4 out of 5 stars

So many films have tried to capture the perfect murder plot. There’s something strangely fascinating about it: perhaps it’s how other people’s minds can become warped to unleash their cunning, logical capacity for cold-blooded violence. But has anyone ever truly committed the perfect murder? Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) believes he’s about to.

In the last year, Tony has discovered that his wife, Margot (Grace Kelly), is having an affair. Rather than feeling angry, he becomes inordinately frightened: she looks exceptionally happy with her lover, Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings). Now that his tennis career is over, Tony realises how much he has come to depend on the financial security Margot provides him—and it’s slipping away.

Determined to inherit her fortune, Tony enlists Charles Swann (Anthony Dawson) to murder his wife in what he considers to be the perfect murder plot. However, no plan is entirely foolproof, something Tony soon discovers. Things worsen when the indomitable Chief Inspector Hubbard (John Williams) starts sniffing around…

Dial M for Murder will provide many new viewers, particularly thriller fans, with an exciting watch. Featuring the quintessential murder plot, it’s often hard to tear yourself away: the film is engrossing from beginning to end, with engaging twists, turns, and compelling performances that make the story entirely believable. However, some Alfred Hitchcock devotees will be able to discern a noticeable lack of suspense compared to some of the director’s better work, ensuring that Dial M for Murder will always be enjoyable, but never truly frightening.

It’s been so long since I first watched Dial M for Murder that I can’t remember if the plot’s unfolding stressed me. Re-watching thrillers certainly diminishes some of the edge-of-your-seat moments, but there are some films—many directed by Hitchcock—that will still have me gripping my armchair regardless of how many times I’ve seen them. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case for Dial M for Murder, although I still enjoy it.

The lack of tension in this classic film is certainly uncharacteristic for Hitchcock. At first, you might feel that ‘The Master of Suspense’ simply wasn’t feeling particularly masterful during filming, but the truth is that he was being abominably petty. As Warner Bros. had forced him to make this film to fulfil his contract, he directed it as blandly as possible. In fact, Hitchcock claimed that the action couldn’t have been less interesting.

It’s a great shame. The film is gripping to watch, but it’s clear that the director is holding back. Given that the story itself is inherently thrilling—after all, what murder plot isn’t?—one can’t help but wonder how the film would have turned out if Hitchcock had been motivated to direct to the full extent of his abilities. Perhaps he was pacing himself for Rear Window (1954), which came out that September; maybe there’s a limit to how much genius one person can expend in a single year.

Fortunately, direction was never the core element of this classic thriller; it was the enticing prospect of crafting the perfect murder. In this regard, the intricately crafted narrative takes centre stage. Frederick Knott’s 1952 play of the same name boasts superb writing, creating a wholly engrossing chamber piece. Divided roughly into three distinct acts, the entire play unfolds in a single room. Much of the first act consists of lengthy, yet riveting exposition: is this the perfect murder scheme?

As such, Knott’s play—and the screenplay he wrote for the film—doesn’t have characters who are entirely three-dimensional. Though the four main characters are mere archetypes, they never truly need to be anything more. Perhaps they’re underdeveloped, but it suffices for our story; all we want to see is how this scheme can inevitably be botched, and how the whole thing is going to end up.

On top of this, the performances are fantastic, ensuring that the presence of rather simplistic characters is never fully detected. Ray Milland is a reptilian James Stewart and his performance oozes a cold, calculating resolve. His facial expressions are superb as you feel you can see the cogs in his mind turning: “How do I get out of this one?” His supercilious demeanour is one of the more enjoyable facets of the film; you can’t wait for his downfall.

Grace Kelly excels as Margot, the unfortunate wife who finds herself both the victim of an attempted murder and a suspect in a blackmail plot. Jack Cummings delivers a spirited performance as her lover, determined to save her life, but his screen time is insufficient to showcase his full potential. This contrasts with John Williams, who establishes himself as a menacing presence from the outset, playing the incorrigible policeman. It’s soon clear that he will not simply accept the presented story at face value, putting everyone on edge for the remainder of the film.

Each actor seems as though they could have performed this on the stage equally well. That’s because the cinematography gives a lot of space to these thespians: shot from a medium distance and in long takes, the director of photography captures their every nuanced movement without ever being close to the action.

These medium shots appear to hamper the director’s vision: despite being uninterested in the making of this film, Hitchcock stated that he wanted to create a sensation of claustrophobia. It’s debatable whether he achieves this. While it’s true that practically the entire story takes place in one room, there are large temporal gaps between scenes that allow the viewer to breathe. We are certainly engrossed in the action, but probably not quite distressed.

Moreover, when we compare this film to some of his other work we can see that Hitchcock can create a more claustrophobic atmosphere much better than this. Rope (1948), in particular, is a claustrophobe’s nightmare. Indeed, no matter how often I’ve seen Hitchcock’s 80-minute thriller, I’m not sure when I should breathe. From what I can discern, the most telling difference between the two films can be found in the cinematography and the pacing.

Concerning the former, Hitchcock’s decision to use medium-length shots in long takes ensures that Burke’s cinematography never manages to become nerve-wracking. In Rope, cinematographers Joseph A. Valentine and William V. Skall dart in and out of the action, getting us right up close to the performers. Not only does this give us the impression that we’re there at this anxiety-inducing party, but it also allows Hitchcock to create the illusion of one seamless take. That, undeniably, creates a sensation of claustrophobia.

The pacing of the film is also very much like a theatrical work. Hitchcock did not attempt to jazz up Knott’s script, seemingly content to film a play. There are moments when the auteur makes good use of cinematic techniques—the sequence where Tony tries to leave a key for his accomplice is visually compelling and arguably the most thrilling scene in the film. Additionally, the canted angles and vibrant lighting employed while Charles waits in position to murder Margot are classic Hitchcock. However, beyond these exceptions, it’s occasionally apparent that our director wasn’t particularly dedicated to escalating the tension.

Despite his irritation with Warner Bros., Hitchcock could never create a film lacking in style. Dial M for Murder certainly exemplifies this. Though he claimed he wasn’t interested in making the film, he remained a perfectionist, filming the murder sequence multiple times to achieve his vision. In particular, he fixated on the gleam of the scissors being as cinematic as possible, famously remarking: “A murder without gleaming scissors is like asparagus without the hollandaise sauce—tasteless.”

Hitchcock made so many films that they inevitably started to blend together after a while. Dial M for Murder features many of the prominent themes that would make his work so recognisable. There’s the murder plot, which also appears in the aforementioned Rope and Rear Window, although it’s also hinted at in a wonderfully dubious manner in the aptly named Shadow of a Doubt (1943). There’s also the “wrong man” theme, which made his films North by Northwest (1959) and Frenzy (1972) such thrilling films.

However, while his work is so far-reaching in terms of genre and scope, all of Hitchcock’s efforts still felt decidedly like a Hitchcock film. This remains the case even when he’s taking the backseat for a project. Because even though the writing and performances are the most commendable aspects of Dial M for Murder, it’s impressive that, even when the auteur didn’t really care, he could still turn out work as good as this.

USA | 1954 | 105 MINUTES | 1.66:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

director: Alfred Hitchcock.
writer: Frederick Knott (based on his 1952 play).
starring: Ray Milland, Grace Kelly, Robert Cummings, John Williams & Anthony Dawson.