Dial M For Murder: The Perfect Murder Dissolved


The M from the title of this incredible Hitchcock picture stands for many things: masterful filmmaking by a man whose direction can be strongly felt throughout all of his oeuvres, meticulous execution of a story whose very method of unravelling is key to its success and thrilling nature, and marvelous attention to detail both in advantage to the supposedly perfect murder and to its disadvantage as well in perfect balance and obscurity in terms of how the plot advances and ultimately, resolves. While still a big success and a great film, Dial M For Murder doesn’t get the attention and praise it deserves amidst Hitchcock’s filmography which is jam-packed with one amazing film after another, but it is my opinion that this is one of the finer films by the master of suspense and a perfect example of his genius direction.



Dial M For Murder’s plot is relatively simple, revolving around an old pro tennis player turned corporate man, who upon finding out that his wife is having an affair with a writer, plots the perfect murder for reasons of vengeance and greed, seeing as she is wealthy and has a lot of money of her own. Feigning ignorance of the whole ordeal and pretending nothing is amiss, protagonist Tony Wendice (played superbly by Ray Milland) interacts with his wife (Grace Kelly) and her alleged friend, secret lover, as friendly and pleasantly as one possibly can, offering them theater tickets and plenty of smiles. Behind their backs, he is planning the perfect murder with an old college acquaintance with a questionable reputation, and therefore, susceptible to blackmail and monetary encouragement. The perfect murder naturally doesn’t exist, and bit by bit, it starts to dissolve and display its weakness, resulting in many conclusions and consequently, fates, and it keeps shifting our expectations in perfect gripping fashion right up to the end.


What is fascinating about Dial M For Murder is that it takes a normal, law-abiding citizen and turns him into a possessed criminal mastermind but doesn’t show the slow descent into this temporary madness, but only displays the initial state and the end result. This makes Tony Wendice’s metamorphosis all the more shocking and thrilling, as the film doesn’t necessarily try to justify his actions by the unfaithfulness of his wife, but takes advantage of his radical decision to construct a complex villain with many strengths and weaknesses, using every last bit of his character as a chief tool in the progress of the story. The rest of the film’s characters are equally intriguing, especially the writer, Mark Halliday, the wife’s lover, who is supposedly an expert at crime stories and almost figures out the attempted murder, but almost never dares accuse Tony. For someone who is an authority on criminal behavior, his character is interestingly trusting and naïve.


The story, just like in Hitchcock’s other 1954 masterpiece, Rear Window, takes place in a very limited setting, and through Hitchcock’s impeccable direction, the viewer becomes increasingly familiar with the apartment as if they were there themselves, and its little corners and secrets, otherwise a boring, colorless part of everyday life become key elements to the progress of the story. The camerawork in Dial M For Murder is as varied as it is fantastic; Robert Burk, a frequent collaborator with Mr. Hitchcock does marvels in this very narrow setting. How a key being inserted under a carpet or into a lock, how a criminal positions behind curtains in the dark with a hand above the victim’s neck, how a clue is luminated for the audience in a little figurative wink, all of these details and artistic choices are a big influence over the exhilarating state of an adaptation of a stage thriller.


Dial M For Murder is obviously an adaptation of a stage play (Frederick Knott’s play by the same name from the year 1952), and its plot does rely quite heavily on its script for its progression, something the critics at the time harshly disapproved of, but it still proves to be marvelously cinematic. There’s a scene at the beginning of the film where Tony is taking his old college acquaintance, soon to be partner in crime, around the flat and explaining the plan. The way Hitchcock films it is genius to say the least, for as Tony is illustrating the plan and moving around the house, the camera is positioned in what is known as the bird-eye-shot, it films the event from the top, making it look and feel like a crime scene before any crime has even taken place. The way the attempted murder is shot deserves as much recognition as the famous shower scene from Psycho. It is thrilling and keeps the viewer on their toes for minutes on end, and finally drops suspense in favor of shock, and shock it does. These are just two examples of perfect camerawork in a film of virtuosic cinematography.


Originally an experiment in 3-D from the 1953-1954 era when Hollywood executives were crazed with this new whimsical invention, Hitchcock soon had to just play Dial M For Murder in two dimensions, and it still managed to hold as much intrigue and thrills on a flat surface as it would have on any other. Very unpredictable, entertaining and shocking, Dial M For Murder is one of Hitchcock’s best films and highly deserving of more recognition.

Comments

  1. I agree, the bird-eye was perfect. I do think however the film still comes off a little bland with it's cinematography. It doesn't feel like Hitchcock put enough visual passion to justify the script not staying as one. The film only has two interesting shots, the aforementioned bird-eye shot and the dark red background trial scene.

    This is something I personally don't like about Hitchcock. His films don't have enough visual identity and mostly just have one or two iconic shots.

    Plus, he does a lot of annoying exposition where the characters just explain everything in a "AHA! I've been doing ALL of this behind your back!" or "The killer was in fact doing all of blah blah!" after everything's done off-screen. This is what prevents Psycho from being a satisfying film in my opinion.

    He should SHOW more.

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    1. Thank you for your comment. I think Hitchcock's cinematography here is the best that could have been done because the script is a little narrow and heavily reliant on dialogue more than visuals. The exposition that you thought was annoying I personally loved, sure it explains a lot of things to the audience but nothing they didn't already know, and it makes the protagonist a lot more sinister.

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    2. I absolutely understand why you like the exposition, if the film didn't have any scenes outside the flat I would have loved it too. I think the scenes at the hotel and the trial stuff make it inconsistent.

      And also think of it like this, when you see another man in the phone booth at the hotel you say "oh shit!". Imagine all the oh shit moments we could jave gotten if Hitchcock showed us everything that went off camera.

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