Week 43: Dial M for Murder (1954), 3D, and Becoming a Cinephile

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Disclaimer: These essays presume you’ve seen the film in question. If you want to avoid spoilers, watch the movie first!

Alfred Hitchcock released two films in 1954 that starred Grace Kelly, dealt with murders, and took place almost entirely in a confined space. One would become a microcosm of film theory and filmmaking itself, a masterpiece for Hitchcock and the ages, and arguably his best film. The other was Dial M for Murder.

Rear Window aside, Dial M for Murder is a competent, well-made film that’s fast-paced and entertaining, if never brilliant. Adapted from Frederick Knott’s play, it takes place almost entirely in the London apartment shared by Ray Milland and Grace Kelly. Milland has discovered Kelly’s affair with American Robert Cummings, and conspires to pay an old school acquaintance to murder her. But when the murder goes awry, with Kelly accidentally stabbing the intruder with a pair of scissors, the quick-witted Milland conspires to frame her for the murder while John Williams (no, not the composer, the dry British actor) plays the police detective charged with making sense of it all.

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Milland, Cummings, Williams, & Kelly

It’s all a bit of fluff with Hitchcock papering over some of the holes in the plot with subtle but elegant camera moves and an enormously engaging cast. It’s also Grace Kelly’s first major film role, as well as her first for Hitchcock. Ironically it’s also one of her most demanding roles, as she has to go from light, dutiful wife to downtrodden victim, and the later scenes where she’s supposed to be dazed from her experience are one of the film’s few weak spots.

Fortunately the rest of the cast easily carries the film. Robert Cummings, always dependable and a Hitchcock veteran of Saboteur, is quite good as the American lover who gets roped into the murder. Character actor Anthony Dawson capably plays the school chum who ends up dead. And John Williams is marvelously dapper and dismissive as the police inspector, sniffing his way through a world of people not as clever or droll as he is.

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In 3D those liquor bottles would come RIGHT AT YOU

But the real star of the film is Ray Milland. Setting aside the unpleasant fact that Milland was playing Grace Kelly’s husband at twice her age (she was 24, he was 48), Milland steals the show as the charmingly amoral tennis player who thinks nothing of planning the perfect murder of his wife so he can inherit her fortune. Like many films, Hitchcock had originally wanted Cary Grant, but Milland is excellent here, conveying a calm facade which hides a brilliant wit that’s working overtime to outthink everyone else.

In one of Milland’s best scenes, he explains the entire murder plan to his school chum, while at the same time delicately wiping fingerprints and cleaning evidence. This long scene serves two purposes; one it shows how fastidious and prepared Milland is. Two, by laying out exactly how the murder is going to take place, it introduces the element of suspense. Now we’re watching both to see how Kelly can escape, but also in a perverse way to see if Milland can get away with it. In the second half of the film, Kelly barely has any screen time; it’s all Milland trying to talk his way out of one sticky situation after another. There’s a perverse kind of thrill to it all; you know Milland can’t possibly get away with it, but he’s so charming that you want him to. Had Cary Grant played the part, it might have been the role of his lifetime.

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Man he plays “charming asshole” well

Other than an elegant opening that contrasts Kelly’s “happy” marriage with her kissing another man (Cummings), Hitchcock largely restricts the action to the one apartment. In Hitchcock/Truffaut, Hitch speaks condescendingly of the need to “open up” plays by placing extraneous scenes outside, or showing a character arriving at a home (which happens  in Dial M for Murder, but always with a character watching from inside the apartment). And he’s not wrong either; by keeping the action confined to one apartment, he maintains a tight level of suspense throughout the film.

What’s interesting is that in his silent days, Hitchcock did plenty of “opening up” of films; perhaps most notably in the excellent The Farmer’s Wife, where he adds some lovely idyllic scenes in the countryside that deepen the fairytale aspect of the courtship as well as lending tremendous atmosphere. So again we have a case where Hitchcock is being consciously disingenuous, remembering only what he wants to remember. His point is that he’s better than these young kids these days, when in his youth he did the exact same thing, often to great effect.

Dial M for Murder was a run-for-cover film for Hitchcock as a previous project had fallen apart and Hitch had seen the play in New York. When Warner Bros purchased the rights, they were thrilled to learn that Hitchcock was interested in directing. Frederick Knott adapted his own stage play, a rarity for the director. Hitchcock preferred to shape material to his own ends, which was easier to do without the original writer making a fuss. But here the story was strong enough and Knott amenable enough that the script was prepared with little argument.

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Warner Bros pushed that the film be shot on 3D and Hitch, a wise company man, agreed. But by the time they were ready to shoot, Hitchcock knew which was the wind was blowing. The 3D craze was dying quickly and he correctly surmised that the film would mainly show as a “flattie,” not in 3D (it would have a small run as a roadshow program in 3D with an intermission, but mainly screened flat).

As I mentioned in passing last week, I actually saw a 3D version of the film in Paris in the 90s, at a revival theater on the Left Bank. I have no doubt that I was in sufferable on that day; seeing a HITCHCOCK film in a small theater in the heart of Paris, the cradle of the cinematic auteur movement with Hitchcock as their god.

I was vacationing with my parents, but as I was already in college we’d agreed that we didn’t have to spend all our days together (or maybe I had insisted). My dad loved our time in Germany but initially had a hard time with Paris. It took several days of sightseeing and roasted chicken along the Seine to convert him. So I opted to take a day off. Paris’s Metro system meant that I could explore on my own and we’d already done a lot of museum sight-seeing. I decided I wanted to see what was playing in Paris’s vast network of movie theaters.

Looking back, it does seem a bit silly; spending two hours in one of the greatest cities in the world inside a small dark theater. But honestly, I wouldn’t change a thing. I loved it. I remember finding some kind of magazine, and poring over the listings until I saw Dial M for Murder (listed in English). Then consulting my guidebook map for the street address and making my way over there. This wasn’t a grand movie palace like the Paris Cinematheque or one of the museums. It was a small basement theater down a tiny alleyway. From what I could tell, they were showing the film with subtitles, but I wasn’t sure. I don’t speak French, so I wanted to find out for sure what language it was in.

Overall I have found the stereotype of the snobby Parisian who looks down their nose at Americans to be untrue. The French have always been very friendly and accommodating to me, especially when it becomes clear that I don’t speak French.

But in keeping with the stereotype of a tiny Left Bank movie theater, the employee selling tickets and all the patrons were wildly dismissive. I didn’t get an answer to if Dial M was shown with subtitles or not, and finally I just gave in and bought my ticket, receiving my 3D glasses with a haughty look of disdain.

Yet once the movie started I got my revenge (of sorts). The film was in English and subtitled in French, but since it was a 3D film, the subtitles were just floating in mid-air, hanging out in the foreground of each shot, cluttering up the film. I’m glad I didn’t to rely on them to know what was going on. I loved the film and in some small way, I walked out of the theater feeling like a real cinephile.

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All of that is to say that the 3D in Dial M for Murder doesn’t amount to much. In some ways it’s a good film for it, as the plot hinges on the location of a key and doors and drapes, but Hitchcock rightly surmised that there wasn’t much to this technology. He corrupts the foreground of some early shots with liquor bottles and lamps, and for someone as clean and precise as Hitchcock, it just comes across as odd. Later on, a high-angle overhead shot adds some suspense but that’s about it. I’d argue that the film works better without the distraction of 3D.

In many ways, Dial M for Murder feels like the forgotten Hitchcock. It’s a major studio film with big stars, a huge hit, and yet it’s no one’s favorite. People talk about how clever Hitchcock’s cameo is in Rope (as the before-and-after images in a newspaper diet ad), but no one calls out the ingenuity of his winking cameo here, sitting serenely in Milland’s class reunion photo.

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Clever, clever

Maybe the most important way to think about Dial M for Murder is as a dry run for Rear Window. Don’t get me wrong; this is a highly enjoyable film with some terrific performances (especially from Milland; it’s disappointing that he never worked with Hitchcock again). But if Dial M for Murder is an enjoyable romp with a great cast, Rear Window is nothing less than (in my opinion) Hitchcock’s masterpiece, a summation of everything great and brilliant about his work.

And goodness Dial M has giant holes, like the way an inspector decides to investigate based seemingly on coincidence and even lets a woman on death row out of her jail cell, essentially because of his hunch.

For someone who often stumbled with endings, Dial M for Murder has one of Hitchcock’s best endings and maybe his funniest. After an excessive amount of back and forth with a house key that is simply impossible to describe, it all boils down to whether Milland can figure out that the murdered man’s key is still hidden under a stair. With everyone hidden in the apartment, Milland figures it out, implicating himself. He opens the door, sees Kelly and Cummings together, then detective Williams. Instead of making a scene, Milland smiles and admits his defeat, offering to pour a drink for everyone. Meanwhile Williams calls the police station and the film ends on a shot of him, waiting for his call to go through as he pulls out a mustache comb and silently, hilariously, grooms his pencil-thin mustache.  It’s goofy, idiosyncratic, and wonderful fun.

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MUSTACHE COMB

Dial M for Murder is not streaming on any services, but can be rented on Amazon or iTunes, or rented from your library.

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