Friday, September 16, 2011

DIAL M FOR MURDER

Alfred Hitchcock, 1954
Starring: Ray Milland, Grace Kelly, Robert Cummings, John Williams, Anthony Dawson

A greedy, selfish tennis player, Tony Wendice (Ray Milland), plans to have his wife murdered when he discovers evidence of her infidelity from the year before. She was involved in a romance with an old friend, mystery writer Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings), but called off their relationship when Tony quit tennis and began to act like a devoted husband.

Determined to off Margot and pocket her sizable fortune, Tony begins by anonymously blackmailing his wife over a romantic letter she saved from Mark. He also manipulates an old school friend and womanizing hustler, Charles Swann, into murdering Margot. He believes his plan is foolproof and both he Swann will get away considerably richer. When Mark is visiting for the weekend, Tony takes him to a party and leaves Margot home to go to bed early. The murder is supposed to look like a home invasion. Tony has cleverly hidden a key for Swann to slip in and at a set time, when Tony will call the house and Swann will strangle Margot from behind as she answers the phone.

Everything goes wrong. Swann does strangle Margot, but in the dark they struggle and she fights back with a pair of scissors, accidentally killing him. Hysterical, she goes to call the police, but Tony is still on the other line. He tells her to wait for him and touch nothing. When he arrives home, he consoles his wife and puts her to bed. While the police are on their way, he arranges the evidence to make it look like Swann was blackmailing Margot and she has killed him in revenge. She is taken away, convicted for murder and is awaiting her execution. Can Mark string everything together and save her in time?

This is unfortunately one of my least favorite Hitchcock films. In a lot of ways, it reminds me of Preston Sturges' wonderful black comedy about attempted murder and infidelity, Unfaithfully Yours, minus the very dark humor and the over the top performance by Rex Harrison. My main problem with Dial M for Murder are the performances from Grace Kelly and Robert Cummings, particularly the latter. Ray Milland is a tough act to compare to, but neither of them exude any humor or sex appeal. It's difficult to believe that the two were ever lovers -- it only makes sense because they are equally milquetoast -- and Grace Kelly's smoldering performance in To Catch a Thief feels a long, long way away here. Hitchcock is famous for casting icy blondes, but I simply dislike Grace Kelly in this role. It would be nice to see a more neurotic figure, like Tippi Hedren.

The only real reason to see this film is for the wonderful performance by Ray Milland, who is sneaky and diabolical for the entire running time. He smoothly manipulates Swann, Margot, Mark, and the police force, and genuinely seems to care about little other than money and his own personal comfort. Hitchcock doesn't give the impression that Milland's character is killing Margot because he's in love with her and is insanely jealous about her affair, rather it is a cold, reptilian sort of logic where he can plausibly do away with his wife and have her money all to himself. Her bland personality and asexual quality make it apparent that he only married her for the money and that this is the logical conclusion.

There are also excellent supporting performances by John Williams as the Chief Inspector and Anthony Dawson as Swann. Both men are reprising their roles from the stage play of the same name that the film is based on. The Chief Inspector provides the film's only moments of humor as he bungles his way into clues, taking a completely anarchistic approach to detective work. Aside from Milland, Williams is my absolute favorite part of this film, though I do have a soft spot for bumbling, yet brilliant detectives.

Dial M for Murder has a lot in common with Rope: both are based on stage plays, are set mostly inside an apartments, and deal with the concept of the perfect murder gone wrong. I prefer Rope, but Dial M for Murder is still a Hitchcock film and thus preferable to any recent Hollywood drivel. It's definitely worth a rental, thanks to the sublime performances from Williams and Milland. Make up your own mind with the Warner single disc DVD, which includes two documentaries and a history of 3-D, as Dial M for Murder was initially shot in the latter.

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