Of all the Hitchcock’s I’ve seen – and I haven’t seen them all yet — Dial M for Murder is probably my favourite. The film is sharp and wordy; the dialogue is almost the only reason to watch. Combined with a magnificent performance by Ray Milland, whose continual sneer and subtlety of action are reminiscent of Dennis Price’s Louis in Kind Hearts and Coronets, and its stage-play roots, resulting in a geographical limit of just one location – the couple’s apartment, where the murder takes place, the viewer finds himself hanging on to every word. The most significant and original aspect of the film is probably the fact that it tells itself once, before retelling itself.
In the first significant scene (not the opening scene, but the one that follows) Milland details what he deems the perfect murder, as a way to rid himself of his wife and earn her fortune. His motive, he says, is a brief affair she’d been involved in, with an American writer (Robert Cummings) who doesn’t seem to do much at all. The scene rolls on, fantastically, for about fifteen minutes. In this way, the viewer begins to understand the crime just about as well as the criminal and the criminal’s pawn. The crime takes place, as in the director’s better-known Psycho, quite early on – immediately after the said scene closes. This gives the viewer an opportunity to monitor the scene, looking for mistakes, paying attention for error. And this opportunity is what makes the film so much fun.
Read at Unsung Films: The Trouble With Harry.
Hitchcock’s repertoire of work is hugely diverse, from Psycho and The Birds, which showcase how capable he was of disturbing and horrifying his audience, to films like The Trouble with Harry (a former favourite) which come out almost pure comedy – an early breed of black comedy. Dial M for Murder manages to combine the horror, suspense and comedy found across almost all of his work, in such a beautiful way. Much of the film’s appeal lies in Milland’s famously Machiavellian performance. He captivates the viewer; in his eyes one finds the crucial insanity that any antagonist in this genre should possess. Grace Kelly is also good – coming across almost stupid in her innocence.
The turning point — the dreamlike scene in court – is revolutionary. Another noteworthy presence in the film is the inspector, played by the great John Williams. He is sharp, witty and infinitely strange – the way he lingers on his remarks, his slight but eternal sarcasm which isn’t always noticeable. His battle of wits with Tony Wendice, his constant cynicism, his superior intellect, makes the investigation, which takes up the second half of the film, riveting. While we are gripped by the crime throughout the first half, desperate to identify the faults in Wendice’s “perfect crime”, we are desperate to uncover what our beloved villain will do about his incalculable mistake, which direction the film will take and unsure of who we want to come out on top.