Tuesday, 13 December 2016
Dial M For Murder (1954)
When it comes to Hitchcock, I always seem to be out of step. Vertigo is often proclaimed to be 'the greatest movie ever made', but I've never rated it. I love Rope, and apparently that's not always held in huge esteem among Hitch aficionados. I love his early films in the UK and believe them to be terribly underrated simply because of the great critical and commercial acclaim he achieved in Hollywood. I can agree on Psycho being excellent however.
But even Hitchcock himself hated Dial M for Murder. And watching it on BBC2 at the weekend, I'm struggling to see why.
The film based on a successful play by Frederick Knott, and Hitchcock took on the screen adaptation to fulfill his contract with Warner Brothers before making the move to Paramount. He was, as he said to Francois Truffaut in the French filmmaker's A Definitive Study of Alfred Hitchcock, "coasting, playing it safe" He believed he phoned in his direction and that the action wouldn't have been any more exciting if it was set within a phonebox. But I wholeheartedly disagree. Whatever Hitchcock's issue with the film, I know other directors would kill to make just one movie like Dial M for Murder - his 45th film.
Ray Milland stars as former tennis-pro Tony Wendice who, fearing he is about to lose his wife, Margot (the utterly divine Grace Kelly) and her money to Robert Cummings' American crime writer Mark Halliday, whom she has had an affair with, hatches a plan to have her murdered so he can collect on her life insurance policy. Wendice blackmails an old university friend, Swann (Anthony Dawson) to do the dirty deed, using a boys' night out with Halliday as his alibi. Inevitably, it all goes wrong and Margot kills her would-be killer, leaving the slippery and quick-witted Wendice with no alternative but to improvise.
The cast is absolutely first rate; Milland is a wonderful mix of the urbane and the devious as Wendice, portraying the kind of man who is used to falling on his feet. This is in stark contrast to his hapless patsy Swann - was there ever a better actor at portraying this type of dishonourable gentleman as Antony Dawson? With his sports jacket and pencil moustache he's like the living embodiment of some public service warning about not cashing just anyone's cheques. There was always something about him, something in those wild eyes, that suggested that, beneath the clubbable affability there was more than a hint of the cornered animal.
Grace Kelly, acting here for Hitchcock for the very first time, is very convincing as Margot and of course utterly flawless too. But it's worth mentioning her acting chops in her final scenes; washed out, haunted, wounded and confused. There's a lovely, near scene-stealing performance from John Williams as Hubbard, the detective on the case that's a joy to behold too. Admittedly Cummings is the least interesting in the cast, but that is perhaps because he has the least to do with the role of the pure and virtuous good guy determined to saved his loved one from the hangman's noose. The fact that he's an adulterer doesn't factor into the characterisation or performance.
Like Rope and Rear Window, Hitchcock places the vast majority of the action within one single set, in this case Wendice's flat. Such a decision, whilst totally faithful to Knott's original play, could lead to charges of staginess on the big screen, but Hitchcock neatly averts these by offering up some wonderfully tricksy camera work, most notably in the scene where Wendice explains his plan to Swann - the camera rising up to the ceiling to point down over our plotters in a way that foreshadows the space as a crime scene in waiting. Equally the setpiece of the attempted murder is just as impressive; wrought with tension, Dawson strangles Kelly with a silk scarf as she scrabbles wildly for something - anything - that can save her life. When her hand grasps a pair of scissors, we're instantly relieved...only to be totally sickened a second later when she plunges them between Dawson's shoulder blades, getting further embedded as he falls to the floor.
Dial M For Murder possesses all the great strengths of Hitchcock, it is suspenseful, dark, stylish and blackly comic. He may have believed he was coasting, but it's further proof that, even on a bad day, he was utterly unique.