Dial M for Murder (1954)

dialm

An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A man discovers that his rich wife has been having an affair, so plots to kill her…

After a botched attempt to have his wife murdered, ex-tennis pro Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) must think quickly. There’s a corpse on the floor of his Maida Vale flat and a detective from Scotland Yard has arrived to ask questions. Tony’s plan had been to establish an alibi while his wife was killed by the now-dead man, CA Swan (Anthony Dawson), who he had been blackmailing. But Margot (Grace Kelly with a cut-glass English accent) managed to fight Swan off and stab him with a pair of scissors. Scared of being rumbled, Tony must now play the concerned husband and convince everyone that Swan was just acting alone.

But there’s a problem. The policeman, Chief Inspector Hubbard (John Williams), may appear at first to be laid-back and cursory. You almost suspect he’s going to accept the situation at face value. But we viewers soon learn that he’s insightful, observant, caring and the cleverest person in the room. He also only arrived on the scene halfway through the film; until then, the story had been told from the point of view of someone planning a murder.

Sound familiar? Whether intentionally or coincidentally, Dial M for Murder is nothing short of a dry-run for superior American TV crime drama Columbo – a show that told ‘murder mystery’ stories from the killer’s point of view – and Inspector Hubbard can be considered the most telling antecedent of its title character, the ramshackle, rambling, seemingly sycophantic but piercingly perceptive Lieutenant Columbo.

The character of Columbo (he was never given a first name) debuted in anthology TV series The Chevy Mystery Show in 1960. Writers William Link and Richard Levinson based their script on a short story they’d contributed – appropriately enough – to an issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. But that source material had lacked a detective character, so they created Columbo with Bert Freed cast in the role.

Later, Levinson and Link adapted the script into a stage play called Prescription: Murder, first performed in 1962 and starring It’s a Wonderful Life’s Thomas Mitchell, then a TV movie in 1968 with Peter Falk taking over the role. The latter’s success led to a sequel in 1971, which was followed a regular series of feature-length episodes. The show ran, on and off, until 2003 with Falk giving a dynamic and incredibly watchable performance as the LAPD’s most iconoclastic detective.

History has not recorded whether Dial M for Murder’s Hubbard was a deliberate influence, but the similarities between the two characters are striking. Both are detectives who spot the significance of vital clues straightaway; who see through the inconsistencies in the villain’s story but don’t give away that their suspicions have been piqued; and who play dumb in order to lull the killer into implicating himself. They never resort to rough stuff or intimidation – the investigation is more a battle of wits – but they aren’t afraid to plant evidence or outright lie if it secures a confession. Both also smoke, maintain a level of civility, and own a crumpled rain mac. Hubbard even has a version of Columbo’s famous catchphrase: “There’s just one other thing, sir,” he says at one point as he’s about to leave the Wendices’ flat.

John Williams, who plays Hubbard with such effortless intelligence, later appeared in an episode of Columbo: Dagger of the Mind, originally broadcast on 26 November 1972. He played a murder victim, so due to the detective-shows-up-after-the-crime format he didn’t share any screentime with Peter Falk. Earlier in that same season, incidentally, Williams’s Dial M for Murder co-star Ray Milland had played a murderer in The Greenhouse Jungle (15 October 1972)… and the year before that, had a supporting role in the episode Death Lends a Hand (6 October 1971). Were these casting choices a deliberate acknowledgement of the debt owed to Dial M perhaps?

(Parenthetically, while we’re on the topic, a few other Hitchcock stars played killers in Columbo too. Janet Leigh appeared in Forgotten Lady (14 September 1975), while her Psycho co-star Vera Miles was in Lovely But Lethal (23 September 1973). North by Northwest’s Martin Landau appeared in Double Shock (25 March 1973) and Louis Jordan, who had a role in Hitch’s The Paradine Case, was in Murder Under Glass (30 January 1978). Also, Nicholas Colasanto, who cameoed in Hitchcock’s Family Plot, directed two Columbo stories.)

Like Columbo, Dial M for Murder also had a theatrical phase in its development – as well as an early TV try-out. The story debuted in an episode of BBC Sunday-Night Theatre broadcast on 23 March 1952. Cast as Inspector Hubbard was Raymond Huntley, who had played Dracula on the London stage in the 1920s. (When he turned down the chance to take the Count to Broadway, the role was taken over by an unknown Hungarian called Bela Lugosi.) Writer Frederick Knott then reworked his TV script for a West End production, which began in June 1952. In October, the play transferred to New York, where John Williams and Anthony Dawson first played the roles they were soon to reprise on film for Alfred Hitchcock.

All this means it’s hardly surprising that the movie Dial M for Murder has a theatre-like feel. The story almost entirely takes place on one set: a small, one-bedroom flat. Less than five per cent of the running time is spent elsewhere. There are long scenes of continuous action; one is well over 20 minutes, another close to half an hour. And there are only five significant characters: Tony, Margot, Swan, Hubbard and the man Margot’s been having an affair with, American crime writer Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings).

But the film never feels contained or constrained or repetitive. Obviously, a lot of this is down to Hitchcock’s ability to build and sustain suspense. Because the murder plot is told from the perspective of the man who’s planning it, we’re told ahead of time what’s going to happen. Or rather, what’s *meant* to happen. As Tony lays out his plan to the unwilling Swan – a man in debt and on the run from several aggrieved landladies – we’re told in minute detail how these two men will murder Margot and get away with it. Tony has thought of everything and has the cool, calm confidence of a man in total control. Hitchcock even switches to a God’s-eye view of the apartment, watching from above as Tony explains how Swan will enter the flat and strangle poor Margot.

This insider information makes us accomplices. It makes us unconsciously hope that they pull off their horrid crime. But this is not a unique trick. Movies are littered with criminals who we rout for because they’re the point-of-view characters. We want what they want, even if what they want is questionable. Any number of gangster films, from Scarface to Reservoir Dogs; war movies such as The Eagle Has Landed; heist stories like Ocean’s 11… They’re all about ‘bad guys’, but we’re seduced us into colluding with them. So when things go wrong – Tony’s phone call (to distract Margot) comes too late because his watch stopped; Margot fights back and Swan is killed – we don’t cheer at the thought of Margot surviving. We worry that Tony is going to be found out.

But another reason for the audience’s attention never wavering is that the film isn’t shot like it’s a stage play. Dial M for Murder is fluid and cinematic and visually interesting. Hitchcock had form for this sort of thing, taking the real-time, one-set Rope (1948) and filming it in loooong takes with a roaming camera. Here, for example, he opts for a forensic focus on the physical details of the plot – the latch keys that end up in various people’s pockets and purses, the scissors and the sewing box, the stockings, the cash, the geography of the apartment. The devil’s in the details and these elements are just as important as Tony’s calculating jealousy or Margot’s infidelity. Dial M for Murder is a puzzle, a parlour game, and it’s addictive even on multiple viewings.

Hitchcock also, famously, shot the movie in 3D. For a brief moment, it was the coming thing in Hollywood cinema, thanks to the success of a now largely forgotten film called Bwana Devil. But Hitch knew that the technology would mean some changes to his shooting style. ‘The close-up, for instance, will have to be completely scrapped,’ he mooted to a journalist before filming. In the end, Dial M’s character close-ups are amongst many striking shots that take advantage of the technology – there are also low angles, high angles and extreme close-ups. The cinematography always has plenty of depth and often uses foreground objects to make us feel like we’re in the flat with the characters. And each and every one of these techniques adds to the tension of the situation.

The director also toyed with an idea he’d had for a 3D trick shot: ‘All of a sudden a large hand with extra-long fingers reaches out and takes the audience by the throat,’ he said while prepping Dial M. ‘Think that would frighten you?’ Sure enough, in Dial M for Murder, the most daring 3D moment comes as Margot is being attacked by Swan and her arm reaches out in desperation towards the camera. She’s begging for our help – but as we were in on the planning of her murder, are we willing to give it?

Ten men at the college reunion out of 10

Acknowledgement: For an in-depth look at the history of 3D cinema and Dial M for Murder’s place in it, I very much recommend this article, which I drew on for information and the Hitchcock quotations: http://www.3dfilmarchive.com/dial-m-blu-ray-review 

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