Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Dial M for Murder (3-D) (1954)

Grace under pressure.

That would have (and probably did) make a clever headline for some reviewer back in 1954. It’s an apt description of Margot Wendice, Grace Kelly’s falsely accused beauty in Dial M for Murder. But it describes Margot’s husband, Tony, even better. Few have Tony’s poise; fewer still could retain that poise in the tense seconds after a master plan had gone awry. But he can, and does, more than once.

How Tony (Ray Milland) reacts to the unforeseen is Dial M’s greatest pleasure. As Hitchcock movies go, it feels typical—the type of smartly plotted, audience-manipulating twist-and-turner that everyone associates with the director, even if they’ve never seen his work. It never truly scares us, and the perils Margot faces (including the noose) never really take hold. But Tony, a man whom we know is guilty right from the start, keeps us entertained. When will he get caught? How will he get caught? We sit there wondering—and smiling.

Dial M is actually very funny. This is due in part to a near-comic performance delivered by John Williams as Chief Inspector Hubbard, but more due to us. We feel a sense of superiority over this whole affair: as though we’ve seen it all before. In one form or another, we have. Hitchcock knows it, too.

Dial M proposes that an intelligent and self-satisfied former tennis pro, short on cash but married to a wealthy woman, might feel doubly threatened upon discovering that she’s having an affair. And that, as her sole beneficiary, he would doubly benefit from having her offed. With Margot dead, Tony would gain both his revenge and her money, and continue the comfortable life to which he has become accustomed.

It doesn’t trouble Tony that the other man is Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings), an American writer of mystery novels. But it matters to us, because any conversation the two of them have on the subject of crime makes us grin. It is Mark who proposes that a perfect murder is possible, though Tony long ago came to the same conclusion. It is Mark, much later, who reaches into his clichéd bag of tricks to save Margot. There’s a formula to these things, Mark seems to say. His very purpose in the film is to declare that.

However, it isn’t Mark’s purpose, or Hitchcock’s, to help us explore Tony’s and Margot’s broken marriage, or the emotional turmoil underpinning Tony’s homicidal plans. When Tony explains to the would-be assassin, Mr. Swann (Anthony Dawson) the details of the proposed murder, he does so with the tone of a smug military strategist. It’s a matter of record that Margot no longer loves her husband, but it isn’t a tragedy—even to the husband.

Written by Frederick Knott, adapting his own play, Dial M is confined largely to the living room of the Wendice home. Hitchcock spares us any major scenes in a courtroom, police station, prison cell, or the assassin’s dwelling, which is good: They would have depicted characters in pain and anguish; forcing us into some kind of sympathy. It is not our purpose here to care; it is our purpose to be gleeful about the plot, and Tony’s two-step through it.

Never do we see Tony sweat. At worst, he’s perturbed. Maybe, once, we see his shoulders sag in relief; but by that point, he’s been through a lot. This, too, is good. A collected Tony is a sharp and nimble-minded Tony; fun to watch as he faces the holes in his plan, regrouping and rearranging details on the fly, always with an eye to consistency of story—displaying an expertise his wife’s boyfriend could only dream of matching on the page.

Alas, Tony’s plan is too perfect to work. It is born of his own arrogant belief that he can flawlessly predict and time the actions of several people in different places, and in different states of mind, all at once. It is also untenable—and this is a legitimate way of looking at it, I think—because it’s executed too early in the film. When Margot is woken from her slumber by a ringing phone, then is garroted from behind by Swann, we know that, successful murder or not, the bulk of the film will be about Tony’s plan going wrong.

Hitchcock filmed Dial M for Murder in 3-D—the one and only time he filmed anything that way. As usual when I watch 3-D films, old or new, I grew used to the effect, then forgot about it. There’s a scene with a pair of scissors that people talk about, but I doubt it’s less effective in 2-D (which is likely the only way you’ve seen the film, if you’ve seen it before). If you’ve seen it both ways, enlighten me.

Did I like Dial M for Murder? Mostly, I didn’t dislike it. It’s like an inside joke, and inside jokes are always pretty good, even when they’re nothing special. You always know when to laugh.

Where to see Dial M for Murder:
Dial M for Murder opens for a limited run at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox starting Friday, October 5, 2012. 

1 comment:

  1. This is such a great old classic movie. I could watch it over and over.