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Dial M for Murder (1954)

Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) is a former tennis pro, living in London with his young wife Margot (Grace Kelly). Wendice doesn't earn very much in his current line selling sports equipment, but his wife is from a wealthy family and can keep him in the style to which he has become accustomed. But when he discovers that she has been having an affair with an American crime writer, Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings), he fears she will leave him and take her money with her.

So Wendice contacts a shady old friend from Oxford, Charles Swann (Anthony Dawson), on the pretext of buying a car he has for sale. Swann has a dubious background, a list of creditors and petty crimes, a previous spell in jail and a court martial from the army. Wendice uses the carrot and stick approach, offering Swann £1000 if he carries out Margot's murder, and exposure of his crimes if he doesn't.

Grace Kelly answering the telephone in Dial M for Murder
Margot Wendice (Grace Kelly) receiving a late night phone call

The plan is for Swann to strike while Wendice and Mark Halliday are at a party. Wendice will call his wife at a prearranged time. This will bring her to the telephone, where Swann will carry out the murder. The Wendice's home is located in Maida Vale in west London, meaning that Wendice has to dial “M” for Maida Vale, giving the film its title. But the plan goes wrong and Wendice finds himself having to clear up after Swann's mistakes. Will the police suspect Wendice's involvement in the murder plot, or can he turn the situation to his advantage?

Dial M for Murder was originally written as a stage play by Frederick Knott, and ran successfully in London and New York. A BBC TV version was made in 1952 with Emrys Jones and Elizabeth Sellars in the lead roles, before the film rights were sold to Alexander Korda, with the stipulation that a film version could only be made once the play had ended its theatrical run. The rights were then bought from Korda by Warner Bros. A tale of murder, infidelity and deceit, it must have seemed like a natural property for Alfred Hitchcock, who had made several films for Warner in the early 1950s, Stage Fright (1950), Strangers on a Train (1951) and I Confess (1953). The screenplay was written by Frederick Knott, with uncredited input from Ted Sherdeman, and it's a reasonably clever stage work in the English crime tradition. The play has very limited settings, and Hitchcock makes no attempt to open it out, but he worked well with restricted sets in his previous films, Lifeboat (1944) and Rope (1948).

The film is mostly well cast, with Milland giving one of his best performances as Tony Wendice, a man whose superficial charm masks his murderous intent. Also good are John Williams as the kind of crusty, paternal Scotland Yard inspector who only exists in the movies, and Anthony Dawson as the shifty Swann. Dawson's dark hair and pinched features got him typecast as villains, including as Professor Dent in the first Bond film Dr No (1962). Williams and Dawson had both appeared in the stage version and they give arguably their best film performances in these supporting roles. Williams would also appear in To Catch a Thief for Hitchcock the following year.

Ray Milland, Robert Cummings and John Williams
Tony Wendice (Ray Milland), Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings) and Inspector Hubbard (John Williams)

Hitchcock also cast Robert Cummings, the star of his 1942 film Saboteur, as Mark Halliday, and his new muse, Grace Kelly, as the intended murder victim, Margot Wendice. Kelly would also appear in Hitchcock's Rear Window, released in the same year, and To Catch a Thief the following year. Kelly does OK with her role and mostly maintains her English accent, but her part is almost entirely reactive. She is deliberately dressed in light, colourful clothes earlier in the film, gradually transitioning to duller, more sombre colours later on, as she becomes both victim and suspect. Robert Cummings is a little bland as Margot's former lover, but then so is his character. In fact, the intricate screenplay is almost all plot and none of the characters are developed any more than the absolute minimum necessary for the story to function.

The most surprising thing about Dial M for Murder is that it was filmed in 3D, which was going through one of its occasional phases of popularity in the early 1950s. With increased competition from television, the film industry frequently looked for new technical processes to differentiate the cinema experience, including 3D and various widescreen formats. Warner were impressed enough with the receipts from the 3D House of Wax (1953) to shut down production for several months in order to re-tool the studio for 3D production. Warner became one of the most enthusiastic participants in the 3D boom of the next year or two and a raft of new projects were announced, intended to be shot in 3D. One of those projects was the film version of Dial M for Murder. Quite why anyone thought that a drama taking place in only two settings and mostly consisting of two or three people standing around talking would be a natural fit for 3D is a mind-boggling mystery, but someone at Warner Bros. evidently thought it was a good idea.

The 3D camera was huge, bulky and not at all manoeuvrable. This is why so much of Dial M for Murder is static and stagey, quite apart from its theatrical origins. Hitchcock sometimes seems game, but there's little he can do except film the script's slabs of exposition as competently as possible, and try, largely unsuccessfully, to break up the visual monotony with interesting, or at least unusual, camera angles. These include occasional very high angled shots mixed in with the odd low angled one. Scenes are also sometimes framed with objects in front of the camera, in a slightly desperate attempt to make use of the 3D, although understandably, few people were that thrilled about going to the cinema to see a table or chair in 3D.

Ray Milland and Anthony Dawson
One of Hitchcock's high-angled shots: Wendice (Milland) and Swann
(Anthony Dawson) discuss the murder plot

Hitchcock's approach to shooting the film in 3D is, ironically, to emphasise the theatricality of the material. The film reunited him with Robert Burks, the cinematographer on all his American productions of the '50s, and Burks had experience with 3D, shooting Hondo (1953) as well as uncredited work on House of Wax the same year. Always up for a technical challenge, Hitchcock's use of 3D is often intelligent and inventive, but the bulky 3D camera made even simple shots complicated, with the director having to build a pit in the studio floor to accommodate the camera and bring it to ground level for some shots. Even the simple shot of a finger dialling a telephone had to be faked. In order for the close up to work in 3D, Hitchcock had to use a huge wooden finger and have it dialling a giant prop telephone.

One way to break up the script's lengthy dialogue scenes would be to illustrate the plot as Wendice describes it, as if it's actually taking place. But Hitchcock chooses to film the exposition scenes in a straightforward way, perhaps because he didn't really have much interest in them. The trial scenes are portrayed expressionistically, with the audience seeing only Grace Kelly in close up and hearing the judge's voice, but this does jar with the matter of fact treatment used in the rest of the film. The exterior scenes also use back projection to give the appearance of a London street without actually having to film in England. The back projected scenes are not very satisfactory, as is often the case in Hitchcock films of this era. This mixture of styles gives the film an awkward character and draws attention to its theatrically. With such a restricted setting, Hitch's cameo is reduced to an appearance is an old college photo of Wendice and Swann. Hitchcock is shown sitting at a table with them, although this is not very artfully done, as a picture of Milland's head has obviously been stuck onto an old photo of someone else sitting with the director.

Robert Cummings and Grace Kelly
Robert Cummings and Grace Kelly in one of Hitchcock's many shots
composed with objects placed in the foreground to make use of the 3D. 

Hitchcock does successfully work up some tension in the murder sequence and this is clearly the part that grabbed his interest the most. The scene is tense and still a little shocking, as Dawson lingers behind Grace Kelly while she answers the phone, before finally making his move and attempting to throttle her. The final shot as the body falls onto the floor and is impaled on a pair of scissors, is still a bit wince-inducing even now. It's also the film's most striking use of 3D, with the victim's hand stretching out towards the camera and into the audience. Hitchcock apparently spent a week filming this one scene to get the 3D effect right.

The other element that probably attracted Hitchcock's interest is that much of the story is told from the point-of-view of Tony Wendice, the would-be murderer. This means putting the audience in the position of sympathising with and rooting for an unprincipled man who is callously trying to murder his wife for money. The film is a classic exercise in the perennial Hitchcock theme of guilt transference, in this case from Wendice to Swann, from Swann to Margot and from Wendice to the audience. Hitchcock would return to this theme again, particularly in Psycho (1960) and Frenzy (1972).

As well as the difficulties of filming in 3D, there were additional problems with projecting 3D films. The original Variety review of Dial M for Murder mentioned that even the preview screening was only partly shown in 3D because of issues with the 3D projection. Although the film was initially released in 3D, it didn't prove much of a draw in that format, especially as interest in the process was waning by 1954. The film was mostly switched to ordinary "flat" screenings, which proved to be more popular. Some of the 3D details and emphases are lost in the non-3D rendering, but this is the version that most people will have seen. Hitchcock said of 3D that it was "a nine-day wonder, and I came in on the ninth day".

Robert Cummings and John Williams
Halliday (Cummings) with Inspector Hubbard (John Williams)

Dial M for Murder was remade another four times for television; a 1958 "Hallmark Hall of Fame" version, with Maurice Evans and Rosemary Harris (and both John Williams and Anthony Dawson reprising their roles from the film), another BBC version in 1962 with Richard Pasco and Diana Fairfax, a 1967 production with Laurence Harvey and Diane Cilento, and a 1981 TV film with Christopher Plummer and Angie Dickinson. It was also turned into a feature film again, with Michael Douglas and Gwyneth Paltrow in A Perfect Murder in 1998.

Dial M for Murder remains a very theatrical experience, even in its film adaptation. Hitchcock's handling is patchy, and little attempt has been made to open it out or to suggest that this is anything other than a filmed play. Hitchcock struggles with both the theatricality of the original work and the inappropriate use of 3D. Given the lengths that he had to go to in order to make the film work in 3D, it's ironic that it was very rarely shown in that format.

But what's most surprising about Dial M for Murder is that, despite its numerous issues, it still mostly works. It's occasionally clunky, stagey and awkward, and the characters are not developed beyond the bare minimum. But the plot mechanics are still effective, if unlikely, the performances are generally good, and the film still hits the right notes when it needs to. The 3D version displays Hitchcock's technical skill and willingness to experiment, and contains some of the most thoughtful uses of 3D in cinema. Even in its standard version, it's still a diverting Hitchcock thriller, even if it isn't among the director's very best work.

Dial M for Murder

Year: 1954
Genre: Crime, Thriller
Country: USA
Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Cast  Ray Milland (Tony Wendice), Grace Kelly (Margot Wendice), Robert Cummings (Mark Halliday), John Williams (Chief Inspector Hubbard), Anthony Dawson (C.A. Swann/Captain Lesgate), Leo Britt (Narrator), Patrick Allen (Pearson), George Leigh (Williams), George Alderson (Detective), Robin Hughes (Police sergeant)

Screenplay Frederick Knott, based on his play  Producer Alfred Hitchcock  Cinematography Robert Burks  Art director Edward Carrere  Editor Rudi Fehr  Music Dimitri Tiomkin

Running time 106 mins   Colour Warnercolor   3D
Production company Warner Bros.-First National  Distributor Warner Bros.


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