While it's true that Hitchcock left most of the play's dialogue intact and kept the single setting of the play's apartment, he did quite a bit more to bring the story to life.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

To the dedicated movie buff, Alfred Hitchcock will always mean "The 39 Steps," "Rebecca," "Strangers on a Train," "Suspicion," "Rear Window," "Vertigo," things like that. But to the average moviegoer, several decades after the master director's death, his name means "Psycho" and maybe "The Birds." I learned this the hard way some time ago while teaching high school Film Studies. Almost all of my students over the years recognized Hitchcock's name, but almost none of them had ever seen a Hitchcock film. Asked who he was, most students would say something like, "Oh, he's the guy who wrote all those really scary movies." I would have to remind them, first, that Hitchcock was a director, not a writer; and, second, that "Psycho" and "The Birds," while among the director's most popular films, were aberrations, exceptions to his style. Hitch was even criticized for these departures from the norm, a norm which for him was suspense. As I don't need to tell you, when Hitchcock is referred to as the "master," it means the "master of suspense."

And that brings us to his 1954 production of "Dial M for Murder." It was one of a number of pictures Hitchcock made during a remarkable twelve-year period from 1951 to 1963 where he could do no wrong. He had a string of hits, which included, among others, "Strangers on a Train," "Rear Window," "The Wrong Man," "The Man Who Knew Too Much," "To Catch a Thief," "Vertigo, "North By Northwest," "Psycho," and "The Birds." As for "Dial M," Hitchcock said it practically filmed itself. He had the studio buy the rights to Frederick Knott's hit stage play and then hire Knott to write the screenplay. Hitch said he didn't change a thing, just pointed his camera. Which, of course, is nonsense. While it's true that Hitchcock left most of the play's dialogue intact and kept the single setting of the play's apartment, he did quite a bit more to bring the story to life.

Very few directors would dare confine their movies to one room, as Hitchcock does in this movie. Most directors want to open up a stage play or a screenplay to multiple locations to give it variety and to generate interest. Most directors don't trust the attention span of their audience or their own ability to keep an audience entertained for more than a few minutes at a time. Not so with Hitch. He was supremely confident of his ability to maintain an audience's attention. He had already proved it in "Rear Window," which takes place almost entirely in a single room, and in "Rope," which failed at the box office but for other reasons.

Anyway, the setting for "Dial M" is a London flat, the home of Mr. and Mrs. Tony Wendice. Tony (Ray Milland) is a former tennis star, now forced to work for a living at something other than his sport. He's not used to working, but his wife has money so it doesn't much matter. In fact, he'd like to have all of his wife's money to himself; thus, he plots to kill her. You see, the wife, Margot (Grace Kelly), has long since lost interest in Tony, and, in fact, has fallen in love with another man, Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings), an American writer of television crime shows. Tony knows Margot is having an affair and is about to leave him, and the idea of fending for himself after she's gone is too much for him to take.

Tony's plan to murder his wife involves blackmailing an old acquaintance, a petty crook named Swan (Anthony Dawson), to do the dirty deed. And things almost come off. Almost. When they don't, when everything comes apart, Tony concocts another scheme, an even more brilliant and equally sinister one.

Milland is superb as the pampered, cultured, coolheaded scoundrel whose charm is hard for a viewer to resist. He's so cunning, so devious, so evil, yet so charismatic that you almost feel like rooting for him as the story unfolds. Kelly is her usual radiant self in this, her fourth film role, the part that would make her a star. Dawson is also good as the unscrupulous coconspirator, and John Williams, a Hitchcock stalwart, is the quintessential Scotland Yard Chief Inspector looking into the case. It's Cummings who's the weak link in the chain. He was a fine comedic actor, but I always found it hard to accept him in a dramatic role. He seemed forever to be smirking or on the brink of saying something that never came off. A more wooden and mechanical actor you could hardly find.

Since Hitchcock adapted a stage play, there are many instances when the story does, indeed, seem stagey and even stage bound; but Hitch keeps the pace moving at a good clip, and Milland's driving force as a most personable villain never fails to maintain our interest. Dimitri Tiomkin composed and conducted the musical score, which I found alternately melodramatic and intrusively sappy. However, while much of this music sounds more than a bit corny by today's standards, at least it doesn't boom raucously at us as the music does in so many modern thrillers.

Another fascinating aspect of the picture is that it was originally photographed in 3D, a short-lived process Hitchcock resisted but the studio insisted he try. He did, but it's clear his heart wasn't in it. Still, one can see some odd camera positions that can only have been influenced by Hitch's awareness of the 3D effect, some overhead shots providing depth and perspective, for instance, and one can also see numerous shots of people and things moving toward the camera, also influenced by the 3D technique. It's moot for now, anyway, as Warner Home Video provide only the 2D version on their DVD.

Mostly, the film is about creating and maintaining suspense, which the director manages quite effectively in two scenes especially, at the beginning and at the end. The key to the mystery, you see, lies in.... Well, be aware that "Dial M for Murder" is an Agatha Christie-type crime tale, so expect the inevitable clever and faithful twists.

Trivia: Look for Hitchcock's famous cameo as part of a college reunion photograph.

The screen size and colors are very much a part of the early fifties era. Although the movie was made very shortly after the introduction of widescreen, it was originally filmed and shown in the old Academy Ratio of 1.37:1, here rendered at 1.33:1 to fit a standard TV screen. The Warnercolor is typical of the bright hues so beloved of the day, everyone looking tanner and more glowing than people would look in real life. But the color is well balanced and, I suppose you could say, natural in the context of every other hue used in the movie. The transfer to disc has come off well, too, with very little added grain and reasonably good definition and detail. Stock outdoor footage, however, is unaccountably blurry, but, fortunately, there isn't much of it.

The audio is a standard monaural of the period, here reproduced via Dolby Digital 1.0. What's more, it's a fairly ordinary mono, a bit rough, especially in some of Tiomkin's musical passages, with a slight background hiss, though not much. Voices are clear and easily understandable, which is all that matters in this largely dialogue-driven story.

Accompanying the movie are two items of special merit. The first is a twenty-one minute documentary, "Hitchcock and Dial M," with comments about the film from esteemed film people like directors Peter Bogdanovich and M. Night Shyamalan, film historian Robert Osborne, film critic Richard Schickel, Hitchcock's daughter, and others. The second item is a seven-minute featurette, "3D: A Brief History," narrated by Robert Osborne. The extras conclude with a theatrical trailer matted for the film's later widescreen rerelease; twenty-eight scene selections; English and French spoken languages; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles. No chapter insert was included with my package.

Parting Thoughts:
"Dial M for Murder" may not be one of Hitchcock's greatest films, but it surely ranks in the middle tier. More important, it represents all that is best about the director's craftsmanship. It's a straightforward crime story where the director's work--the camera angles, the positioning of the actors, the crisp editing--are as important as the sharp-witted plot we're asked to follow. As I mentioned, Hitch was a master of suspense. It is a tribute to the director's art in "Dial M for Murder" that he was able to create several scenes of intense suspense in what is essentially a drawing-room mystery.

Warner Bros. have made "Dial M for Murder" available individually or in a big boxed set, "The Hitchcock Signature Collection," which also includes "Strangers on a Train," "The Wrong Man," "Suspicion," "Stage Fright," "Mr. & Mrs. Smith," "I Confess," "Foreign Correspondent," and "North By Northwest."


Film Value