Dial M for Murder is talky and more dialogue-driven than a great many Hitchcock films but that’s partly because the environment is more conducive to that kind of storytelling as much as the fact that this murder story is adapted from a popular British stage production.
Like Rope (1948) or even Lifeboat (1944) before it, Dial M for Murder is for all intent and purposes a chamber piece that essentially takes place on one set: the drawing room of Tony and Margo Wendice.
But quite similar to its predecessors you also get the sense that Hitch approached this picture with a certain perspective and turned it into a technical puzzle to be solved. In typical Hitchcock fashion, he underlies even scenes that are seemingly stagnant with interesting accents. His frame is constantly filled in the foreground lending a certain depth to the picture that we can easily imagine as utilizing cutting-edge 3D technology.
Aside from his work with his frequent director of photography Robert Burks, he also put some obvious restrictions on himself in terms of location. Several of his decisions are fairly daring. Instead of having a whole courtroom sequence he elects to shoot it in a highly stylized fashion that while far from realism, still gets the essence of the story across in a matter of a few minutes.
However, he also has a sequence where two men are talking and the frame is broken up by a lamp and it takes the typical shot-reverse-shot paradigm and makes it more interesting. The same goes for the disconcerting high angles that he uses in multiple instances to depict the action unfolding as first the two accomplices plan out the ensuing events and then the police come onto the scene to investigate.
His preoccupation with the “Perfect Murder” crops up once more as a retired tennis player living off the fortunes of his beautiful young wife decides to murder her to maintain his lavish lifestyle. Her infidelities with an American mystery novelist and minor acquaintance are the pretenses for his actions — a perfect way to get all her money for himself.
But this isn’t a picture working on a moral level. As is often the case, Hitchcock seems far more invested in the mechanics of the actual murder and whether or not it can actually be pulled off and what it would all look like.
Tony (Ray Milland) soon has an old college chum embroiled in his plot with a healthy bit of blackmail and he has everything set up perfectly to get Margot (Grace Kelly) to stay at home while this phantom man will sneak into their flat and murder her. But it will come off as a freak accident and that will be the end of it. However, being a fighter, Grace Kelly doesn’t give up without a struggle and her husband now must cover all his tracks and events unfold much differently than he was expecting.
Milland plays the typically witty and rather sophisticated Hitchcock villain who is in one sense charming and extremely prone to moral turpitude. Grace Kelly is stunning as always and a sympathetic figure as the wife who finds herself the victim of a grisly attack and subsequently accused of a murder no thanks to her husband helping to dig her grave. Though it’s not her best performance next to such startling revelations as Rear Window (1954) and To Catch a Thief (1955), there’s no question that it helps to solidify her incomparable partnership with Alfred Hitchcock.
Robert Cummings role as a crime author is a necessity because it makes his spot-on guesswork certainly not plausible but more interesting. Because he’s simultaneously dreaming up a scenario and ironically convicting Milland with his cockamamie stories which are surprisingly close to the truth.
John Williams reprises his stage role and turns Dial M for Murder into a bit of a Columbo episode of ‘how is he going to catch him’ because this works best to Hitchcock’s advantage since he’s not necessarily interested in the shock but introducing the audience into the entire plot so they become invested and stringing them along with all the proceedings. In such a way, the suspense and the subsequent payoff can be as memorable as possible.
When Milland walks through the door at the end of the picture, it’s an unextraordinary, even everyday action, but Hitchcock has imbued that single event with so much meaning. As an audience, we are sitting with baited breath waiting to see if the key will turn in the lock. This is a film that ultimately is indebted to the rotary phone if only for its title. But it’s hard to beat Hitchcock and the future Princess Grace of Monaco.