Dial M For Murder is a 1954 suspense film from Alfred Hitchcock. In addition to being his only foray into the world of 3D film, it’s also his first of three films featuring Grace Kelly (the others being Rear Window and To Catch A Thief). The film has been ranked by the AFI in its list of “10 Top 10″ for Mysteries.
Our story revolves around a woman who has been seeing another man behind her husband’s back. Retired tennis pro Tony (Ray Milliand) discovered, about a year ago, a love letter to his wife Margot (Grace Kelly) from her long-distance lover Mark (Robert Cummings), a novelist living in New York. Come to find out that ever since that discovery, Tony has been planning to have her killed, but always acting as if he doesn’t suspect a thing. Mark is coming into town for business, and so the trio convene and put on airs as if nothing at all is going on between all of them. Little do the adulterous couple know that Tony is actually planning on using Mark’s visit as part of his alibi, and that his planned murder of Margot is imminent.
Tony has decided that the actual deed should be done by someone else (naturally) and so he schemes to blackmail an ex-university acquaintance who has fallen on hard times – and some shady business of his own – to carry out the act. After a drawn-out blackmail session, this ne’er-do-well grudgingly agrees, but when it comes time for the murder, he botches it badly and actually ends up being the one killed. This of course upsets Tony’s plan considerably, and now he is trying to cover up this new murder without the details of his own plan seeing the light of day.
Dial M For Murder is a bit of a mixed bag. It’s a serviceable one-room suspense drama, but it comes up lacking in the mystery department, as there really isn’t much of one. And especially when compared to Hitchcock’s other films from that period, it’s sort of the weak sister. But remember, we are talking about Hitchcock, and a slow Hitchcock film is still a pretty decent escape. He still manages to squeeze some suspense out of the closed quarters and dialogue-focused proceedings. But let’s briefly explore why this one just doesn’t quite stand up to his other work from that time.
The first issue with the film is that there really isn’t a likable person to be found. The best we can do is Grace Kelly’s character, who is having an affair with a bland, vanilla writer from New York named Mark. Hooray for infidelity! How does she justify their continued tryst? Because “Tony has changed.” Well, yeah he has; but so has she, in that she’s sort of sleeping around. (As an aside, the more general idea that the lovely Grace Kelly would need to slum it with either of these clowns is what actually stretches credulity to the breaking point. But I digress.) And obviously Tony’s no saint either, since behind his debonair front he’s plotting to have his wife murdered. And this isn’t a rash, heat-of-the-moment thing either; he’s been planning it for quite some time.
But Hitchcock is often playing around with infidelity and unlikable characters. No, a larger issue is that there just really isn’t much action here, and even less mystery. The biggest moment of suspense comes from trying to hide a door key on the stairwell. We spend most of the movie just waiting for the bad guy to get caught, and all of the various drawn-out conversations simply pad the time leading up to that inevitable outcome. That may not sound like it could ever be terribly exciting, but in Rope it actually was. So what makes this one different? On top of the fact that we don’t really care about any of these people, the murder and its cleanup occur quite early on, and then we’re just stuck with verbal sparring and theorizing. At least in Rope there was a dead body right there in the room whose discovery could at any moment blow the whole thing. Tension! But here? Eh, some tension… I guess. It’s more about if someone’s lying can outlast a couple of “it just doesn’t feel right” vague theories.