Weekend Film Recommendation: Dial M for Murder

I have recommended only one Hitchcock film (The 39 Steps), probably because his American classics such as Psycho and Rear Window are just too obvious as recommendations and so much has been written about them already. Also, I have only seen Vertigo about a dozen times and don’t therefore yet feel qualified to fully explain why it is one of the greatest works of art of the latter half of the 20th century, though I know in my heart that it is.

So let me recommend what is usually consider a minor success of The Master: 1954’s Dial M for Murder. The movie had a strong foundation because it was based on an extremely well-crafted hit play by Frederic Knott (who also wrote the screenplay for the movie version).

The story is a simple one: A tennis-playing effete British smoothie (Ray Milland) discovers that his glamorous wife (Grace Kelly, elegant and effective) is carrying on a passionate love affair with a broad-shouldered American (an appropriately manly Robert Cummings), so he decides to murder her. But rather than do the deed himself, he seeks the help of an intermediary, leading things to go horribly awry…unless of course he can clean up the mess by framing his wife for a terrible crime.

When film directors adapt plays, they typically insert scenes of exteriors, use many long shots and wide shots and trolley shots etc., in order to give the audience a cinematic experience. Hitchcock did just the opposite, shooting almost entirely on a single set, and using camera placement within it to keep things fresh. The claustrophobic framing adds to the tension of the film while somehow never coming across as stagy.

The highlight of this film is the astonishing performance of Ray Milland as Tony Wendice, the suave and unflappable villain. He won a Best Actor Oscar for The Lost Weekend, but I think he’s even better here. Even when he cruelly and cleverly blackmails an old college mate (Anthony Dawson) into participating in his murder plot, he is ever calm and smiling, the perfect British upper class sort. It is that emotional tone in his performance, combined with Hitchcock’s directorial genius, that makes the famous closing scene of this film so memorable.

The foil for Tony Wendice isn’t really his romantic rival Mark Halliday (Cummings), but the intelligent, moral Chief Inspector Hubbard. He is played by John Williams, never a huge star but someone Hitchcock used over and over in movies and TV shows because he consistently gave solid and intelligent performances. Williams is at his best here, nicely leavening his hard-headed cop role with touches of warmth and humour.

In summary: Fantastic source material, fantastic director, fantastic cast – what’s not to like?

p.s. You may wonder why such a short movie has an intermission. This film was originally made in 3-D, and the intermission was to give a chance for those theaters with only two cameras to load the next two parallel reels. I regret very much never having seen the 3-D version, because Hitchcock allegedly used the technique in a more creative, less gimmicky way than did other film makers. The most famous 3-D moment was the extreme closeup of Ray Milland’s finger dialing M. To get the shot right, they built a gigantic phone and a huge paper-mache finger tip! In any event, unlike most 3-D movies, it’s perfectly watchable without the 3-D effects.

p.p.s. I always post my film recommendations at 11:11, and here it is 1/11….a blog post time stamp for the ages…if only I’d started reviewing films in January of 2011.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

9 thoughts on “Weekend Film Recommendation: Dial M for Murder”

  1. I would love to see a movie or short film set in the jury deliberation room during Ray Milland’s trial, with the jurors trying to make sense of the evidence and the significance of Milland looking for the key above the doorframe. I saw everything that happened, and I was confused.

  2. “Dial M for Murder” is probably the best 3D movie ever made, precisely because it eschews the usual cliches of 3D movies. By setting the film mostly in a small space and having his characters move in and out among the furniture, Hitchcock gives the movie a persistent sense of depth that’s tremendously absorbing. Really fantastic. If you ever get the chance, by all means grab it.

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