Blog Directory CineVerse: Far from phoning it in

Far from phoning it in

Monday, November 23, 2020

It may not be a major Hitchcock work, but Dial M for Murder is a thoroughly fulfilling suspense thriller to most watchers – even those less accustomed to Sir Alfred's penchant for pulse-pounding excitement and intrigue. A fresh watch reveals a precision clockwork-like script that impressively revolves around a minimum of characters and a flair for chromatic stylization. After a healthy discourse on this feature last week, our CineVerse group came to these observations (to hear a recording of that conversation, click here):

How is this film different from or similar to other Hitchcock movies you’ve seen?

  • Like Rope, it’s a film version of a popular stage play that primarily features one interior set, creating a claustrophobic environment for the audience.
  • This was the first film featuring one of Hitchcock’s favorite icy blondes – Grace Kelly, who also appeared in Rear Window and To Catch A Thief.
  • Dial M for Murder represents the one and only time the director attempted a 3D movie. This was an interesting choice or a three-dimensional film, considering how there are so few settings and characters and little opportunity for action, which would seem to limit the effect.
  • This story is not a mystery or whodunit but a supreme study in suspense, in which the audience is given more information than many of the characters and sequences are drawn out and extended for maximum tension. Hitchcock always preferred suspense to shock or mystery.
  • Lead actor Ray Milland exemplifies the clever and amoral Hitchcock villain who exudes debonair sophistication and superior intelligence. Interestingly, he is the lead despite being the antagonist.
  • As with Norman Bates in Psycho, Hitchcock brilliantly manipulates us emotionally by making us identify and empathize with both Tony and his killer-for-hire Swann when their carefully laid plans go awry and disaster looms. It’s easy to put yourself in Tony’s shoes when he realizes that his watch has stopped, the phone booth he needs to use is occupied, and Swann has shockingly been killed.
  • This is a rare example of a Hitchcock picture in which we admire and root for an officer of the law. Chief Inspector Hubbard demonstrates keen insights and shrewd instincts in trying to guess the scheming husband’s moves and motivations and he is capably played by John Williams.
  • While he uses interesting camera angles and points the camera exactly where it needs to be to focus our attention on key details, Hitchcock is, for all intents and purposes, simply shooting a stage play. Further proof that he’s keeping the proceeding simple is the montage we see of Margo on trial and being sentenced – with blank backgrounds surrounding the actors in that montage.
  • This was only Hitchcock’s third color film, but arguably it’s his first strong attempt to use color stylization. Proof of this is his emphasis on strong primary colors, such as red – donned by Margo to convey passion and sexiness when she is shown kissing her secret lover Mark.
  • It can be debated that the true star of this film is the intricate plot – if you can keep up with it. Blogger Tim Brayton wrote that this movie “consists of really just one thing, which is presented in a narrative structure that resembles an essay. First, the concept is explained, then we see the concept put into execution, then we see the concept re-explained, then the concept is deconstructed. It’s about a murder plot… And really nothing else.”

Themes crafted into Dial M For Murder

  • Voyeurism. We are given a privileged and intimate view into the private life of a husband-and-wife, including her adulterous affair and his conniving murder plot.
  • Pride comes before the fall. Arguably, Toni’s undoing is his arrogance and prideful conceit; he’s not afraid to cavalierly discuss details of his “perfect crime” with others, including Halliday, Swann, and the police inspector, not hiding his superior attitude.
  • Entrapment. Like a master chess player, Tony concocts a fiendishly brilliant blackmail scheme, an airtight murder plot, and an impressive spontaneous contingency plan on the fly.

Where can Hitchcock be spotted (his clever cameo)?

  • In Toni’s framed photograph, he is seated among the men attending the college reunion.

Other films or works that spring to mind after watching this one

  • Rope
  • A Perfect Murder, one of two remakes of this film
  • Gaslight
  • Knives Out
  • Match Point 
  • Sleuth

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