Hitch on the Hump: Dial M for Murder (1954)

I love old movies, and there’s one thing I always like hearing, old telephone numbers. I love hearing things like Lakewood-7409 or the like. Tonight’s film teaches us about one exchange you don’t want to dial. I know there are probably others. Who wants to Dial U for Urology, Dial B for Bestiality or Dial T for Ticks? Probably no one, and if I’m wrong I don’t want to know. Dialing M for Murder though, that’s a tricky proposition, and Ray Milland is about to find that out. 

Hitchcock made Dial M for Murder in 1954, and like his previous film, I Confess, it was also based on a play. Written by Fredrick Knott, who also penned the classic Wait Until Dark, Dial M for Murder premiered as a British teleplay in 1952 before being taken to the stage on London’s West End and Broadway. When Warner Brother’s purchased the rights to the film, Hitch was developing an original screenplay called The Bramble Bush that he didn’t think was going to pan out. In an interview Hitchcock stated that he was “coasting, playing it safe.” While the material was safe, the filmmaking was daring, but he did not stray far from his source material. Almost all the action takes place in one room because as Hitch says, “the basic quality of any play is precisely its confinement within with proscenium.”

Dial M tells the story of retired tennis pro Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) and his wife the philanderious Margot (Grace Kelly). A year ago, Margot had a torrid affair with American mystery writer Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings), and now that he has returned to England, her husband has set a devilish plan in motion. Tony blackmails a slimy conman, and old schoolmate, Alexander Swann (Anthony Dawson) into agreeing to kill Margot. Tony has set up a plan he believes to be foolproof, but as with any plan, it comes undone. Margot kills her attacker in self-defense, so Tony doctors the scene and plants just enough evidence to finger his wife as a cold-blooded murderess. Chief Inspector Hubbard (John Williams) gets on the case, and begins to dig for the keys to unlock the mystery. 

Dial M is set up as a howcatchem mystery, and the criminal is known from the start. The fun is seeing the detective break down the case. Think Law & Order: Criminal Intent (preferably with Chris Noth or Jeff Goldblum rather than Vinnie D’Onofrio’s head tilting). However, while 
the investigation wraps the film up, it is the wonderful sense of suspense that builds in the opening of the film. As I mentioned last week, Hitchcock like to build suspense by keeping the audience informed and then letting us anticipate what was going to happen. Dial M is perfectly structured for this. The amazing scene between Dawson and Milland where Tony lays out the crime for his hired killer perfectly sets up every motion we re expecting to see. So, when the crime is committed the audience is left recalling the steps the killer must take as well. It all seems logical and foolproof, and so when Grace Kelly grabs the scissors and dispatches her attacker, it starts the second wave of suspense, what is Tony going to do now. 

As usual with Hitch’s films, the suspense doesn’t stop at the dialog or action, but transfers all the way to the visuals. Hitchcock started working with Director of Photography Robert Burks in 1951 with Strangers on a Train. The two would work on twelve total films together ending with 1964’s Marnie. Burks had been working in films since 1937 when he got his start in the special effects department of the Bogart film Marked Woman. Dial M for Murder proposed an interesting proposition for both the DP and Director. It was shot as a 3-D film, but instead of things coming out of the screen, Hitchcock utilized the method to bring depth to the shots. Taking a page from the Orson Wells playbook, Hitchcock had a pit installed in the floor so the camera could capture many low angle shots. Unfortunately, by the time the film hit theaters, the 3-D craze was over, and many theaters passed on showing the film complete with the gimmick opting for the flat screen version instead. The 3-D version was given a brief re-release in 1980. I would love to check it out in 3-D. I can tell by the shots themselves what Hitch was attempting to do, create the feeling of claustrophobia for the audience by giving our main (and almost only) setting an imposing depth.

I think it’s about time I talk about the acting, and I have to start with Grace Kelly. Now I’m not sure if people know it or not, I know there’s the whole becoming a Princess thing and all, but Grace Kelly is quite fetching, but 1954 was her year and she proved she was much more than a pretty face. In that year, alone she made Dial M and Rear Window with Hitchcock and The Country Girl with Bing Crosby, which garnered her an Academy Award. In Dial M, Kelly’s Margot seems a smart young woman who is easily confounded by an intense experience, and I have to say she does seem a bit easily lead by the men in her life. She gives a very sensitive portrayal, and he shining moment has to be the courtroom sequence that is played out with a series of lights coupled with a voiceover while the camera remains on a close-up of Kelly’s face. The scene is simple, but perfect because all we need to know about the events crosses across Kelly’s face. It’s also interesting to see how her wardrobe changes throughout the film. In the beginning of the film she is dressed sexily in a lavish red dress, but as time passes her wardrobe goes to neutral colors and then to somber blacks, grays, and browns. 

While Kelly draws the eye when she is onscreen, the film clearly belongs to Ray Milland. By the time Milland passed away in 1986, he had over 170 credits to his name including films such as Frogs, X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, and The Uninvited. Milland’s Tony in Dial M is the perfectly unflappable bastard. As he goes from devising a plan to kill his wife to plotting to frame her for murder, each scene provides an extra reason to find him despicable, and it’s needed. After all this a guy who’s wife has run around on him, and even invites her lover out to the theater with her husband, so you kind of feel bad for the dude. Now, I’m not advocating setting up your cheating wife to be killed; all I’m saying is that Tony begins being sympathetic and it’s interesting how Knott’s script follows his villainous arc.

Since there are not that many total characters in the film, the supporting cast deserves to be mentioned. I’ll say right off the bat that Bob Cummings was probably not the best choice for the clever American mystery writer. Cummings was the star of his own comedy show in the late 1950’s and was more widely known for his comic roles. His turn as Mark in Dial M is so broadly played that it’s hard to believe that Ms. Grace’s character would go for a sap like him. While Cummings is miscast, the two other important supporting roles were filled perfectly. 

First, John Williams as Inspector Hubbard, a role he won a Tony award for in 1953 when he played it in the original Broadway run. While there is clearly a Sherlock Holmes influence in his character, I could not help but wonder if the character of Colombo was inspired by him and his constant “one more thing”. He also has a wonderful moment at the end of the film where he combs his mustache in satisfaction of a job well done. Even though it’s nearly the last shot of the film, it is still a wonderful piece of characterization that I appreciated. 

Lastly, I have to talk about Anthony Dawson as the unwilling murderer Swann. Dawson had something of a long career and filled many interesting parts in his time including the 1961 horror flick The Curse of the Werewolf and being the unseen, but heard villain Ernst Blowfeld in From Russia With Love and Thunderball. While Milland’s character had to build to be a sleazeball, Dawson’s Swann is a slimy, slimy mother from the moment we meet him. While he might be being blackmailed into the job, he sure as hell doesn’t take that much convincing to knock off Margot. He only really has the scene opposite Milland and the botched murder, but Dawson makes quite the impression on the film. 

Hitchcock considered Dial M one of his lesser films and due to the success of Rear Window, many critics did as well. Personally, I think it’s another fine example of how Alfred took source material, stamped it with innovative techniques, and got great performances from his actors. If it wasn’t for the weak performance from Bob Cummings, Dial M could be a perfect film. As it is, it is slightly flawed (though leaps and bounds better than the Michael Douglas remake The Perfect Murder), but the flaws, including quite a few cinematical goofs barely detract from it because the narrative structure is so engaging. This is surely another one worthy of a first look or a rewatch, so check it out and I’ll be back again next week with a film reported to be Hitch’s personal favorite. 

Bugg Rating 


  1. TL Bugg: Excellent post. I loved the background you provide for this film. I was surprised to learn that Hitchcock considered it one of his lesser works. I have noticed that every time I watch this film, it rises a bit more in my estimation, and your post goes a long why to explaining why this might be.

    I agree on your comments about the acting. I love Dawson as Swann, the man pressed into murder. Dawson perfectly captured the killer’s bitter, doomed quality in his performance. And I have never been able to imagine what Cummings (as much as I like him in other things) was doing in this film. It is just so hard to imagine Kelly and Cummings doing anything "torrid."

    Great post. -- Mykal

  2. the sneering (homo-phobic) snobJune 24, 2009 at 2:32 PM

    the only ones i bother to watch any more are "psycho" and "the birds", grace kelly was a hot chick back in `54 and when you watch "rear window" look out for that incredible bird who keeps bending over, she`s the only reason to watch that film.


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