by Jay Seaver
SCREENED IN "NATURALVISION" 3-D: In "Dial M for Murder", Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) is a former tennis player, although his plan for ridding himself of his wife Margot (Grace Kelly) suggests his true talents lie in a different sort of game. Chess, perhaps. Tennis, after all, is a game made up almost entirely of quick reactions and physical endurance; murder, at least as Wendice plays it, requires careful planning and the ability to think several moves ahead in addition to being able to react quickly to an unexpectedly strong opponent. And as Alfred Hitchcock shows to delightful effect, it's somewhat easier when you're the only one who knows about the game.Tony and Margot, obviously, don't have the perfect marriage. She was attracted to the famous athlete, but soon tired of the travel; he, suspecting an affair, quit tennis and settled down in a regular job. Now, it's the better part of a year later and the American friend Margot had been seeing, mystery writer Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings), is back in town. But Wendice isn't worried; he's hatched a perfect plan to have his wife murdered (and inherit her money) while Halliday vouches for his location. Perfect except for one detail: Margot turns the tables on Charles Swann (Anthony Dawson), the man Wendice blackmails into actually doing the deed, killing him in self-defense. But not to worry; for Tony Wendice, this could prove to be only a minor setback.
"A truly perfect murder story."
Frederick Knott adapts Dial M from his play, and the movie stays fairly close to its stage roots, taking place almost entirely within the Wendice's apartment and its immediate vicinity. Often, this set-up is played for claustrophobia, but Hitchcock uses it for familiarity. He shows Wendice guiding Swann through his task step by step, and then during Halliday's first visit makes sure we see the rest of the apartment. By the time that the planned attack takes place, the audience is as familiar with the lay of the land as any of the characters, so even when the camera is focused on Margot coming out of her bedroom, we know how far away Swann is and in what direction.
Hitchcock and cinematographer Robert Burks originally shot this film in 3-D, and when projected that way it enhances the feeling of location and distance. They for the most part eschew having things jump out at the audience, instead giving the sets depth and highlighting important foreground objects, such as Margot's purse, or the telephone. The only drawback to this, although it probably wasn't considered important at the time of release, is that the screen perhaps looks cluttered or busy when projected flat or watched on home video.
The on-screen personnel do a fine job as well. Ray Milland is delightfully amoral as Tony Wendice, the ultimate control freak. He must, one thinks, be a nightmare to be married to, even when he's not plotting one's demise. He's possessive, of course, but it's the smugness that would wear on people. He's just condescending enough to be irritating, but not so much that he can be freely called on it. Every moment Milland is on screen, it's clear that he knows exactly how smart he is, and enjoys outsmarting everyone else. Especially Halliday, the mystery writer his wife is so taken with. Cummings gives Halliday a charm that springs from his openness and unconditional affection for Margot. Alone in a sea of British accents, Cummings's American comes off as less sophisticated, and maybe less intelligent, although that would be a mistake - he's perfectly capable of subterfuge and subtlety. He just doesn't expect it.
In contrast to Halliday, and stealing just about every scene he's in, is John Williams as the officer investigating Swann's death. He's as English as Halliday is not, taking great care not to insinuate anything as he conducts his investigation, but still quietly amused by the American detective novelist he has to deal with. A bit less impressive is Anthony Dawson as Swann; it's hard to believe this character went to the same University as Wendice. And Grace Kelly is little more than beautiful here. What does she think when she learns of her betrayal? Does she look at Mark as a friend or a former lover? It's not quite clear.
To be fair, she's not helped by the script, which is meticulous in its planning as an Agatha Christie puzzle-mystery but also just that deep. Except for the one scene where she's fighting off Swann, Margot is an extremely passive character, taking her lead from the men in her life to an extent that was probably annoying in 1954, and seems almost unbelievable fifty-odd years later. The staging of the final sequence has always been unbelievable, and comes across as a theatrical device to have everyone on stage for the last act. Speaking of retaining too much from the theater, much of that last act features Williams telling two characters and the audience what another is doing, which feels redundant when we can see it ourselves. It's a slight blot on a very well-constructed movie, and easily forgivable, considering how well Hitchcock demonstrates his mastery of suspense and black comedy.So it's not quite a perfect movie. It's close - even closer to perfect than Tony Wendice's plans to rid himself of his wife.
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originally posted: 07/01/05 09:34:17