At the heart of every Hitchcock film lies the intent to conspire or murder. Sometimes both at the same time. Usually the conspirators are linked to cheating husbands or wives, and the goal is always to dispose of one so that the other will benefit. His characters have grown so accustomed to this idea that the mere thought of it triggers euphoria and excitement.
You’re familiar with these characters by now. Brandon Shaw from Rope, Bruno Anthony from Strangers On A Train, Lars Thorwald from Rear Window. These are men who do not kill out of necessity but out of sheer enjoyment. Murder isn’t a sin; it’s a sport. It needs tight planning and even tighter execution. Most of the time their plans are flawless, and instead of hoping they get caught we hope that they succeed. Because how could such intelligence go to waste?
At the centre of Dial M For Murder is another such man, Tony Wendice (Ray Milland), a former tennis star who is now caught in the middle of a love triangle. His wife Margot (Grace Kelly) is in love with an American writer named Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings), and despite Margot’s affirmations, Tony knows all about the affair.
He hires an old college friend (Anthony Dawson) to carry out the murder. This makes way for the movie’s first of many extended scenes that devotes itself entirely to dialogue. Every line in this movie is written with purpose. The screenplay is penned by Frederick Knott, who based it on his own stage play of the same name, and he drives each character forward with intent to either do good or do bad. Tony wants to do bad. And he has an uncanny ability to formulate lies and rearrange the molecular structure of unfavourable situations to best suit his needs.
He discusses the plot with this college friend, whom he blackmails into killing Margot at the opportune moment. There’s something to be admired in the way Tony lays down the blueprint of the crime. I’d imagine him being the Sherlock of murder, probably not in the same league as Moriarty, but given the space and time he could very easily send Sherlock running around in circles. And the key to his malice is in his undying love of the spectacle.
He convinces the friend, who follows his instructions to the T. But something goes wrong. I will not say what.
The murder scene is shot and edited under Hitchcock’s strict philosophy of suspense filmmaking. If you see a bomb under a table and it explodes, that’s action. If you see a bomb under a table and it doesn’t explode, that’s suspense. We know the murder is going to take place. That alone builds up the suspense. When little details start to fall apart, the suspense is amplified. When the payoff arrives, the suspense develops into pure action and we’re taken along for the ride without question as to why everything is happening.
Now, having kept what happens during the murder a secret, I can’t reveal too much about what happens next. All I can say is that what follows is an engaging investigation that brings together suspects, victims, and the police. More of Knott’s brilliant writing is on show here, though at times it can be a little cluttered. The police inspector goes through the routine of questioning and suspecting, and later conjures his own take on what really went down. We don’t follow him till the very end.
For me, though, the star is Tony Wendice. Channeling some of Jimmy Stewart’s wit and understated charm — at times he even looks like Stewart — he wades through all the lies and deceit as easily as he creates them. His manner and speech are so fluent, so confident that we buy into his fabrications. Like I mentioned earlier, we want characters like him to succeed, because they display unmatched intelligence. Consider the scene following the murder. Tony rearranges his apartment. We know what he’s doing, and why, but we are not quite certain how it’ll play out or to what conclusion it will lead. To Tony, though, it’s all written out. It’s all there in his mind. He knows the beginning, middle, and end.
Best Moment | All of it. The murder scene in particular.
Worst Moment | Nope.