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13 August 2014

Dial M for Murder (1954)

Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Grace Kelly, Ray Milland, 
Robert Cummings, John Williams
Anthony Dawson
It's been more than two years since I've been meaning to review one of my favourite Alfred Hitchcock movies. It is not his best, of course, and the Master himself did not think much of it, but repeated viewings of this noir film are no less enjoyable for knowing 'whodunnit' beforehand. 

Dial M for Murder, like Rope, was a movie in reverse.  We see the murder being planned, the trap being baited, the chosen murderer embarking on an audacious plan. Yet we sit, hands clenched, biting our lips - will he succeed? If not, then what? The similarities to Rope do not end there. Like in the earlier film, here too, there are three main characters upon whom the play centres. Two secondary characters, one of whom is much more perspicacious than he seems. The murder weapon is emphasised - a rope in one, a pair of scissors in another.  

The film begins rather innocuously with Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) and his wife Margot (Grace Kelly) breakfasting in their ground floor flat one morning. Margot, who is reading the newspaper, finds her attention caught by a notice that the Queen Mary had docked in London, bringing with it, author Mark Halliday. 
She says nothing however, and that night, Mark Halliday comes home. It is evident from the way they meet, and from their conversation that they loved each other and had had an affair the previous year. But Tony has changed, she tells Mark, he doesn't know about them, and in fact, he gave up professional tennis for her. Mark is incredulous, but quiet.
However, there is an issue - Margot had burnt all of Max's letters after she had read them, save one. That letter was stolen, and now, she was being blackmailed. She had sent the money, but the letter had never been returned. Max is aghast. Why didn't she tell him? He couldn't have done anything, says Margot. But why didn't she burn that letter too? 
They are interrupted by the sound of the door opening. Tony walks in, but explains that their evening plans have undergone a change - he cannot go out to the theatre and dinner after all. He has some beastly monthly reports to finish. But they should go without him, and if she called during intermission, and he had completed his work, perhaps he will join them after all. But before they leave, he invites Mark to a stag party the next evening. Mark is forced to accept.
Strangely enough, once they have left, Tony does not busy himself with filing his reports. He pulls the curtains close, and telephones a Captain Lesley about a second-hand car, giving his name as Fisher. He claims to have twisted his knee and invites the man over to his flat that evening so they can settle the business that very day.

When the doorbell rings, Tony, getting himself a cane to prop up his story, opens the door to Captain Lesley (Anthony Dawson) who, it turns out, is not Captain Lesley at all. He is C.A. Swann, an old college mate of Tony's. Swann, though down on his luck, is a bit taken aback, and wary as hell - he hadn't told anyone that he had a car for sale. How did 'Fisher' know?
The conversation that ensues is a revelation - and not just for Swann. It turns out that Tony's marriage was failing. Having married a wealthy woman, they had drifted apart because of his frequent travels playing tennis. And finally one day, he did leave, ostensibly on his way to the championships, but doubled back to see his wife leave the house. He followed her to a flat in Chelsea, and discovered her with another man. This scared him, says Tony, since he had developed rather expensive tastes while he was a Pro. So he went to a pub and sat down, thinking of three different ways to kill the other man. He even thought of killing his wife.

Swann is listening rather carefully. Tony continues with his story. And it turns out that the letter that Margot spoke about, the one that had been stolen, had been stolen by Tony. In showing Swann the letter, Tony drops it. Swann is intrigued, but still curious. Why is Tony telling him all this? 
Why? "Because I saw you," says Tony. As Tony continues, Swann is visibly uneasy, even though he stays cool. His gut had warned him that everything was not on the level, but he didn't really know why Tony had asked him home. It was obviously not for the car. But even so, he is totally unprepared for what Tony wants him to do. 

Swann makes one last attempt. What if he goes to the police? What will he tell them, counters Tony. Well, he could go to Margot, Swann says. That would be of no use, since the only fingerprints on the letter belong to Swann. Tony had cleverly got him to handle the letter when he showed it to him. Swann realises that Tony knows a little too much about his not-so-innocent past. He is forced to agree, since Tony holds all the aces.

Tony explains the plan: he is going out the next day with Mark Halliday in tow. Margot will be alone at home. He will leave Margot's latchkey under the carpet on the fifth step of the apartment stairs. Swann is to sneak in using that key to open the door, and hide behind the curtains. He, Tony, will call the apartment at exactly 11.p.m. When Margot comes down to answer the phone, Swann must kill her, leave open the French doors, and go out the same way he came in. But most importantly, he should replace the key under the mat.  

Tony is sure that the police will think it was a burglary attempt gone wrong. And Mark Halliday will be his alibi. It is a foolproof plan. Everyone of Swann's doubts are brushed off by Tony's well-thought-out explanations. 

The next evening, everything is proceeding according to plan, when an unexpected snag occurs. It appears that Margot doesn't want to stay home alone. 
But he persuades her with a well-placed bit of emotional blackmail, and soon, he and Mark are on their way out. Despite Mark being in front of the stairs, Tony manages to find a way to place Margot's key, which he has filched from her handbag, under the carpet for Swann to find. 

A while later, Swann enters the apartment, using the key. Acting according to plan, he walks up to the windows and hides behind the curtains. Unfortunately for Tony, the best laid plans of mice and men go awry alright. His watch stops and he is late to make the call to the apartment. He is further delayed by having the telephone at the club occupied when he goes to make the call. Back at the apartment, Swann's uneasiness increases as the minutes pass. He steps out from behind the curtains and is just about to leave the apartment when Tony's call comes through.

Swann barely makes it back to his hiding place, as Margot walks sleepily to the phone. Swann steps out behind her ready to do the job he came to do.  Tony is waiting silently on the other side of the telephone for the agreed upon signal.
Unfortunately for Swann, that is where it all starts to go wrong.  Desperation lends Margot great strength, and in the mêlée, she picks up the scissors from the table and stabs him with it. Swann falls down, and in doing so pushes the scissors in deeper, killing him. 

Nearly hysterical, Margot crawls over to the phone and begs the person on the other end to call the police. Tony is aghast. His plans for a perfect murder have gone awry.  Now what is he to do? 

Well, come up with another plan, of course. And Tony is nothing if not resourceful. He takes a taxi home, leaving Mark Halliday behind. Once home, he comforts a distraught Margot and, under the pretext of checking the body, Tony palms the key from Swann's overcoat pocket and replaces it in Margot's handbag.

Then, he calls the police, but not before persuading Margot to go to bed with an aspirin - he will tell the police all they need to know. Margot is acquiescent, but then she pauses. Why did Tony call home? He squeaks by without answering her and once she goes to bed, sets the scene to his satisfaction - Swann's scarf, dropped outside the French door, burnt in the fireplace, his wife's stocking dropped outside in its place, her stolen letter inside Swann's breast pocket... and then he sits down and waits for the police to arrive.

The next day, Chief Inspector Hubbard (John Williams) returns to question both of them. Tony persuades Margot to hide the fact that he had told her not to call the police. And rather cleverly, he leads them to the conclusions he wants them to make, with leading comments that are, on the face of it, in defence of his wife's innocence. Margot's statements do not make it easy for her either.
And the police have Mark's letter, and they know she was being blackmailed. They also know a whole host of other things. Before she can quite grasp it, she is being charged with wilful murder, is tried and sentenced to death.

Does Tony get away with his perfect murder? Or can Mark, an author of crime thrillers, pull an ace out of his sleeve?

Based on Frederic Knott's play, which premiered on BBC, and then on London's West End, and New York's Broadway (all in 1952), Dial M for Murder was transplanted to the screen almost scene by scene. However, it is not a stage play, for all that the screenplay gave the director very little space to work with. The murder is plotted, a man is suborned, an attempt is made, the victim turns the tables, and then is sentenced to be hung for murder. 

But Hitchcock, despite his protestations ('I could have phoned it in...') does what he does best - build up the suspense. The climax, where Margot waits with Max and Chief Inspector Hubbard is brilliant. Will he? Won't he? Will he? And as always, look out for the little things that Hitchcock does, that pulls the scenes together. The focus on the scissors, for instance, in that crucial scene, where we, the viewers catch sight of it long before Margot does, and are willing her to pick it up. 
The little gesture that Hubbard makes that makes you wonder whether he is as clueless as Tony would like him to be. The phone call that Tony makes, the slight panic when he realises that his watch has stopped... I could go on and on.

Like Rope earlier, Hitchcock would use the claustrophobic confines of one room, for most part, to set the suspense. And the closed sets increase the vibe of a trap being sprung, and the almost sadistic indifference with which one of the characters plots the crime(s) whereby his end is served - one way or the other.
Ray Milland as Tony Wendice was the ultimate villain - suave, upperclass, sophisticated, and slimy. He is absolutely perfect as the husband who plots his wife's murder, is not beyond a bit of blackmail to get the right person for the job, and when that goes terribly, horrendously wrong, improvises on the spot - he decides to frame his wife for murder. He does it all with such sinister charm of manner, that his helpless wife finds herself incriminating self in the crime. Watch him as he carefully wipes the fingerprints off everything that Swann has touched as he blackmails Swann into committing his murder for him. There is a cold, calculating deliberation in everything he does - he patiently stalks Swann for almost a year, he blackmails his wife, he's even cool as a cucumber when it seems everything is going against him.
Robert Cummings was Mark Halliday, the short-term lover who still cares for the beautiful woman who had given him her heart. He is honourable enough to not want to advance their affair or to cause her any distress, but is forced to step back and watch helplessly as the evening ends in his lover's arrest on the charge of premeditated murder. But his writer's imagination comes to the fore and, almost serendipitously, he chances upon not only Tony's motive, but also the modus operandi for the murder. Only, he doesn't quite realise, at the beginning, just how close to the mark he is.
This was Grace Kelly's first outing with Hitchcock. She does not have much to do, except to play the beleaguered heroine, a neglected wife who has an extra-marital fling but decides to put it behind her and give her marriage a second chance. But her past leaves her open to blackmail, and then, in quick succession, at the mercy of a murderer and arrested for his murder, all in one evening. Despite the role, there is a quality of suffering that underlines her performance that is mesmerising.
Grace was Hitchcock's avowed favourite, and she would go on to act in two other movies with him - Rear Window (1954) and To Catch a Thief (1955). This last film would bring her in contact with Cary Grant, and would be the start of a lifelong friendship that lasted until her death.
John Williams, reprising his role from the stage, made a fabulous on-screen police detective. As Chief Inspector Hubbard, he was nothing short of brilliant. He underplayed his role marvellously, and was disarmingly clueless. Or was he? He definitely is not as gullible as first Tony, and then, Mark, think him.
Dial M for Murder was Alfred Hitchcock's reluctant foray into the then-nascent 3D, propelled by Warner Bros.' insistence. Hitchcock, who was sure that 3D was just a passing phase, agreed under duress. As he had predicted, the film eventually had a 2D release. (Eventually though, Warned Bros. did release it in 3D - in 1980.) But the Master's touch is still there, even though he dismissed the movie with 'It's not a Hitchcock film.' We, as viewers, are still caught up in whether evil will succeed. The final scene, while Margot, Mark and Hubbard wait for Tony to show up, is brilliant. If you have seen the film once, you know what follows, but you still tense up waiting for the denouement. 

Dial M for Murder may be a lesser known Hitchcock, and the Master may have disowned his work, but it is an extremely taut thriller that still keeps me on the edge of my seat. If you haven't already watched it, do watch - for the absolutely twisted plot and the pitch-perfect performances.


  1. Ah, so this was why Harvey asked me - over at my blog - if I had reviewed Dial M for Murder! Great review, Anu, and even though I knew the story, I ended up reading even your synopsis all over again. :-) This made me think, too, that a lot of Hitchcock's films weren't really whodunnits, were they? Not this, not Rope or Dial M for Murder or North by Northwest... more a buildup of suspense that centres round a crime, but where the culprit is often known to the viewers pretty early on in the story. Rather reminded me of Satyajit Ray's assertion that it was (almost?) impossible to make a good whodunnit.

  2. One of my favourite Hitchcock movies! But for it being all favourite and things, I last saw it some 25 years ago! Wow, that is sooooooooooooooooooooooooooo long ago!
    Though Hitchcock might have disowned it, it still has many of Hitchcockian things going for it. The whole plot for e.g., mostly playing in a house.
    This movie in 3D? What were the producers thinking? Okay, Birds in 3D would have been something, but Dial M? *shakes his head*
    I SHOULD watch this again! WHEN?????????????? AND HOW?

    Thank you for the review, Anu!

  3. No, Madhu, I asked you about Dial M, because I remembered you having reviewed it on your blog. I came here through Anu's comment at your blog. :)

  4. I don't think Hitchcock ever made a 'whodunnit'. His forte was suspense. But I think it takes a master to build up the suspense even when the story is inverted and we know who the villain is.

    Yes, I do think it is very difficult to write a good whodunnit. I thought Agatha Christie did a good job though. Mostly. But I'm a duffer at guessing who the culprit is; so I'm happy even if there are 'flaws'. I just want my book well-written. :)

    I didn't know you had reviewed this film. It can't have been recently, no? Off to read your review.

  5. (Laughing) Yes, Harvey, it is a very long time ago. And yes, it still had all his trademarks. As for the movie in 3D, apparently that was a new technology (the 3D camera then was reportedly as large as a room), and Warner Bros. wanted to get a piece of the action. But in an interview with Truffaut, Hitchcock is supposed to have said that it (3D) is just 'a nine-day wonder, and I came in on the ninth day.'

    Yes, you should watch, dear Harvey. Preferably in the middle of whatever research you are doing. You know what they say about all work and no play, no? Besides, your blog is also crying out for some attention.

    But, thank you for taking the time to read this review.

  6. Yes, Christie was excellent at writing whodunnits. So was, I think, GK Chesterton - I especially love The Queer Feet, one of my favourite mysteries ever.

    But Ray was talking more about making a whodunnit film, not a written story. I do think films are even more difficult, because there are certain things you can mention in a story without revealing who did it, which are impossible onscreen. I remember Jai Arjun Singh reviewing A Kiss Before Dying and comparing it to the novel - and he talked of some of this there.

  7. aap likhe aur ham na aaye, aise to haalaath nahin...

  8. This is a double bonus after Madhu's review of Rear Window. I am surprised to know Hitchcock's dismissive view of the film, because I regard it as one of the best Hitchcock. Every scene is memorable. I especially remember the scene when an innocent and puzzled Grace Kelly asked her husband about the odd things he did the eventful night, and the husband had to invent fibs. The other memorable thing about Hitchcock is the brevity of his ending. Frenzy too, where the audience knows early on who the real murderer is, has an identical ending. Contrast this with Aitraaz, the Bollywood 'Dial M'. The film does not end when it ends. The husband escapes, there is a long chase and shoot-out etc. You must watch why we all love Bollywood. :)

  9. That's so sweet, Harvey, thank you. :)

  10. I too think this should rank amongst Hitchcock's best. But he is on record as saying that he only made it because he had one more film on his contract to complete for Warner Bros. That scene you mention, it was interesting to see how Tony is so quick and so glib in his inventions. And he is cool even in the climax where he is caught with the briefcase full of money. Very good at thinking on his feet.

    The Hindi version was Aitbaar, wasn't it? Raj Babbar, Dimple Kapadia? I remember watching it back in the day, but don't remember the ending. Did he really run away and had to have the mandatory car-chase? *grin* I do remember liking it at the time, though. I thought for the 80s, it was pretty slick.

  11. Somehow I never got around to this one. Seems unfair, since I've seen Vertigo--which I dislike--multiple times. I have, however, seen the Hong Kong remake with the gender roles reversed: Ivy Ling Po as the wife who plans her husband's murder and gets to smoke and smirk coolly from mod living rooms ... until her strategy begins to go awry. I also had no idea that that Hitchcock didn't like this one! Ironic, considering its beloved reputation now.

  12. This was the first Hitchcock film I ever saw, and it fully lived up to my expectations, even though it wasn't the whodunnit I expected (as a kid, I thought mystery=whodunnit in the Agatha Christie style!). And though I know the story, I can still watch (and read your review) in breathless anticipation. Wasn't this remade as A Perfect Murder starring Michael Douglas and Gwynneth Paltrow? Have you seen that?

  13. What a coincidence, both you and Madhu reviewed two of my favourite Hitchcock movies. I remember, we were not able to see this film back in our childhood. Those days these films were not meant for the innocent kids, they invariably received an A certificate and in any case as a kid understanding the finer points of cinema is impossible. As I grew up I remember my mum (my father had by this time already made his exit from this world) felt a little frustrated that we had not had the opportunity of seeing this film. She loved the suspense around the house keys. Then New Talkies the cinema hall in Bandra that screened English films, screened some of these old films and at last we were able to see it. Like I always say, I miss such films, nobody makes them anymore.

  14. One of our many coincidences, Shilpi, though I must admit that I hadn't remembered Alfred Hitchcock's birthday as Madhu did.

    I agree with you about kids not being able to watch such films. I was glad indeed that Doordarshan under Bhaskar Ghosh, showed these films on TV. Or I watched the reruns with my father in Lido in Bangalore. :)

  15. I haven't watched any Hong Kong films, so this intrigues me. Was it good?

    Do watch this one - it is great considering you know all that is there to know about the crime.

  16. Bollyviewer, my first Hitchcock film was Birds. Then came Psycho. Both at totally age inappropriate times. Thenceforth, I refused to watch a single Hitchcock film until the heyday of Doordarshan when Bhaskar Ghosh, a man totally ahead of his time, screened an Alfred HItchcock retrospective - late night screenings on Saturday nights. I watched Notorious, Spellbound, Strangers on a Train and I'm not sure whether it was Rebecca or Birds - one after the other. I was totally hooked.

    No, I have not watched the remake. a) I don't lie Gwyneth Parltrow. b) I read that they made the detective redundant, and had the wife (Parltrow) play detective to confirm her innocence. Again, a) I don't like source material being tampered with and b) if the wife is in prison on a charge of murder, how the heck is she going to do any detectiv-ing? Aaargh. So, long story short, I gave it a miss. :)

  17. Madhu, I agree that it is easier in a book than it is in a film, which is why we always feel a bit cheated when a book is made into a film, I think. The Father Brown mysteries were also by Chesterton - have you read them? We are presently watching an excellent television series called Father Brown; it is slightly more humorous than I remember the books, but oh, so beautifully done. I love the character of Father Brown as portrayed in this. He reminds me so much of Father Francis who used to be the priest in a church in Bangalore - my friend, Lucy, used to go to Sunday Service regularly, and sometimes, we friends would wait for her on the steps, and Father Francis always had a kind word for us when he would come out after the service. A very good man, and a very kind one. We loved him.

  18. I think I was so tired of the Hindi films of the 80s that when something this decent (or half-way decent) came along, I just lapped it up. :) As I said, I do remember liking it at the time. I know I won't watch it again, though.

  19. Nalini Ikkandath18 August 2014 at 05:17

    Some years ago we would get a channel called "Hallmark" (I think) where these older Hollywood movies were aired late in the evening. I watched "Arsenic and Old Lace" (amongst others) there but we don't get it anymore. Pity.

  20. Yeah, I think that came up after I had left India. When we were growing up, we had to rely on good old Doordarshan, and (often pirated) VHS tapes. Later Star TV used to be quite good about showing old English films on their late night slot. Now there are hundreds of channels and nothing to watch.


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