Dial M for Murder (1954)

In London, wealthy Margot Mary Wendice had a brief love affair with the American writer Mark Halliday while her husband and professional tennis player Tony Wendice was on a tennis tour. Tony quits playing to dedicate to his wife and finds a regular job. She decides to give him a second chance for their marriage. When Mark arrives from America to visit the couple, Margot tells him that she had destroyed all his letters but one that was stolen. Subsequently she was blackmailed, but she had never retrieved the stolen letter. Tony arrives home, claims that he needs to work and asks Margot to go with Mark to the theater. Meanwhile Tony calls Captain Lesgate (aka Charles Alexander Swann who studied with him at college) and blackmails him to murder his wife, so that he can inherit her fortune. But there is no perfect crime, and things do not work as planned.

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The perfect film for the perfect murder…

After earning an Academy award nomination for her performance in John Ford’s 1953 tale of romance and adventure, “Mogambo”, the beautiful actress Grace Kelly proved that she was way more than just a pretty face and that there was real talent behind her image. However, what truly took her career to new levels were three now classic films she made directed by the legendary Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. Under his direction, Kelly made an integral part of the Master’s films, becoming the perfect embodiment of Hitchcock’s idea of a female protagonist. While Kelly debuted two years earlier in the classic Western “High Noon”, one could say that it was Hitchcock who really introduced the beauty and talent of Grace Kelly to the world. “Dial M for Murder” was the first of Hitchcock’s films with Kelly, and a movie where once again the Master returns to a familiar theme: the perfect murder.

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The movie is the story of Tony Wendice (Ray Milland), a former tennis player married to the beautiful and wealthy Margot (Grace Kelly) and living in an nice apartment in London. Life is good for Tony, until he discovers that his wife is cheating on him with an old flame of her, famous crime novel writer Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings). After that discovery, Tony spends a whole years plotting the perfect way to murder his wife in order to inherit her money, carefully planning every detail of the crime. When Mark visits London again, Tony finds the perfect chance to set his plan in motion, and as planned, he recruits Charles Swann (Anthony Dawson) to kill his wife. However, bad luck and a sudden change of events will test Tony’s plan’s infallibility as, just as Mark points out, human action can originate flaws even in the most perfectly devised plan.

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Like most Hitchcock’s films, “Dial M for Murder” was an adaptation of another art-form, this time a popular play by Frederick Knott. As Knott was also the writer of the screenplay, the movie remains extremely faithful to the play, although of course, not without its differences. Knott’s script is wonderfully constructed, as like in the play, the dialog is witty and simply captivating, with many twists and turns that spiced up the complex plot and keep it from being boring or tiresome. An interesting feature of the movie is that oddly, there are no black and white morality in the characters, and it’s easy not only to sympathize with Margot (despite she being cheating on her husband) but also to sympathize with Tony (despite he wanting to kill his wife), as the characters are wonderfully developed with very detailed personalities.

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It seems that Hitchcock’s knows that the dialog is the highlight of the play, as he deliberately focuses on his actors and uses an elegant camera-work to frame the whole movie inside the apartment. The movie literally is shot entirely in one single room (only two other sets are used, and only briefly), but Hitchcock’s classy way of using the camera allow a highly dynamic flow that never lets the movie be tiresome. This is also very helpful as Hitchcock just lets his characters keep speaking, carefully describing actions and events (when other directors would use flashbacks) in a similar way to a what the real play would be. While this approach could easily get boring, Hitchcock’s use of colors and overall visual imagery simply creates the perfect medium to allow Knott’s dialog to shine.

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Without disrespecting John Ford or Fred Zinnemann, I think that it was Hitchcock who finally could allow Kelly’s talent to shine beyond her physical beauty. Grace Kelly makes her character shine with her subtle and restrained performance, specially showing her skill in the second half of the film. While often Kelly receives top honors in this movie, it is actually Ray Milland who makes the whole movie work with his suave and charming “villian”. Milland’s performance is simply terrific, making his character nice enough to win the sympathies of the audience, yet still frighteningly intelligent as the mastermind of the plot. John Williams appears as the Inspector in charge to solve the complex puzzle, and delivers a classic performance as the Enlgish gentleman decided to find the final answer. Only Robert Cummings seems miscast as Mark Halliday, although a lot of his weak performance could be blamed to Milland, Kelly and Williams overshadowing him with their excellent work.

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In many ways, “Dial M for Murder” shares many things with “Rope”, as not only the two films are based on successful plays, they are also about committing the perfect murder and oddly, they are both “experiments”: while “Rope” was conceived as a “movie in one take”, “Dial M for Murder” was done as 3-D movie. Sadly, the interest in 3-D was dying when the film was released, so few theaters carried the movie complete with the gimmick; a real shame, as Hitchcock’s use of the technology, unlike most 3-D films of its time, was conceived as a way to enhance the claustrophobia of the Wendices’ apartment instead of using it to merely shock the audience with “stuff coming out of the screen” (as seen in for example, “House of Wax”). While not too fond of the gimmick, Hitchcock truly gave it a good and intelligent (albeit subtle) use to it.

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“Dial M for Murder” is probably less celebrated than the Master’s most famous movies, the fact that it came out the same years as “Rear Window” (again with Grace Kelly) may have had something to do with it too. While a subtler and more restrained tale of suspense, this is still the Master at his best, as the movie proves that when he was at the top of his game, no other director was comparable to him. 9/10

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One of Hitchcock’s best thrillers.

9/10
Author: Charles Saint-Pierre from Montreal, Canada
15 September 1999

1954 was a big year for Grace Kelly. She played in Hitchcock’s classic “Rear window” and she won an Oscar for best actress in “The country girl” and most people tend to forget that she starred in yet another classic, “Dial M for murder”. Starring Grace Kelly, Ray Milland, and Robert Cummings, it is simply one of Hitchcock’s finest movies of all-time. In fact, I would consider it to be my second favorite Hitchcock movie ever, my first being “Psycho” (although I haven’t seen “Rear window” yet).

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Margot (Grace Kelly) is married to Tony Wendice (Ray Milland), an ex-tennis player. However, she has been seeing another man named Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings). Mark writes crime stories. The two of them think that Tony doesn’t know about their relationship but they’re wrong; Tony has known about this relationship for one year and seems to have had enough of it. So when Mark, who lives in New-York, comes to London to see Margot, Tony wants to go out with Mark and his wife. But the night of the event, Tony is unable to go. So he tells Margot to take Mark out and to have a good time. The only problem is that Tony doesn’t really have something that’s keeping him from going out with Margot and Mark. He has another plan, the plan being to blackmail one of his old college friends that has become a small time crook into murdering his wife.

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What follows this is pure entertainment at its best. As usual, Hitchcock masterfully directs this movie and has the right actors to do the job. Ray Milland and Grace Kelly deliver very good performances and surprisingly enough, Robert Cummings does a rather good job in his role of Mark Halliday, the American crime novel writer who accidentally stumbles on the answer. But it is John Williams who steals the show with his great performance as Inspector Hubbard, the detective who holds the key to the whole mistery. He is simply excellent and pretty funny when he is supposed to be. Another of his great performances is in “Witness for the prosecution” where he played Brogan Moore, Charles Laughton’s very good friend and seconding lawyer in the case. As for “Dial M for murder”, well it’s one of those movies that anyone should see at pretty much any cost.

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Superior Hitchcock with an exquisite Grace Kelly

9/10
Author: Dennis Littrell from United States
21 July 2002

This is a fine example of the kind of mystery that little old ladies from Pasadena (or Russell Square) adore. Perhaps Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) starring Cary Grant might be comparable in its gentile and bloodless ability to glue us to the screen. This is certainly one of Hitchcock’s best, but most of the credit must go to a devilishly clever play written by Frederick Knott from which the movie was adapted. (He also wrote Wait Until Dark (1967) starring Audrey Hepburn.) Hitchcock does a good job in not tinkering unnecessarily with the material. He also has the exquisitely beautiful Grace Kelly to play the part of Margot Wendice. Ray Milland plays, with a kind of high-toned Brit panache, her diabolical husband, Tony Wendice, a one-time tennis star who married mostly for security. John Williams is the prim and proper Chief Inspector Hubbard. He lends to the part a bit of Sherlock Holmesian flair.

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One especially liked his taking a moment to comb his mustache after the case is solved. Robert Cummings, unfortunately plays Margot’s American boyfriend as inventively as a sawhorse. For those of you who might have blinked, Hitchcock makes his traditional appearance in the photo on the wall from Tony Wendice’s undergraduate days. The fulcrum of the plot is the latchkey. It is the clue that (literally) unlocks the mystery. There is a modernized redoing of this movie called A Perfect Murder (1998) starring Michael Douglas and Gwyneth Paltrow in which a similar business with latchkeys is employed. I am not very good with clues so it was only after seeing that movie and Dial M for Murder for the second time that I finally understood what happened.

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Follow the latchkey! Of course I was too distracted by Grace Kelly to fully appreciate such intricacies. I found myself struck with the ironic notion that anyone, even a cuckolded husband, might want to kill Grace Kelly or that a jury might find her guilty of anything! She remains in my psyche America’s fairytale princess who quit Hollywood at the height of her popularity after only five years and eleven movies to become a real princess by marrying Prince Rainier of Monaco. Something was lost there, and something was gained. She was in essence the original Jackie Kennedy Onassis. I think, however, that the old saw about the man who marries for money, earning it, might apply to American princesses as well. At any rate, Grace Kelly’s cool and sublime bearing was on fine display here.

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Hitchcock cloths her in discreet nightgowns and snug (but certainly not clinging) dresses that show off her delicate figure and her exquisite arms and hint oh so coyly at her subtle sexuality. She was 25-years-old, stunningly beautiful, and in full confidence of her ability as an actress. She had just finished starring opposite James Stewart in another splendid Hitchcock one-room mystery, Rear Window (1954), and was about to make The Country Girl (1954) with Bing Crosby for which she would win an Oscar for Best Actress. So see this for Grace Kelly who makes Gwyneth Paltrow (whom I adore) look downright gawky, and for Ray Milland whose urbane scheming seems a layer or two of hell removed from Michael Douglas’s evil manipulations. By the way, the “original theatrical trailer” preceding these Warner Brothers Classic videos is what we used to call the “Coming Attractions”–that is, clips directly from the movie and a promo. You might want to fast forward to the movie itself.

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