Dialing J for jay walking is the dull extent of Judge Dan Mancini's criminal career.
Our reviews of Dial M for Murder 3D (Blu-ray) (published October 16th, 2012) and TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Murder Mysteries (published September 21st, 2009) are also available.
If a woman answers…hang on for dear life!
Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa believed the script was the most important element of any film. Give a great director a mediocre script and you'll end up with a mediocre movie, he once asserted, but give a mediocre director a great script and you'll end up with a good movie. Even if he was mostly correct, Dial M for Murder is an exception that proves his rule. Its script—based on a stage play by Frederick Knott—is little more than a string of pulp mystery plot mechanics translated into character dialogue. Alfred Hitchcock's comprehensive mastery of his medium, though, transformed a clever but shallow suspense piece into something much more.
Facts of the Case
The story concerns one-time professional tennis player Tony Wendice (Ray Milland, The Lost Weekend), who meticulously plots the perfect murder because his wife Margot (Grace Kelly, High Noon) cuckolded him a year earlier with American mystery writer Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings, Saboteur). The writer is newly returned to London and Wendice fears Margot will leave him, taking her fortune with her. Having spent the past year setting up the crime, Wendice blackmails a college acquaintance with a spotty past and list of aliases (Anthony Dawson, Dr. No) into carrying out the murder. But, as Halliday notes, crimes are only perfect on paper. When real-world complications arise, Wendice finds himself having to improvise a new outcome while playing cat-and-mouse with a smart and patient police inspector (John Williams, To Catch a Thief).
More than anything else, Dial M for Murder is a crystal clear example of Hitchcock's unprecedented skill at manipulating audience loyalty. It has much in common with his later, more potent film, Psycho. Grace Kelly's Margot Wendice and Janet Leigh's Marion Crane are similar creations. Classic Hitchcock blondes, both are entangled in sin—Wendice hides adultery while Crane is engaged in an extramarital affair (no small thing in a Hollywood film of 1960) and theft. It's sin we can't hold against them, though, because of how effectively the director ties us to them emotionally and psychologically through the films' first halves. But in the second half of each film, Hitchcock astonishingly shifts our loyalty to the men who regard these women—once our heroines—with evil intent.
The back end of Dial M for Murder is like a distended analog to the scene in Psycho in which Norman Bates sinks Marion Crane's car in the murky pond out back of his motel. Descending nose-first, the sedan hitches for a moment and Norman freezes, worried the tail-end of the car will remain above the pond's surface, announcing to the world there's been foul play at the Bates Motel. Our hearts palpitate with Norman's. Despite the fact we've spent the first 40 minutes of Psycho alongside Marion Crane, Hitchcock tricks us into rooting for her murderer, crossing our fingers that Bates is successful in hiding his crime. And when the sedan continues its descent, we feel relief. Similarly, the second act of Dial M for Murder finds us hoping Tony Wendice can somehow outsmart Halliday and Inspector Hubbard as they try to ferret out the circumstances surrounding the attack on Margot. It's a deeply suspenseful cat-and-mouse game, and we spend most of the film wanting the bad guy to win.
Alfred Hitchcock's talents as a filmmaker were countless, but his ability to dictate—almost at a moment's notice—the character with whom his audience identifies, and his penchant for using that talent to express moral ambiguity by playing our emotional reactions to storytelling conventions against our ethical sensibilities, is perhaps the most singular and potent of them. In Dial M for Murder, Hitchcock's whipsawing of audience affinity is aided by Ray Milland's excellent performance, perhaps the best of his career. In the master director's hands, Milland's intelligence, style, and debonair charm slide effortlessly back and forth from magnetic to reptilian. We hate him but enjoy his witty banter, fear him but admire his grace under pressure. Mostly, we just want to see him get away with his crime, despite the fact Hitchcock's simultaneously made us feel as protective of Margot as Halliday and Hubbard. This cognitive dissonance isn't a function of the script itself, but was born of Hitchcock's careful handling of it. It's an example of a great filmmaker elevating formula material by injecting it with his personal preoccupations. Despite Kurosawa's theory, Dial M for Murder is a classic film born of a mediocre script and a great director. But we shouldn't be surprised: Cinematic axioms don't really apply to Hitchcock; he was a force all his own.
Hitchcock made Dial M for Murder during a time when Hollywood was struggling to regain market share from television by adopting widescreen formats, eye-popping color photography, and using gimmicks like 3D. Compelled by the studio to make the film in 3D, it's a revelation what Hitchcock managed to do with a format we mostly associate with bad horror films. Staying true to his source, the director keeps the story mostly confined to the Wendices' small London flat, and he uses foreground, middleground, and background compositional spaces to place us in the center of the action. As a result, few shots jump out as being gimmicky exploitations of 3D technology. Viewing the film in the standard two-dimensions, it's unlikely one would even be aware it was shot for 3D presentation unless told; yet once made aware, one immediately recognizes how dynamically Hitchcock's subtle use of camera planes would translate on screen when projected in 3D.
The DVD presents the film in only two dimensions, of course, but the transfer is spectacular. Since the movie plays out almost entirely in a single indoor setting, it has a limited number of the rear projection process shots Hitchcock favored over location shooting and, as a result, few instances of the grainy backgrounds that mar shots in DVD offerings of his other films. Colors are bold, accurate, and fully saturated. Dial M for Murder has always been a colorful film, but the DVD is the most sparkling I've ever seen it. The original mono audio is also well presented, with few instances of source distortion and a crystal clear rendering of the ample dialogue.
Extras are limited to a 20-minute making-of documentary, a brief featurette on the history of 3D in 1950s Hollywood, and a theatrical trailer.
Dial M for Murder lacks the depth and thematic resonance of Hitchcock masterworks like Rear Window, Vertigo, or The Birds. That said, I've always found it one of his most entertaining films, and Warner has done a smash-up job finally bringing it to DVD.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• "Hitchcock and Dial M" Featurette
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