Friday, August 16, 2019

Dial M For Murder Is More Constrained But No Less Thrilling Hitchcock Feature

This review originally appeared on The-Solute as part of their Year of the Month series.

Like Jackass 3D or Hoodwinked Too!: Hood vs. Evil, Dial M for Murder was made in 3D. The brief 3D craze of the 1950s included this Alfred Hitchcock directorial effort, though, apparently, test audiences reacted so negatively to the 3D that it was primarily shown in 2D. It’s odd to watch Dial M For Murder and imagine it being thought of as ideal for the process of 3D. Rarely do objects come towards the camera or other similar gimmicky moments associated with 3D movies of this era, it’s all mostly a restrained dialogue-reliant affair that would seem ill-suited for this format. After all, a crackling thriller like Dial M for Murder doesn’t need a gimmick like 3D to be extremely immersive!

Frederick Knott pens the screenplay adaptation of his novel of the same name for Dial M for Murder, which follows Tony Wendice (Ray Milland), a tennis player, and a plan he has for his wife Margot (Grace Kelly). See, his spouse is seeing another man, Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings), behind his back and so he plans to respond to this affair by hiring someone to murder Margot. Turning to an old college chum by the name of Swann (Anthony Dawson), Wendice lays out elaborate instructions for how Swann can pull of the perfect murder while he and Halliday are out at a stag party. It’s all but assured to go off without a hitch. Well, this being a Hitchcock movie, no plan goes exactly like it should and eventually the wrong person ends up dead and it’s soon a race against time to prove the malicious nature of Wendice.

Knott’s roots lying in the world of literature can be seen in the prolonged dialogue conversations that make up much of the running time of Dial M for Murder. The characters of Wendice and Inspector Hubbard (John Williams) are especially fond of chattering on about their motivations or their thought processes in regards to the pivotal crime scene that Margot eventually becomes ensnared in. Instead of coming off as long-winded, though, these extensive sequences of dialogue are fascinating thanks to Knott’s being a strong writer of gripping dialogue that reflects the distinct personalities of the individual characters. It doesn't hurt that the actors assigned to deliver this material are an exceptionally talented bunch, particularly the leading man assigned to the role of Tony Wendice.

Ray Milland is handed an extended early sequence that see’s him unveiling his nefarious disposition for the first time by explaining to Swann, in the finest of details, how he came to understand just what his wife was up to and why he chose Swann for this particular assignment. Milland constantly gives Tony Wendice an air of upper crust informality, his style of speaking in regards to explaining the bloodthirsty plans he has for his significant other is exactly the same style of speaking he’d use to divulge his thoughts on the current weather. This juxtaposition is darkly amusing in spots, especially when his cockiness about having all the answers to certain questions that could implicate him get undercut by other characters pointing out very clear flaws in his logic.

But it also lends an air of menace to this guy, Milland always carries the suggestion that Wendice could totally match his casual talk about violence with his own physical actions. The suggestion of impending violence in a character who speaks so freely about murder echoes another riveting Hitchcock antagonist, Robert Walker’s Bruno Antony in Strangers on a Train. Never a bad thing at all to echo such an iconic big-screen adversary! In terms of its storytelling scope, Dial M for Murder is a much more restrained affair than Strangers on a Train, the exotic locales that mark many of Hitchock’s European thrillers are traded out here for a still sleek but much more modest apartment that serves as the backdrop for much of the movie.

Even with a more constrained amount of locales to explore (even Margot’s time in courtrooms is set against a blue-and-red backdrop rather than an actual courtroom), Hitchock’s visual sensibilities as a filmmaker don’t get diluted. The more compact nature of the proceedings results in some extremely imaginative camerawork, particularly an extended single take of Wendice walking Swann through every part of the proposed murder that’s captured in a high-angle shot from the perspective of the ceiling. Excellently executed moody lighting that makes particularly great use of shadows help enhance the chilling atmosphere of crucial sequences like when Margot gets attacked by Swann in her apartment. With so many memorable pieces of cinematography and direction, it’s no wonder Dial M for Murder stands out as a noteworthy Hitchock directorial effort even while being released in a decade that saw some of his most iconic works (namely Rear Window and Vertigo) being released, even if it didn’t manage to get widely released in 3D!

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