Written by: Frederick Knott
Starring: Ray Milland, Grace Kelly, Robert Cummings, John Williams
Spending a considerable amount of time with anyone begins the process of eventually getting sick of them because more gets learned and less is liked. It dictates why half of all marriages end in divorce. However, in Dial M for Murder, this eject button for a particular marriage gets a bit extreme, as it displays how one man plans the perfect assassination attempt to end it all. Incredibly savvy and impeccably crafted, no inch or line gets wasted in this masterful work.
After discovering the infidelity of his wife, Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) has decided to ensure he will collect on her life insurance fairly early. In order to do this, he maneuvers a way for someone else to kill her along with him having a proper alibi, which sets up for the possibility of the perfect murder at hand.
Icy to begin with, the relationship between Tony and his wife Margot (Grace Kelly) does not necessarily inspire huge moments of passion. They do not have a fire brewing but they appear to be amicable. The quick shock occurs when Margot shares an embrace with another man in a different scene, an American crime thriller novelist Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings). The already tame relationship gets shattered rapidly and the question becomes if Tony knows about it. As this film expertly displays, not only does he know about the affair, but he has been planning for the opportunity to murder his wife because of it. In this revelation is where the film truly kicks off.
The strongest aspects of Dial M for Murder come from the dialogue of the play with the same title and the director with how they bring it onto the screen and add the necessary dynamism. Alfred Hitchcock achieved much of his early greatness through play adaptations, and while some of them felt too stagey at times, the end result showed his growing presence behind the camera and the injection of style. This film has those similar stagey elements where dialogue dominates most of the runtime and very few locations get utilized. However, the manner in which it all comes together displays the legendary director really working through this narrative and allowing the camera to play a major part in the storytelling. Most of the story can be deciphered through what the characters say, but Hitchcock perfectly uses blocking to emphasize the conversations and add tension to nearly every sentence of the screenplay. It certainly helps to have such an engaging story to begin with, which gave the actors some excellent long-stretching moments to display their talent.
For the entirety of Dial M for Murder’s runtime, I remained stunned by the excellence on display because of the way the attempted murder comes together by Tony. At first, it appears he comes up with this plan out of whim from the infidelity, but as he continues through explaining his methodology and how he intends to get away with it demonstrates incredible detail. Not noticing the small and intentional actions he takes when talking with others can be easily ignored but his ruthlessly methodical nature comes through. The amount of detail became staggering because not only has he been planning this for a while, but he certainly knows how to play things off and improvise when things go array. For someone who has been planning this for so long, any hiccups could be detrimental, but he always seemed to land on his feet when certain faults would appear. The character of Tony becomes one of those Hitchcock villains that can weirdly be rooted for, similarly to the one in Strangers on a Train, where their plan is so thorough, you almost want them to succeed even if it may cause harm to others. The amount of planning and diligence utilized deserves the opportunity to prove the initiative will work in the end.
Seeing the completion of this plan becomes part of an inside secret the audience holds with Tony because we’re the only ones aware of this plan from the onset and his improvisations only get appreciated by us. The other characters remain clueless to his manipulative machinations in order to continue with getting rid of his wife one way or another while they all believe him to be a great guy. The amount of gaslighting done by this man probably sets a world-record because some characters begin to catch on, but it appears, as the story progresses, Tony will get away with it after all.
Ray Milland took on this role and absolutely succeeded in capturing the charisma necessary for making him somewhat likable as a character. He has the proper look for the type of guy who would do this and he delivers the dialogue in such a smooth and calculated manner. The moments of panic and control get worn in his subtle movements and facial reactions. Certainly, Milland’s greatest performance even when considering his accomplishment in The Lost Weekend. The devilish smiles he produces makes it futile to believe he’ll face proper justice for his actions, which makes it satisfying when he begins to get figured out but still a weird respect forms for him because of the sheer amount of detail needed to even pull something like this off. Grace Kelly portrays his wife, who’s always lovely, particularly in Hitchcock films, as she displays this innocence as Margot but she’s also unfaithful. She may not be perfect but Margot obviously does not deserve the gross manipulation of this story. Several supporting actors add to the already-great screenplay but this movie belongs to Ray Milland and the truly exceptional job he does as Tony.
Methodical in its storytelling but so engaging, Dial M for Murder comes together perfectly as a contained story with the ability to leave the audience hanging on every single word these characters speak. The tension of Tony dodging every opportunity for his plan to fall apart becomes a wild ticking clock as to whether he will get discovered or will his wife perish first. A delightful game to follow because he holds all of the cards and it leaves us powerless only hoping the other characters catch on and see right through him. Such an enjoyable and succinct story that proves to be flawless in its execution and one of Hitchcock’s greatest features.