Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Dial M for Murder (1953)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock                                  Writer: Frederick Knot
Film Score: Dimitri Tiomkin                                Cinematography: Robert Burks
Starring: Ray Milland, Grace Kelly, Robert Cummings and Anthony Dawson

This is Hitchcock in his prime, mid-fifties period. While Dial M for Murder may lack the sheer artistry of Rear Window, it is still one of the director’s best works in a career full of great films, and is certainly more satisfying than his last collaboration with Grace Kelly, To Catch a Thief. The story comes from a hit play by Frederick Knot, and his primary task in adapting it for the screen was trimming it down from its more substantial stage length. The play itself takes place in the main room of the apartment and Hitchcock does little to open things up. There are a couple of shots on the street, and a montage that is supposed to take place in the courtroom, but primarily he stays in the one room. The way he heightens interest, however, is through his camera angles, whether from over head during Milland’s seduction of Dawson, or from doorknob level looking into the bedroom, and moving the camera around the room. And it all works beautifully. Fortunately the film has emerged from the incomprehensible critical purgatory it endured for decades to earn the respect it rightly deserves as a taught thriller in which a suave protagonist attempts to commit the perfect crime.

The film opens on a kiss, Ray Milland and Grace Kelly in their apartment, not perfunctory exactly, but close. This is followed by the arrival of Robert Cummings and another kiss, in the same apartment, but this one full of passion. Milland is a former tennis pro, married to the wealthy Kelly. A year before she nearly left him for Cummings and since then he’s devoted himself to her in order to regain her trust. Milland begs off a concert that night and calls Anthony Dawson, pretending to be interesting in buying his car. The two of them had gone to college together, and since Dawson has a sketchy past Milland uses this to blackmail him into murdering Kelly so that he can get her money before she leaves him for good. Milland sets up the murder for the next night, while he’s out with Cummings. He has given Dawson instructions, makes a phone call from the party he’s attending, and when Kelly answers the phone Dawson is already in the room and attempts to kill her. Unfortunately for Dawson--and Milland--she manages to grab a pair of scissors and stabs Dawson in the back, killing him. When Milland gets home he has to do some quick thinking to engineer the scene and make it look like Kelly killed him on purpose, because he knew about the affair and threatened to expose her. And it almost works.

The real investigative work is undertaken by police detective John Williams, who becomes something of a proto-Columbo as he continually thinks of one more question to ask and continues to make Milland think they’re on the same side until he’s ready to spring his trap. Ray Milland is the centerpiece of the film and it is one of his finest performances. It’s doubtful that even Cary Grant could have pulled of the malevolence beneath his smiling exterior. And watching him think through problems when they arise is masterful. This was the first of Grace Kelly’s films for Hitchcock and while she has nowhere near the personality she would exhibit in their next film together, it can hardly be seen as her fault when the screenplay has her hemmed in on all sides by all the men in the film. Even so, she is ravishing onscreen and her mere presence elevates the production. If there’s a weakness to the cast it’s probably Robert Cummings as the boyfriend. A writer, where Milland is a tennis pro, he seems ineffectual and certainly not Kelly’s type. The other brilliant bit of casting, however, is Anthony Dawson as the killer. His angular face and dark countenance make him the perfect criminal to take Milland’s bait in order to get himself out of debt.

The film was shot in 3-D, and Hitchcock certainly makes some concessions to the gimmick, most notably when Milland moves behind Williams while Kelly is answering questions, or when Williams holds the apartment key out in front of him. But the other, more subtle, uses of the effect meld seamlessly into the rest of the film. The real point on which all analysis of this film must begin is the idea of the murderer as the protagonist. Hitchcock enjoyed this perversion of audience identification and would take it to its furthest extreme in Psycho. Here the audience sees Milland as the protagonist, the hero of the picture. Hitchcock builds tension in the scene when Milland needs to call home so that Dawson can murder Kelly. But his watch has stopped and Dawson looks as though he’s going to leave. The audience, however, wants Dawson to say. In effect, they’re on Milland’s side and they want Kelly to be murdered. The shock when Kelly gets the upper hand and kills him with the scissors is similar to the moment in Psycho when Janet Leigh is murdered in the shower. Finally, there’s a terrific score. While Dimitri Tiomkin is not my favorite of the classic composers, he wrote a memorable score here that holds up well alongside some of Hitchcock’s more talented collaborators. Dial M for Murder is, to put it simply, vintage Hitchcock and an exemplar of his mid-fifties greatness.

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