Dial M for Murder

Dial M for Murder ★★★★½

In Dial M for Murder, Alfred Hitchcock, the ultimate master of plot twists, explores the question of how to create a perfect crime. In this case, of course, the crime is murder.

The story of Dial M for Murder concerns a husband’s plan and attempt to have his wife murdered by a hired assailant. The viewer sees things mostly from the husband’s point of view, and this guilt-inducing empathy for the villain is probably one of the movie’s leading attractions. The story about arranged murder is not all that original by this point for Hitchcock, but what is original is the level of detail that went into this affair. Surely the crime is too elaborate and at times the film gets overwhelmed with too many details, but I still liked that as it led to a superbly crafted, meticulous film. It is one of those mystery films which aren’t mysterious at all as we know who the murderer is from the start, but that is not a bad thing as it provides us with the opportunity to follow him in his shoes and to root for the detective to solve the crime. In that sense, the film is very much a success.

The film in essentially split into two halves, quite literally, as there is even an intermission screen at the halfway point. The first half deals with a setup of the “perfect murder” whilst the second half deals with the aftermath. The script expertly flips the viewer vicariously into the point of view of several characters, creating an emotionally rich and rewarding experience. In the first half, the viewer is sided with the conspiring villains, with the camera placing them in the room as the third member in on the murder plot. The second half offers up the extremely gratifying experience of following Hubbard as he gradually uncovers the solution to a puzzle we already know the answer to.

It is a very Hitchcockian trope for his films to feature fiendishly polite villains; Ray Milland’s performance as the well-mannered Tony makes the character all the more insidious. He is without a doubt the film’s most compelling character, making him a worthy adversary for Inspector Hubbard in the latter half of the film. The script juggles the character in a way that makes him despicable as well as completely relatable. We feel his nerves as the cracks in his scheme start to show, bringing him closer and closer to being found out.
Also, the film is mostly confined to one location: The Wendice’s flat. And, I think that really works in its favor. The structure draws instant similarities to another claustrophobic Hitchcock Thriller, “Rope” (1948), which incidentally is also about two immensely intelligent men trying to commit the perfect murder. Dial M for Murder, like Rope, is 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 confined space helps amplify the tension; all the answers the police are looking for are always right under their noses, precariously placing Tony on the verge of devastating failure. Restricted to having only one main set, Hitchcock is reserved in his camera movements. The camera is simply there to subtly frame the action as a quiet observer, accentuating the film’s theatrical roots.
Like many of Alfred Hitchcock’s suspense films, the pace of the plot moves like a cat sneaking upon its prey, leaving audiences unsure of when the pounce will happen. And the uneasiness is magnified by a sense of claustrophobia with most of the action occurring within a single room of the couple’s apartment where the characters engage in an intricate volley of posturing and lies.

I liked the characters quite a bit and the acting is absolutely terrific. Robert Cummings’s Mark is a typical good-natured boyfriend and is the only somewhat mundane part of the cast, but John Williams’s inspector is terrific and he played him so well. His various smirks and eye rolls stole the show here. But the highlights are Grace Kelly and Ray Milland. Kelly excelled at portraying this vulnerable, distressed young woman who doesn’t know at first how to deal with all those emotions and it surely is one of her finest performances. Ray Milland is again terrific as he went against typecasting and played this calculated, cold, shrewd and thorough murderer superbly.

All in all, Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder is an example of pure and classic Hitchcock. One difference between it and most typical mysteries is that we explore a perfect crime from the inside, knowing ahead of time what the plan is. Hitchcock's fine attention to detail and his skill at creating unforeseen plot twists is what I think makes Dial M for Murder quite compelling to watch.

So, If you haven't already watched Dial M for Murder and are interested in murder plots and cunning protagonists, I would highly recommend it; it’s undoubtedly a classic of the genre!!


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