Dial M for Murder (1954)

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Written by Frederick Knott

Before I started this marathon I don’t think I ever realized just how experimental Hitchcock was in his time. Having marathon-ed his British films, I found him obviously to be a great filmmaker whose craft lifted the material of whatever project he was working on, but about halfway through his American films, I’ve discovered him taking so many more chances and unconventional choices that I think I had realized before. Rope is a great example, but Dial M for Murder is noteworthy for its use of 3-D technology (yes, in 1954!). And while I did not get to experience the film in its original intended 3-D, I can certainly appreciate the significance of the decision by the filmmaker to release it in such a groundbreaking technology, even if very few people got to see it this way. Hitchcock never ceases to amaze.

Retired tennis pro (what is it with Hitchcock and tennis?) Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) discovers that his wife Margot (Grace Kelly) is having an affair with an American writer named Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings). When Halliday is in London to visit, Tony concocts a plan to murder Margot for her infidelities and her money. He reaches out to a former classmate who has now become a shady figure in society, Swann (Anthony Dawson), and promises to pay him to commit the murder while he and Halliday are out at a stag party as an alibi. But once the murder goes awry and Swann ends up dead instead of Margot, Chief Inspector Hubbard (John Williams) twirls his mustache until he can solve the curious case.

While the film was formatted for 3-D, the rest is far less experimental, but Dial M for Murder is still regarded by many to be among the best of the “2nd tier” Hitchcock films. For one, it introduces Grace Kelly into the Hitchcock Cinematic Universe, which is an incredible development given the films she will go on to star in for Hitch. This is a rather small cast, as the film largely takes place in a single London apartment. In general, the cast delivers, but I can’t say Milland or Cummings stood out very much. Kelly is great, but really John Williams steals the show as the Chief Inspector. He has a presence which you can tell comes from the stage, and the aforementioned mustache twirling is truly a magnificent sight to behold.

I was surprised, generally, by how little this film has stuck with me. I had seen it once before and prior to this viewing remembered very little about the details. And even after this viewing, found myself forgetting I had just seen it days after doing so. With so many of Hitchcock’s films, even the ones I didn’t particularly enjoy, there was always something intellectually stimulating about them, something that kept me thinking about them, analyzing them, coming back to them. I don’t know what it is specifically about Dial M for Murder which I struggle with, but it’s a film I enjoyed while watching, and then entirely left my brain afterward. Twice now. That’s not great, and I realize I’m in the minority on that experience with this film (not unlike with Notorious). I find it hard to write glowingly about experiences like that.

I think much of my reaction is that it all felt very procedural, like something I had seen so many times before. Perhaps that is why Hitchcock went for the 3-D gimmick, to give it something more notable. There are strong elements, to be sure. The attack scene in particular stands out as a memorable image, a strong moment for Kelly. But too much of it feels standard and well-trodden. Marital affair, she has money, motive is boring, connection with old schoolmate is boring, and the twist of Margot surviving doesn’t give the film the jolt in the arm it ought to. A well executed, but very forgettable film.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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