DIAL M FOR MURDER – made in 3D A-
2D version B+
USA (105 mi) 1954 d: Alfred Hitchcock
—Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Hubbard (John Williams)
Having seen this film in both versions, a preference exists for watching Grace Kelly in 3D, who passionately kisses two different men in the opening two minutes of the movie, where Hitchcock often makes humorous use of objects in the room, flooding the foreground with clever 3D objects, like lamps or flower vases, which add an extra layer of delight to this otherwise one-roomed apartment chamber drama. Even as you watch the usual movie format, one recalls the use of 3D objects which are otherwise just decorative objects onscreen and part of the interior production design. Adapted from a highly popular and successful play by the English playwright, Frederick Knott, where much like ROPE (1948), most all of the action takes place in a single living room in London, though shot completely on the Warner Brother’s studio lot in Burbank, yet still given that erudite, British murder mystery, whodunit style flair that Hitchcock relished. This is the first of three films where Hitchcock used Grace Kelly, also REAR WINDOW (1954) and TO CATCH A THIEF (1955), perhaps the best example of a Hitchcock heroine, smart, gorgeous, and blond, retaining an icy cool demeanor that he must have loved to torture, as he was always tempted to break down that outer barrier of resistance, perhaps perfecting the technique with Tippi Hedron in The Birds (1963), forced to endlessly retake the gruesome final attack scene. Hitchcock wanted to bring Kelly back for Marnie (1964), but that wasn’t possible once Prince Rainier of Monaco discovered the character she was supposed to play was a sexually repressed, compulsive liar and thief. Here she is Margot, a deliciously lovely socialite, but a woman of independent wealth which in itself is an object of desire, where her beauty is often ignored as men typically struggle with their inner demons trying to refrain from their lust for money, where the temptation is often too great. A great many dramas are framed around a love triangle, and this one is no different, one who cynically marries her for her money, Ray Milland as Tony, a former professional tennis player, something of a smooth talking charmer in the William Powell vein, a guy who loves to act with a drink in his hand, and Robert Cummings as Mark, who interestingly worked for Hitchcock a decade earier in SABOTEUR (1942), the young and impetuous lover who still believes in gallantry and noble ideas and brings out a more passionate side of Margot, perhaps his real crime in Mark’s eyes.
In the opening sequence, Mark, a mystery crime writer and Margot’s supposedly secret lover, is arriving in London from America, ready to announce their unbreakable bond to Tony, but Margot hesitates, claiming Tony’s demeanor has changed, that he’s been more supportive. No sooner do the words get out of her mouth than the real truth comes out, always over cocktails, where Tony whisks Mark and his unsuspecting wife off to the theater together in a supposed act of gentlemanly friendship, claiming he has too much work to catch up on, when really he has shady intentions, calling Captain Lesgate, aka Swann (Anthony Dawson), presumably to purchase a car. Instead Tony goes on a lengthy ramble of deviously clever logic and meticulously accurate background storylines, all connecting Swann, a man of many aliases, to a nefarious underworld lifestyle of schemes and petty crimes, including a college class photo with a small group of friends, where Hitchcock is sitting proudly in the picture. The gist of it all is Tony wants the man to kill his wife, proposing a supposedly foolproof plan that makes it sound almost too easy, where Tony stands to inherit a considerable fortune. Threatened with exposure of his secretive lifestyle, Swann goes along with the obvious attempt at blackmail. While the devil is in the details, this storyline is a motherlode of understated precision and detail, where the pace of the film unexpectedly moves straightaway to the crime itself just 45 minutes into the picture, a shocking revelation as this is usually reserved for the dramatic grand finale, but here it all happens before the midway point of the picture. It’s a starkly dramatic moment where everything planned on paper takes on a completely different dimension in real life, where only the unexpected happens, turning this into a crime gone dreadfully wrong, something of a contrast to the way murder mysteries read in books, where outlandish crimes are committed seemingly at will, often with blood curdling results, the kind of thing that makes for excellent bedtime reading and was likely a preferred pastime of the master of suspense.
The audience is likely taken aback by such a high level of tension at the midway point, where the rest of the film is the complete cover up and diversionary reinvention of the crime, where Tony manages to conceal and alter certain pieces of evidence before the police arrive, making it look like an attempted burglary, suggesting in his amusingly egoistic way that the thief was likely after his tennis championship trophies. Despite his supposed dry and urbane demeanor, likely one of Milland’s best performances, the fun of the film is watching the swaggering confidence of the real murder instigator go through various transformations, where there’s never any doubt in his mind that he couldn’t pull off the perfect crime, always believing, up until the very final shot, that he can outwit the police. Hitchcock takes a rather routine murder mystery and turns it into a tense psychological thriller, using the claustrophobic confines of the apartment to heighten the interior psychological suspense, constantly changing the multiple camera angles throughout, as Tony is continually called upon to re-examine the facts of the case. Under the watchful eyes of a Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Hubbard, John Williams, the details take on an altogether different effect, continually changing the look of the crime. The bright and very bold colors of Grace Kelly’s wardrobe in the opening are replaced by more somber colors at the end, where she is sent through the emotional ringer by the director, becoming a sobbing, incoherent jumble of nerves, the picture of chaos, utterly devastated by what happens to her, where Tony’s deliciously cool and suave indifference continually holds our interest, as his villainy is always bathed in artificial etiquette and social charm, suggesting the upper crust and best educated in the nation can devilishly use their learned knowledge and manner to constantly outwit an unsuspecting public who never see it coming. But the Scotland Yard Inspector likely never went to Oxford, representing a more working man’s inquisitive presence, using a more dogged and workmanlike technique to catch a killer, where Hitchcock makes a clever dig at class differences, where the prevailing attitudes in Britain would likely favor the rich and the powerful, while a guy that tirelessly works for a living rarely earns their respect.