IMDB #192 Dial M For Murder

Do you think Alfred Hitchcock ever killed anyone? This is the second film of his we're getting to that deals specifically with the idea of a perfect murder, so clearly he gave it a lot of thought.

I'm just saying I wouldn't want him as an enemy. Consider that as we delve into his 1954 classic Dial M For Murder.

The Key Players:

I'm sure I needn't remind you that this is Hitchcock Part 3: With A Vengeance on the countdown.

We've also seen Ray Milland before, drinking himself into oblivion in The Lost Weekend. These intros are getting easier to write all the time!

It's the first time we've seen Grace Kelly, however- I'd remember. She's one of the most iconic figures in cinema despite making a meager 11 features before retiring at 26 to become Princess of Monaco. That list includes an Oscar nomination (Mogambo), a win (The Country Girl), and three highly regarded collaborations with some tubby British director with killing people on the brain.

Finally Robert Cummings was a prolific comic actor of both silver and small screens, but is remembered for key parts in a few dramas like this one, Kings Row, and Hitchcock's earlier Saboteur.

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The Story:

Dial M For Murder is filled with many long, expository discussions, which all lead up to a complex mystery that hinges on many specific details- I'll try to just sum it up.

Milland is married to Kelly, and Kelly's had an affair with Cummings. Milland finds out by stealing a letter she received from her paramour, then sending her fake blackmail notes in the hope it would lead her to confess, but it doesn't.

He then plans to have Kelly murdered by a old acquaintance from college that's fallen into a life of crime, by gathering dirt on the man and essentially forcing him.

The plan is, Milland will go with Cummings to a stag party (thus having an alibi), leave a key for the murderer, call the flat to get Kelly out of bed, whereupon she'll be strangled. Easy as pie, right?

Wrong: Kelly, in the midst of some very theatrical flailing, grabs a pair of scissors from the desk and stabs the man in the back, killing him, all of this while Milland is still on the phone.

Flabbergasted, he tells her to talk to no one, and touch nothing, until he gets there. Once he does, he calls the police and ushers her into bed, then does some quick thinking and rearranges a few key details:

1. He takes the key he left from the hitman's pocket and puts it back in Kelly's handbag.

2. He burns the stocking used in the failed attempt, and replaces it with one from Kelly's sewing kit (hiding the other under the desk-mat).

3. He places the stolen letter in the deadman's pocket.

But what does it mean? At this point the screen said "INTERMISSION," so I paused it and went to get a bagel.

The Artistry:

For such a talky film, Dial M For Murder is a lot of fun. I never thought they'd let Grace Kelly be strangled to death, really, but the drama leading up to the titular phone call (the number even starts with a 6, which totally has M in it!) is very well edited: Milland's watch stops, and the murderer nearly leaves before the phone rings at all. Then we're not sure if he's stayed or left when the nightgown-clad Kelly answers the phone by firelight.

The acting is all workable, with Milland in particular nailing the sort of erudite flippance that's more characteristic of Cary Grant (who actually wanted to play the part, but the studio vetoed the likable star as a villain). Kelly oversells the hysterics at times, but late in the film has a certain weariness that I found affecting.

Hitchcock shows a good command of light and shadow in composition without getting too noir-ish, I would say. The score struck me as a little rote and overloud, though.

But let's get to the end and see if the plot gets too ridiculous to bear.


So an inspector comes by to clear up the details of what happened- with no forced entry, her own stocking posited as the attempted murder weapon (Milland makes sure they find the other hidden in the desk), and her letter in the dead man's jacket, it looks like Kelly lured her supposed blackmailer to the flat and then stabbed him.

Sure enough, in a surreal montage of dialogue read to just Kelly's vacant stare, we hear a trial, conviction, and death sentence read out. Oh no!

But not to worry- not only does Cummings inadvertantly stumble on the truth by proposing that Milland tell the exact same story as a lie to save Kelly from execution the next day, the inspector has figured out that the key in Kelly's handbag was in fact the dead man's own key, and the real one was replaced outside the door.

Milland reveals himself after the inspector swipes his key, and he tries to use the false one (after reclaiming his wife's effects) and then finds the real one on the stairwell- for some reason the inspector seems to think that they can't prove anything if he doesn't find that key and open the door, when you'd think they had enough already (Milland had also been spending large amounts of cash that originally was meant to pay off the killer).

It ends very low key, as Milland just sighs and pours himself a drink, and offers Kelly and Cummings one as well. I liked the resolute way it was handled.


Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

Definitely my favorite of the three so far, and a deserving countdown placeholder- my least favorite part might be the title, which is much cornier than the film itself.

The Legacy:

Remakes: two Bollywood versions, as well as 1998's A Perfect Murder, which makes the other man and assassin the same character.

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

Murder sequence! I would've hung up that phone way sooner than Kelly.

Leftover Thoughts:

-Ages of the pricinpal stars: Milland 49, Cummings 44, Kelly 25. But she easily holds her own.

-Cummings figured out the whole plot because he's a mystery writer. Did I not mention that?

-Dial M For Murder was originally shot in 3D, just as the craze was dying down, but not released that way until a resurgence of the format in the 80s. If you have any glasses handy (or you're an expert at crossing your eyes on command), you can even watch a 3D clip here.

Coming Up...

Fri, May 14th: 191. Harvey

Tue, May 18th: 190. The Hustler

Fri, May 21st: 189. The Kid

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