Filmsite Movie Review
Dial M For Murder (1954)
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Dial M For Murder (1954) is director Alfred Hitchcock's screen version of English playwright Frederick Knott's script. It was filmed in 3-D with the faddish technology that was available at the time (but already going out of fashion), and judged as one of the greatest 3D films ever made. However, in Hitchcock's sole 3D effort, he purposely did not exploit the 3D effects with overly gimmicky scenes (objects hurled at the camera, for example), but used it instead to create an expressive sense of depth and reality. In fact, most theatre viewers saw the film in 2D (flat).

Dial M for Murder started as a BBC television production (with a script by Frederick Knott) that aired in March of 1952, and then in the same year became a successful stage play that premiered in London (and had 425 performances), followed soon after by a successful Broadway run of 552 performances. English actor John Williams and Anthony Dawson reprised their Broadway roles for the film. The film was the last Hitchcock movie to be derived from a stage play, and it acquired much of its tension and tautness from being shot almost entirely in a limited and circumscribed area except for a few cutaways (his latest similar works were Lifeboat (1944) and Rope (1948)). Filming took place over a two-month period mostly on one set during mid-to-late summer in 1953.

It was one of Hitchcock's lesser but above-average classics, set in the post-war 1950s when 'getting-ahead' in life was a primary motivation. This was quintessential 'Hitchcockian blonde' Grace Kelly's first of three films for Hitchcock, followed by Rear Window (1954) and To Catch a Thief (1955). In this third color feature from Hitchcock, he carefully planned the coordination of colors worn by Kelly's character - beginning with virginal light pink (accompanying her husband), then bright red (with her passionate lover) that slowly turned to more dark, subdued and somber colors as her circumstances became more dire.

The thriller masterpiece had all the elements of a Hitchcock suspense murder mystery - a deadly love triangle, a MacGuffin (latch-keys), a stagebound set and dialogue-rich script, another of Hitchcock's brief cameo appearances, and an intriguing plot question - "Will he get away with it?" (not 'Who-dun-it?'). The three characters caught in the conflict were:

  • Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) - a charming, sophisticated yet villainous British husband and ex-tennis professional at Wimbledon, who married for money, and was obsessively jealous about his wife's affair
  • Margo Wendice (Grace Kelly) - an unfaithful wealthy, and beautiful socialite wife
  • Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings) - a handsome American crime-mystery writer

Mastermind Tony Wendice blackmailed (or 'influenced') C.A. Swann/Captain Lesgate (Anthony Dawson), a former classmate with a petty-criminal record, to commit the "perfect murder" of his cheating wife for £1,000 pounds cash. During the film's most suspenseful scene - a cold-blooded, attempted strangulation - tension was ratcheted up when a delayed phone call from Tony to his home number caused the planned murder to unravel. Capitalizing on the 3-D effect, Margot fought back against her attacker by reaching behind her as she searched for a weapon (a pair of scissors) to defend herself and then killed the assassin by stabbing him in the back. The remainder of the film then transitioned to Tony's quickly-improvised plans to outwit the police, by incriminating his wife Margot for killing Swann due to blackmail. However, the many twisting and turning anomalies in Tony's evolving story eventually didn't add up, as wily, eccentric and 'by-the-book' Chief Inspector Hubbard (John Williams) was perceptively pursuing the case.

There were a few taglines for the film on its posters - mostly referring to a crucial phone call that would set up a planned strangulation murder:

  • " that you, darling?"
  • "better let it ring"
  • "If a woman answers...hang on for dear life!"
  • "Murder calling in 3-D!" (various 3-D re-releases)

Hitchcock was known for many other sequences in his films involving knives, scissors, blades and other sharp implements (often ending up in someone's back or body), such as in Blackmail (1929), The 39 Steps (1935), Sabotage (1936), Spellbound (1945), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), and Torn Curtain (1966), but the stabbing sequence in this film was arguably the most famous - or at the least a close second to Psycho (1960).

The 105-minute film was moderately successful with $6 million dollars of revenue, but it failed to receive any Oscar nominations.

[Note: There were four TV movies: (1) Hallmark Hall of Fame's Dial M For Murder (1958) starring Maurice Evans, Anthony Dawson, John Williams and Rosemary Harris, (2) BBC-TV's remake Dial M For Murder (1962, UK), (3) ABC-TV's Dial M for Murder (1967) starring Laurence Harvey, Diane Cilento, and Hugh O'Brian, and (4) Dial 'M' For Murder (1981) starring Angie Dickinson, Christopher Plummer and Michael Parks. An Indian version of the film was titled Aitbaar (1985). The film was also remade as the R-rated Warner Bros' A Perfect Murder (1998) starring Michael Douglas and Gwyneth Paltrow.]

Plot Synopsis

Title Credits:

The title credits (with romantic theme music playing, from Dimitri Tiomkin) appeared above a background of a magnified telephone dial on an old-fashioned black British telephone. The MNO (6) label was replaced by a single large red 'M' letter - the M of the film's title. [Note: The M referred to Maida Vale, the main location of the entire film - a couple's apartment in North London.]

Friday Morning - In a London Townhouse:

The opening setting was a fashionable London townhouse (a policeman patrolled outside) where a wealthy couple lived - at 61 A Charrington Gardens (a two-minute walk from the Underground station). Inside, blonde American socialite Margot Wendice (Grace Kelly), wearing a pale pink wool sweater suit, was being kissed by her husband Tony Wendice (Ray Milland), wearing a dark business suit, as she read the morning paper, The Times. They were seated at a breakfast table in the center of their living room. She peeked at her husband (who was throwing a pinch of salt over his shoulder for good luck), while glancing down at a travel announcement:

Among the passengers aboard the QUEEN MARY
arriving in Southhampton today is the American
mystery writer Mark Halliday...

After a dissolve, the setting was the dock at Southhampton where the Queen Mary was disembarking passengers, including Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings). He was smartly-dressed with a tweed suit, vest, tie, and hat.

Friday Afternoon:

Another quick dissolve focused on a close-up of another more amorous kiss - now between Margot (wearing a bright red, strapless laced evening gown - a signifier of passion) and Mark in her living room. She was entertaining her American ex-lover - without her husband present. A love triangle existed between Margot, Tony, and Mark. In the film's first spoken words, as she poured him a drink, she referred to their secretive love relationship that had resumed after Mark had returned to the US about a year earlier - she believed (inaccurately) that her husband was oblivious to their past (and continuing) love affair.

Margot: I haven't told him anything about us...When you telephoned this morning, I simply said you wrote crime stories. And I'd met you once when you were here before.
Mark: That has a pretty guilty ring to it. I'd never use it in one of my stories.

As Mark listened with an understanding and relaxed manner, she explained why she wasn't going to leave her husband after all, since their marital relationship had improved dramatically:

Tony's changed...He's a completely different person to the one I used to tell you about.

She explained how several months earlier, during the ongoing affair that they were having (bridged by letter-writing), Tony had suddenly announced that he was giving up his professional tennis career to settle down to a job and more husbandly duties. To her surprise, he had become much more affectionate to her - even though she didn't quite trust him at first: "Of course, I didn't believe him at first, but he meant it, all right. But he's been wonderful ever since." She had decided to give her marriage a fresh start and remain loyal to Tony (despite her love for Mark). This was the reason she had stopped sending love letters to Mark, and had burned all of his letters that he had previously written to her - except for one ("You probably know the one I mean").

Margot's Tale of One Stolen Love Letter and Two Blackmail Notes:

She had kept Mark's single precious letter in her handbag, but it had been stolen on the train platform at Victoria Station - and when the bag was recovered, the letter was missing:

I recovered the handbag about two weeks later from the lost and found, but the letter wasn't there. Then about a week afterwards, I received a note. It told me what I had to do to get the letter back.

An anonymous blackmailer had written her a letter (mailed from Brixton) that demanded money in exchange for her purloined letter: ("I was to draw £50 pounds from my bank in £5 pound notes and then change them for used £1 pound notes. It said that if I went to the police or told anyone else, he would show the letter to my husband"). When Mark excitedly asked to see the letter (printed all in capitals), she retreated to her back bedroom to retrieve it from a drawer. Mark carefully examined the block-printed letter and reacted: "Anyone could've done this." Then, Margot explained how the blackmailer wrote her a second letter (also mailed from Brixton) with more instructions: "Throw half the money in a package and mail to John S. King, 23 Newport Street, Brixton SW9. You'll get your letter by return."

However, the blackmailer never picked up the money she sent or returned the letter. Two weeks later, she described a visit to the pawn shop at the Brixton address - "Said they had never heard of a man by that name. The parcel was still there. It had never been opened." Mark was distressed about a number of things regarding the two letters:

  • that he hadn't been notified earlier: "I can't understand why you didn't tell me about it"
  • that she had responded with pay-off money
  • that she hadn't notified Tony or the authorities

Margot had attempted to keep their secretive affair under wraps by paying off the blackmailer: "It was only £50 pounds, I thought I'd pay up and have it done with." Mark threatened to come clean that evening and tell Tony everything about them - so that she could divorce Tony and be with him: "I'm gonna tell Tony about us tonight," but she dissuaded him. He remembered a year earlier, when they had again almost considered telling Tony: "I wish it was a year ago, when you came to say goodbye. We were in the kitchen. I said, 'I can't go through with this. Let's find Tony and tell him all about it.' I believe you'd have done it then." He wondered why she hadn't burned the one love letter: "Why didn't you burn that letter too?" They were obviously very much in love, illustrated when she fell into his arms for a kiss - and she didn't directly answer his question.

They were interrupted when they heard Tony enter the townhouse's outer front door, proceed down the hallway and insert his key into the locked apartment door. A clever camera shot showed their two shadowy silhouettes cast onto the inside of the Wendice's front door that quicky parted to opposite ends of the living room. The two main elements or themes of the film were brought together: the ENTRY KEY and ADULTERY.

Friday Evening - Tony's Elusive and Crafty Character:

After Tony entered late from work, Margot introduced her husband to Mark Halliday. During small talk, Mark mentioned that it wasn't his first visit to London: "I was here a year ago for vacation," and that he was a writer for television ("for my sins"), not for radio. They had a dinner table reservation for 7 pm that evening, but Tony announced that unexpected business matters ("a slight alteration in plans") kept him from joining them - he had to prepare an urgent report for his boss - but they should proceed without him. As a consolation, Tony invited Mark to his club's "stag-party" farewell-dinner banquet the following evening. As Margot and Mark departed and headed off to the theatre and dinner, he encouragingly called after them: "Try and sell the extra ticket and have a drink on the proceeds."

The couple left, prompting Tony (with a thoughtful look) to close the living room drapes before making a phone call. He spoke to a Captain Lesgate (while pretending to be someone named 'Fisher') about his interest in an American car that Lesgate was advertising and selling for £1,100 pounds ("It certainly looks just the job for me"). With a smooth-talking manner, Tony manipulated the seller into agreeing to come to the townhouse immediately to negotiate a fair price, due to his twisted knee. In preparation, Tony set out a new pair of white gloves (removed from a brown paper bag) and a cane (to pretend he was incapacitated).

Meeting with Captain Lesgate - Tony's Long-Winded Description of His Troubled Marriage:

Captain Lesgate (Anthony Dawson) arrived - revealing himself as a thin, mustached man wearing a drab trenchcoat (with a high collar) and a checked jacket. They recognized each other (Lesgate: "I can't help thinking I've seen you before somewhere") - they actually were former Cambridge classmates almost 20 years in the past, when Lesgate was known as Charles Alexander "C.A." Swann. Tony tried to hide his real identity: "You wouldn't remember me. I only came your last year." Lesgate/Swann became suspicious that Tony had learned of his car sale through his garage: "That's odd. I don't think I mentioned it to anyone there," and also when Tony described his tough negotiating skills: "I refuse to discuss the price until you've had at least three brandies." And then Lesgate/Swann realized that 'Fisher' was actually Tony Wendice - a famous tennis pro who had played at Wimbledon. Both remarked that they were using fake names. Revealing his close attention to detail, Tony then mentioned that Lesgate had switched from smoking "rather expensive cigars" at college to a pipe.

From the wall, Tony removed a framed picture of a reunion dinner - a formal tuxedo-event - with Tony seated to the left of Swann (smoking a large cigar).

[Note: Hitchcock made his customary cameo seated across from them at the round, white table-clothed table.]

Swann noted: "What a murderous thug I look!" Tony recalled an instance of Swann's alleged illegal activity during their student days. Swann had served as Honorary Treasurer of the school's ball, and under suspicious circumstances, almost £100 pounds of ticket money was stolen from a cashbox (and college porter Alfred had been blamed - or framed - for the theft).

Currently, Tony explained that he had given up tennis and was now selling sports equipment, and he bantered on about his wealth - acquired via marriage (while hypocritically trying to negotiate the price of the car down to £1,000 pounds):

Tony: I had a pretty good run for my money. Went round the world three times...I sell sports equipment. It's not very lucrative, but it gives me plenty of spare time...My wife has some money of her own...
Swann: People with capital don't realize how lucky they are. I'm almost resigned to living on what I can earn.
Tony: You can always marry for money.... I know I did.

Tony intimated that his wife had "nearly" left him the year before because his tennis career took precedence over being a good husband: ("She didn't like it...she tried to make me give up tennis and play husband instead"). While he was away on tour playing on grass courts in the national championships, his wife lost interest in him. When he returned, he spied on her as she drifted away and became unfaithful: ("She wasn't in love with me anymore"). Tony embellished a description of the development of her affair with "her old school friend (who) lived in a studio in Chelsea," an affluent neighborhood.

Swann attentively listened as Tony remembered being "scared" at the thought of divorce - and living without his wife's money. Anticipating that she was going to leave him, he had seriously considered killing her lover, but then reconsidered and decided it would be better to kill her instead, before she took off with her wealth:

I began to wonder what would happen if she left me. I'd have to find some way of earning a living, to begin with. I suddenly realized how much I'd grown to depend on her. All these expensive tastes I'd acquired while I was at the top. Now, big tennis had finished with me and so, apparently, had my wife. I can't ever remember being so scared. I dropped into a pub and had a couple of drinks. As I sat in the corner, I thought of all sorts of things. I thought of three different ways of killing him. I even thought of killing her. That seemed a far more sensible idea. And just as I was working out how I could do it, I suddenly saw something which completely changed my mind. I didn't go to that tournament after all. When I got back, she was sitting exactly where you are now. I'd told her I decided to give up tennis and look after her instead.

He then realized that he might have exaggerated her affair with the American in his studio apartment in Chelsea: "Well, as things turned out, I needn't have got so worked up after all. Apparently, their spaghetti evening had been a sort of a fond farewell. The boyfriend had been called back to New York." But to Tony's consternation, their relationship continued via love letters after the boyfriend left London - and he spoke about one letter that she always carried with her:

There were long letters from there. They usually arrived on Thursdays. And she burned them all except one. That one she used to transfer from handbag to handbag. It was always with her. That letter became an obsession with me. I had to find out what was in it. And finally, I did. That letter made very interesting reading.

Tony then admitted the great lengths he had gone to, to force Margot to reveal her love for Mark. He set up a test to see if she would pay to have the letter returned - an indication of a cover up of her affair. Tony stole the letter from his wife's handbag when it had become "an obsession" for him. He had also blackmailed her to admit to the affair: "I even wrote her two anonymous notes offering to sell it back.... I was hoping it would make her come and tell me all about him. But it didn't, so I kept the letter." When she paid the blackmail fee (to conceal the affair), he kept the letter anyway. Then, Tony carefully removed the actual love letter from his inside coat pocket (without touching it) - and purposely let it drop to the floor. Swann picked it up and handed it back (with his fingerprints on it), as Tony resumed his story. Ideally, he was hoping that their affair was over:

Anyway, that did it. It must have put the fear of God into them because the letters stopped. And we lived happily ever after.

His story, a series of embarrassing marital details, had been about his unfaithful wife's affair, and his voluntary abandonment of his sole means of income - his tennis career. Now reliant on his wife's wealth, he admitted that he could no longer divorce her and risk losing her financial support, if she ever reignited her affair. No longer was he living "happily ever after" - he suspected that their affair had resumed.

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