In Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder, even the innocent have poker faces. Based on Frederick Knott’s popular stage play of the same name (and adapted by the playwright for the screen), this is one of Sir Alfred’s least overtly cinematic works. In only a handful of moments does it exit the coffin-like setting of the original play’s singular location: the living room of Tony and Margot Wendice (Ray Milland, chameleonesque, and Grace Kelly, ever luminous), where the financially stranded husband—keen to his wife’s extramarital affair and hard-pressed to support himself once again—arranges to have her murdered, he the sole beneficiary in her will. Produced at the height of the 1950s 3D craze (only to be distributed primarily in 2D, the novel format’s popularity already waning in the interim), the tightness of the setting offers little in the way of typical physical/visual excitement, but the master of suspense wrings plenty of tension out of the intimate environment, playing with depth and space in ways that play off of both the audience and character’s vantage points. The rhythmic dialogue and comfortable performances let the viewer ease into the film, all the better to focus on the cunning personal exchanges that bookend the attempted crime, as Tony sneakily ensnares his criminal assistant (a delightfully amoral Anthony Dawson) and later attempts to cover his tracks as cracks in his story—and unforeseen complications with evidence—begin to open like chasms.
What tends to make even lesser Hitchcock films shine is his innate gift for directing performers, and this accounts for many of the pleasures of this ditty. It was Cary Grant who originally vied for the villainous role of Tony, but studio heads felt the public wouldn’t take him seriously as an aspiring killer. Although arguably less interesting, Ray Milland sells wholesale the wretchedness of his snake-in-the-grass character, his ingenious (but not foolproof) plot having taken many months of obsessive planning to orchestrate, while Grace Kelly—who also appeared in Hitchcock’s other 1954 film, Rear Window—almost feels underused as the would-be victim ultimately accused of murder. Her extraordinary beauty notwithstanding, her presence feels organic within the cast, and her tender constitution works wonders for the film’s many unjust turns of events; what scum Tony must be, not only to enact his murderous plot, but to let his wife suffer so after she becomes the key suspect. Granted, her initial infidelity—to a mystery writer who doubts the possibility of the “perfect murder,” foreshadowing the snafus to come—further complicates the moral quagmire, as does the manipulation of evidence by the London police force. Among these people, innocence is a relative virtue.
It’s apparent what attracted Hitchcock to this project—surely, his obsession with voyeurism, but more so the masks that people don in their interactions with one another (the nearly singular setting of the film makes for an exquisite, implicit examination of theatricality). Despite the direness of the subject matter, Dial M for Murder is among the most purely enjoyable features the director ever helmed, so much that one might be forgiven for mistaking it as lightweight. As Hubbard, the chief inspector on the Wendice’s crime scene, John Williams reflects the director’s exuberance not unlike an overgrown kid in a candy store (remarking on a bit of behind-the-scenes evidence shuffling, he notes: “Highly irregular, of course, but my blood was up!”). The devil is in the details—a key, a pair of shoes, the fibers of a carpet—and the drama reaches a steady boil as the layers of truth peel away. Things are rarely ever as people say they are, and there’s a devastating irony to be found in a final prosecution founded on what is ultimately incorrect policework.