HitchcOctober: Dial M For Murder

Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) is a former tennis pro who has grown too old for the game and now works as a sports equipment salesman, living with his beautiful young wife Margot (Grace Kelly). Tony has recently begun to suspect that Margot has been having an affair with American detective novelist Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings), and has obtained proof via a letter from Mark that Tony stole from Margot’s handbag. Instead of confronting his wife, Tony plans instead to enact revenge. He hires a down on his luck old college friend of his (Anthony Dawson) to murder Margot, and forms a flawless scheme to ensure he is the major beneficiary of all her money. As expected, however, not everything goes to plan.
murderHitchcOctober is here! Hooray! And we’re kicking things off with one of my favourites than I’ve yet to review. I recently discussed this film (along with The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension) on an episode of the FilmWhys podcast hosted by Bubbawheat from Flights, Tights and Movie Nights, so if you’re interested be sure to go and check that out too.
This is a film that succeeds on its intricate plotting. Based on the play by Frederick Knott, this is an elaborate jigsaw puzzle that sets out all the pieces and lets you watch them all click into place, making perfect use of those stage traditions of limited locations and characters. There’s essentially five major roles here, with a couple of very minor one or two line characters, and almost all the action takes place within the single location of the Wendice apartment, with a little occurring just outside or in the hallway, and a few inter-cut scenes from other places. I also greatly appreciate the number of red herrings we’re thrown. No vengeance plot ever goes according to plan, so we’re left to wonder exactly what is going to go amiss. Tony neglects to wind his watch, throwing his input out of sync, whilst Swann’s impatience causes more chances for error, but in fact what occurs would have happened regardless of either of these elements.
It’s an interesting film in terms of who the audience should root for. Our protagonist seems to be Tony, who is after all the cuckolded man, but his act of vengeance is so severe that he must surely be the antagonist to the comparatively innocent Margot and Mark. Swann, the man Tony brings in to carry out the deed, provides a suitable heel, and the late addition of Inspector Hubbard (John Williams) is an aptly Poirot-like resolver, but this remains one of those bizarre impossibilities where I want everyone to come out of the plot having achieved what they wanted, which frustratingly cannot happen. Part of the key to this lies in the performances. Milland – who for my money looks as though perennial Hitchcock leading men James Stewart and Cary Grant both stepped into the transporting machine from The Fly – dances along the finest tightrope of suave and sinister, whilst Kelly opts to ignore her character’s former misgivings in favour of the angelic nature Hitch loved to bring out in her.
Pick of the bunch for me though is Williams as Hubbard. He is only brought in towards the end, once the pot has been stirred and started to bubble, but he is gifted with more subtle character moments and modicums of comedy than any of the others. Be it his disappointment at a lack of a coat stand, his annoyance at the crumpling his coat then receives, or the delightful manner in which he combs his moustache at an impromptu opportunity, his fussy demeanour is always worth keeping an eye on.
As always with a play adaptation, the film-maker in question is wise to distinguish the reason for an alternative medium. I saw this recently with this year’s Macbeth, in which a heavy use of fog and cinematic wide shots provided an intensely visual cinematic experience that would be impossible on stage. Here Hitch is more minimalistic in his approach to producing a film from a stage script. Sure there are varieties of camera angles, switching to more of a plan view when outlining the specifics of the plot, and when the police are called in to investigate, and there’s a very stylised approach to some court room aspects, but for the most part this is played out very similarly to how it would be on stage, right down to hinting at rooms that don’t exist by way of a doorway leading to a shadowy kitchen, rather than showing it outright.
It’s worth noting that this was originally released in 3D, something I abhor in more film-making, and which here provides an occasionally distractingly layered image. Rarely are two actors stood in line with one another, and without a  inanimate object in the extreme foreground to better juxtapose to distances between everything. It doesn’t detract from the film a great deal, but it is somewhat noticeable when you can’t help looking out for it. The third act could be accused of hitting a nail a little too squarely on the head in terms of deliberateness, but I find it gleefully entertaining, watching Tony squirm whilst still believing himself to be far smarter than everyone in the vicinity. Despite the vast number of Hitchcock movies present on the 1001 List, this is one that I feel has been dealt a disservice by its omission, as it remains far more a favourite of mine than some of the others that are apparently worthy.

Choose Film 9/10

4 thoughts on “HitchcOctober: Dial M For Murder

  1. I’m not quite as high on this as you. Don’t get me wrong, it’s good stuff…just awfully slow and the almost static location wears on it. Again, still a very good film, though.

    • That’s a shame. I enjoyed the efficiency of the minimal locations, whenever a film-maker can keep me engaged regardless of the limitations they’ve set themselves I’m always impressed.

  2. Pingback: My Week in Movies, 2015 Week 41 | Life Vs Film

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