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Wayback Wednesday: Dial M for Murder (1954)

He should have just dialed D for divorce.

When I was younger I never understood why Alfred Hitchcock was referred to as the “Master of Suspense.” Granted, this was years before I had seen some of the acclaimed director’s most remarkable movies such as, Rear Window (1954) or Psycho (1960). I remember seeing Strangers on a Train (1951) when I was a teenager, but it was definitely Dial M for Murder (1954) that was the first Hitchcock movie that really stuck with me. I remember watching this movie for the first time and going, “OHHHHH. Now I get why Hitchcock is the Master of Suspense.” Dial M for Murder solidifies the director as the undisputed King of Thrills. Every minute of this close-quartered crime-caper will have you feeling tense, questioning who has a key to your front door.

Credit: / Warner Bros.

Based on the stage play of the same name, Dial M for Murder tells the story of Tony Wendice, an English retired champion tennis player who discovers that his wife Margot, a wealthy socialite, is having an affair with Mark Halliday, an American crime-fiction writer. To get his revenge and to ensure he still gets her money, Tony plans an elaborate scheme to murder Margot, hiring an old acquaintance to do so.

Look, I may not be a certified marriage counsellor, but if you’re cheating on your spouse / planning an elaborate murder as revenge, you need to just get a divorce. Did that easy way out never occur to Tony or Margot? I’m just saying, a simple phone call to their lawyer could have saved both of them a ton of trouble. Although, then we as an audience wouldn’t get to enjoy such a mysterious tale full of blackmail and betrayal. Hitchcock wastes no time jumping straight into the story and establishes the characters, tone, and stakes with ease. Which is helpful because Dial M for Murder is a story full of twists and turns that is constantly evolving. Everything that could go wrong for Tony does, and the way he has to adapt to those twists and turns in a heartbeat is spine-tingling. Watching Tony cleverly alter his plans within a split-second is brilliant to watch. This is a story that breathes and lives.

It’s also a story that relies on A LOT of talking. The dialogue in the beginning between Tony and Swann, the man he’s hired to murder Margot, is a bit of a chore to sit through. It takes about 30 minutes of the movie to set up, during which Tony basically just describes the rest of the movie for you. Plus, he’s speaking AT Swann so it’s like listening to an audio tape of a book your high school English teacher assigned. If you don’t find yourself fully invested in the story, you’re going to end up drifting off and not paying attention. Thankfully, after Tony’s long description Hitchcock moves the story along at a breakneck pace, indulging in all the juicy drama.

If you didn’t know that Dial M for Murder was based on a stage play, Hitchcock’s excellent direction certainly makes it clear. The entirety of the movie takes place in one central setting, the Wendice’s apartment, it’s very dialogue-heavy, and there are long continuous takes with no cuts. Both the staging and the direction make Dial M for Murder feel very much like you’re sitting in a theatre watching the play. There’s even an intermission! Which makes sense for a super long movie like, The Great Race (1965), but Dial M for Murder is a speedy hour and 45 minutes. It shows how skilled and versatile Hitchcock is as a director. He can do big sweeping movies like To Catch a Thief (1955) – check out my review, here – or North by Northwest (1959) and then also intimate smaller scale projects like this that have the tone, pacing, and restrained intensity that you get from a stage show. You always get quality over quantity with Hitchcock. And of course, always an equal dose of style AND substance. Speaking of style, obviously it’s the 1950s so the fashion is timeless and gorgeous, but Kelly’s wardrobe is stunning in this movie. Even her fucking night gown is amazing!

As Margot, Kelly is expectedly lovely but she’s severely underutilized. Thank goodness she gets larger roles in Rear Window and To Catch a Thief because her role in Dial M for Murder is quite minuscule. She’s wonderful at performing what she’s given and also gets to claim my favourite scene of the movie. When Margot stabs Swann with the scissors and it’s the most dramatic thing I have ever seen…now that’s cinema. Kelly rightfully gets top billing (because Kelly is THE definition of a star) but this really is Ray Milland’s movie. As Tony, he certainly has the most to do. You just wanna slap Tony across the face, a testament to how well Milland plays the villain. He’s creepy in the way that he’s so casual talking about murdering his wife, delivering lines as though he were commenting on the weather or a trip he had just taken. It’s eerie and unsettling and I love it. His reflexes in the way he easily adapts and shifts his story around are practically cat-like.

I like Dial M for Murder, but my biggest complaint with this movie is that it spells out the whole movie for you in the beginning. It’d be more thrilling if we didn’t know that Tony were behind it the whole time. Starting a whodunnit with knowing exactly who did it and why takes a large part of the appeal out of watching the rest of the movie for me. It slightly takes the satisfaction out of unravelling the mystery. And boy, is there a lot to unravel. All of the characters make up so many lies, excuses, and stories and then edit and revise versions of those…whew, it’s a lot to keep up with. Make sure you pay close attention to this fast-paced story. There are lies upon lies. It’s not convoluted but holy shit there’s just so much information to keep up with. And it’s all in this one apartment and spoken about in such a monotone way that you better have laser-focus when watching. However, if you do pay close attention, you’ll be witness to a thrilling and tantalizing tale of deception that will have you weary of anyone who insists you stay home alone. 

When it comes to Hitchcock movies, I much prefer the ones that lean more into horror. Like, Psycho and The Birds (1963). God, The Birds is so damn good. Hmmmm, maybe that should be a Wayback for next October? But if you’re looking for a compelling and twisted Hitchcock movie with all the presence of a stage show, then look no further. Dial M for Murder is the movie for you. Go ahead, pick up the phone. Entertainment is calling.

Have you seen Dial M for Murder? What are your favourite Hitchcock movies?

Let me know in the comments or on social media!

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