Skip to main content

Will you provide me with a perfect murder?

Dial M for Murder
(1954)

(SPOILERS) Not generally regarded as in the upper echelon of Hitchcocks, and certainly one the director, in his self-deprecating way, regarded as a stop-gap, taking on the Broadway hit “because it was coasting, playing it safe”. What’s remarkable about Dial M for Murder, however, is the manner in which its director makes the limits of the original medium irrelevant, not by “ventilating the play”, as Truffaut put it, but through averring that “the basic quality of the play is precisely its confinement within the proscenium”.


In other words, it’s all still pretty much set in one room, and as Peter Bogdanovich observed “It is a triumph of shooting a talky play in a small circumstance”. Hitch’s advice to “Just shoot the play” may sound simple, but it fails to explain why so many “just shot” plays make such arid, inert films. It takes an auteur to know intuitively how to bring out the material, even though, for the most part, there’s little in Dial M for Murder that draws attention to itself in terms of stylistic flourish. Hitchcock really does make its success seem deceptively simple. There was vaunted 3D involved (I haven’t watched that version), at the insistence of the studio, although the director dismissed its importance, commenting that there were “very few effects directly in relief”.


The exception stylistically is, unsurprisingly, the central (attempted) murder sequence, as Swann (Anthony Dawson, Professor Dent in Dr. No), blackmailed by Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) into murdering his adulterous wife Margot (Grace Kelly) attempts, rather ineptly, to strangle her. Hitchcock ratchets up the tension ruthlessly, with Swann unable to make his move due to a pesky intrusive telephone cable, and when he strikes, the struggle finds Margot falling back onto a desk, her hand outstretched towards the camera (all the better for 3D) grasping for some sort of implement, until she locates a pair of scissors that she promptly plunges into her assailant’s back. Who then proceeds to jerk upwards, and particularly grimly, fall backwards, further embedding the makeshift weapon.


If that’s the most cinematically effective scene of tension, though, there’s nevertheless a masterful line running throughout, taking in the classic Hitchcock approach of making us feel for the bad guy, be it the obstacles Swann encounters in his attempted murder or smooth, urbane Tony realising his watch has stopped and that his best-laid plans may be botched. Indeed, as Bogdanovich notes, Hitchcock’s casting of Milland as someone to root for is merely underlined by how unlikeable Robert Cummings’ Mark Halliday is.


Hitchcock might have cast someone closer to Kelly’s age (Cummings was five years younger than Milland, but still twenty older than Kelly) to suggest that her attraction/carrying on was reasonable, but instead he puts her in a red dress (formerly white, when we first see her having breakfast with Tony) and gives Mark a line in self-assured petulance. We’re irritated that he appears to have worked out Tony’s scheme precisely. Less so that Chief Inspector Hubbard (John Williams, also in the director’s The Paradine Case and To Catch a Thief), an affable sort, is revealed to nurse his own suspicions and seems just as annoyed by Halliday as the audience (“They talk about flat-footed policemen. May the saints protect us from the gifted amateur”).


Kelly would go on to be identified as the ultimate Hitchcock ice queen, but Margot is nothing much to shout about as character, aside from her heroic success against Swann. There’s an imaginatively minimalist shot of her trial (the camera is on her as we hear the verdict), but she disappears from much of the latter third before returning to the scene of the crime where she requires a pep talk in fortitude (“Try and hang on just a little longer”). Apart from being Grace Kelly (no small thing), Margot has little going for her. Certainly, woeful judgement since she has a blissful life with a chump to look forward to.


While the transition from stage to screen is all down to Hitchcock as far as credit goes (Frederick Knott adapted his own play), this would be nothing without Milland’s enormously charming performance. The early invitation to Swann to murder finds Tony, entirely casually and confidently, clearing up fingerprints after the man he has already assured himself will do the deed. That he remains unflappable when plans go awry makes him one of the most endearing Hitchcock villains. Indeed, you want to let him off for the final scene alone, in which, rumbled, he gives up any aspiration to escape and cheerful compliments his captor (“Congratulations, Inspector”) before offering drinks to all present.


The conceit of a perfect murder (used for the title of the 1998 remake, which is respectable in its own right thanks to expert casting – Michael Douglas, Gwyneth Paltrow and Viggo Mortenson – and choosing a different tack to the original) is a bit of a dodge really, though, as Mark suggests such a deed is only possible “On paper”. As a fiction writer, though, he inevitably deals in plots where the murderer is eventually brought to justice; it’s generally in reality that the murderer gets away with his crime.


Dial M for Murder may not be many people’s absolute favourite Hitchcock film, then, but it’s one in which his nonchalant confidence in knowing precisely what was required to bring the material to the screen is unparalleled. He even makes the most economical of cameos (on a framed reunion dinner photo that Tony shows Swann).


 Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Damn prairie dog burrow!

Tremors (1990) (SPOILERS) I suspect the reason the horror comedy – or the sci-fi comedy, come to that – doesn’t tend to be the slam-dunk goldmine many assume it must be, is because it takes a certain sensibility to do it right. Everyone isn’t a Joe Dante or Sam Raimi, or a John Landis, John Carpenter, Edgar Wright, Christopher Landon or even a Peter Jackson or Tim Burton, and the genre is littered with financial failures, some of them very good failures (and a good number of them from the names mentioned). Tremors was one, only proving a hit on video (hence six sequels at last count). It also failed to make Ron Underwood a directing legend.

Here’s Bloody Justice for you.

Laughter in Paradise (1951) (SPOILERS) The beginning of a comedic run for director-producer Mario Zampa that spanned much of the 1950s, invariably aided by writers Michael Pertwee and Jack Davies (the latter went on to pen a spate of Norman Wisdom pictures including The Early Bird , and also comedy rally classic Monte Carlo or Bust! ) As usual with these Pertwee jaunts, Laughter in Paradise boasts a sparky premise – renowned practical joker bequeaths a fortune to four relatives, on condition they complete selected tasks that tickle him – and more than enough resultant situational humour.

Who’s got the Figgy Port?

Loki (2021) (SPOILERS) Can something be of redeemable value and shot through with woke? The two attributes certainly sound essentially irreconcilable, and Loki ’s tendencies – obviously, with new improved super-progressive Kevin Feige touting Disney’s uber-agenda – undeniably get in the way of what might have been a top-tier MCU entry from realising its full potential. But there are nevertheless solid bursts of highly engaging storytelling in the mix here, for all its less cherishable motivations. It also boasts an effortlessly commanding lead performance from Tom Hiddleston; that alone puts Loki head and shoulders above the other limited series thus far.

I’m just glad Will Smith isn’t alive to see this.

The Tomorrow War (2021) (SPOILERS). Not so much tomorrow as yesterday. There’s a strong sense of déjà vu watching The Tomorrow War , so doggedly derivative is it of every time-travel/alien war/apocalyptic sci-fi movie of the past forty years. Not helping it stand out from the pack are doughy lead Chris Pratt, damned to look forever on the beefy side no matter how ripped he is and lacking the chops or gravitas for straight roles, and debut live-action director Chris McKay, who manages to deliver the goods in a serviceably anonymous fashion.

Why don't we go on a picnic, up the hill?

Invaders from Mars (1986) (SPOILERS) One can wax thematical over the number of remakes of ’50s movies in the ’80s – and ’50s SF movies in particular – and of how they represent ever-present Cold War and nuclear threats, and steadily increasing social and familial paranoias and disintegrating values. Really, though, it’s mostly down to the nostalgia of filmmakers for whom such pictures were formative influences (and studios hoping to make an easy buck on a library property). Tobe Hooper’s version of nostalgia, however, is not so readily discernible as a John Carpenter or a David Cronenberg (not that Cronenberg could foment such vibes, any more than a trip to the dental hygienist). Because his directorial qualities are not so readily discernible. Tobe Hooper movies tend to be a bit shit. Which makes it unsurprising that Invaders from Mars is a bit shit.

I'm offering you a half-share in the universe.

Doctor Who Season 8 – Worst to Best I’m not sure I’d watched Season Eight chronologically before. While I have no hesitation in placing it as the second-best Pertwee season, based on its stories, I’m not sure it pays the same dividends watched as a unit. Simply, there’s too much Master, even as Roger Delgado never gets boring to watch and the stories themselves offer sufficient variety. His presence, turning up like clockwork, is inevitably repetitive. There were no particular revelatory reassessments resulting from this visit, then, except that, taken together – and as The Directing Route extra on the Blu-ray set highlights – it’s often much more visually inventive than what would follow. And that Michael Ferguson should probably have been on permanent attachment throughout this era.

I hate natural causes!

Body Bags (1993) (SPOILERS) I’m not surprised Showtime didn’t pick this up for an anthology series. Perhaps, if John Carpenter had made Coming Home in a Body Bag (the popular Nam movie series referenced in the same year’s True Romance ), we’d have something to talk about. Tho’ probably not, if Carpenter had retained his by this point firmly glued to his side DP Gary Kibbe, ensuring the proceedings are as flat, lifeless and unatmospheric as possible. Carpenter directed two of the segments here, Tobe Hooper the other one. It may sound absurd, given the quality of Hooper’s career, but by this point, even he was calling the shots better than Carpenter.

What's a movie star need a rocket for anyway?

The Rocketeer (1991) (SPOILERS) The Rocketeer has a fantastic poster. One of the best of the last thirty years (and while that may seem like faint praise, what with poster design being a dying art – I’m looking at you Marvel, or Amazon and the recent The Tomorrow War – it isn’t meant to be). The movie itself, however, tends towards stodge. Unremarkable pictures with a wide/cult fanbase, conditioned by childhood nostalgia, are ten-a-penny – Willow for example – and in this case, there was also a reasonably warm critical reception. But such an embrace can’t alter that Joe Johnston makes an inveterately bland, tepid movie director. His “feel” for period here got him The First Avenger: Captain America gig, a bland, tepid movie tending towards stodge. So at least he’s consistent.

You nicknamed my daughter after the Loch Ness Monster?

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 (2012) The final finale of the Twilight saga, in which pig-boy Jacob tells Bella that, “No, it's not like that at all!” after she accuses him of being a paedo. But then she comes around to his viewpoint, doubtless displaying the kind of denial many parents did who let their kids spend time with Jimmy Savile or Gary Glitter during the ‘70s. It's lucky little Renesmee will be an adult by the age of seven, right? Right... Jacob even jokes that he should start calling Edward, “Dad”. And all the while they smile and smile.

Call me crazy, but I don’t see America coming out in droves to see you puke.

The Hard Way (1991) (SPOILERS) It would probably be fair to suggest that Michael J Fox’s comic talents never quite earned the respect they deserved. Sure, he was the lead in two incredibly popular TV shows, but aside from one phenomenally successful movie franchise, he never quite made himself a home on the big screen. Part of that might have been down to attempts in the late ’80s to carve himself out a niche in more serious roles – Light of Day , Bright Lights, Big City , Casualties of War – roles none of his fanbase had any interest in seeing him essaying. Which makes the part of Nick Lang, in which Fox is at his comic best, rather perfect. After all, as his character, movie star Nick Lang, opines, after smashing in his TV with his People’s Choice Award – the kind of award reserved for those who fail to garner serious critical adoration – “ I’m the only one who wants me to grow up! ”