholesome hero, Grace Kelly is fragile but sympathetic as the wife and John Williams is the police inspector whose understanding of events may be more acute than it first seems. A tiny gesture he makes in the film's final scene suggests there may be a personal reason for his insight into the possible thought processes behind the central crime.

The risk with clever thrillers is always that they will focus on pleasing the intellect at the expense of developing more depth. Dial M For Murder is a different kind of animal, making social comments that are essential to full understanding of the events taking place within it. The tension between husband and wife is built in part upon shifting social roles which also inform her single bold action, pivotal to the story. In the past, she has had an affair, and although this is presented sympathetically, in a context of neglect, there's a constant awareness of how vulnerable public attitudes towards such behaviour make her. Meanwhile, the complex social dynamics around homosexuality in the period add tension to the mysterious connection between Tony and Swann, particularly when the former reveals how he has stalked the latter. Much of the film focuses on the relationships between men in a world where a shifting balance of power has somehow given women control over wealth.

Visually, this film was more in common with The Birds or Marnie than with Vertigo or Psycho. Although Kelly looks as elegant as always, it's not sleek and there is little in the way of striking camerawork. Hitchcock's genius instead reveals itself in the way he can work with actors and the way he can build a narrative. Dial M For murder also contains one of his most curious cameos - look out for him in Tony's old school photograph. Though it may feel at first as if he is standing back and simply letting the story unfold, the pace of the thing makes it seem unstoppable and it soon becomes apparent that he is in complete control. This may not be among his most famous films but for fans it is an absolute must.

Reviewed on: 25 Jul 2013
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A man tries to blackmail an old acquaintance into murdering his wife, but nothing goes quite to plan.
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Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Writer: Frederick Knott

Starring: Ray Milland, Grace Kelly, Robert Cummings, John Williams

Year: 1954

Runtime: 105 minutes

Country: US


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