It might be easy to plan the perfect murder, but actually doing it is something else entirely. That is the theme of Dial M for Murder, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 movie adapted by Frederick Knott from his own successful stage play of the same name.
The film opens by showing us the double life led by Margot (Grace Kelly). We see her first with her husband, Tony (Ray Milland), as she reads a Times article announcing arrival of American crime novelist Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings) on the Queen Mary, then segue to a steamy kiss between her and Mark in the same flat that she shares with her husband. Through their dialogue, we learn that after meeting Margot and Mark exchanged letters, all of which she burned but one, which she kept with her. She decided to break it off with him after Tony gave up his professional tennis career to spend more time with her, but then one day her purse was stolen. She received a blackmail letter from the thief demanding money in exchange for the evidence of her unfaithfulness, but the culprit never returned the letter.
Mark comes home and tells them that he can’t go to the theater with them as he’d planned because of a business meeting, so he sends them off together. After they leave, he calls a man about buying a car and asks the man to stop over to see him. When the man, Mr. Swann (Anthony Dawson) arrives, Mark reveals that he’d known him back at Cambridge and was aware that he’d stolen some funds at the time. In fact, Mark has been following him closely and has substantial information on the man’s criminal career, including a few current schemes. He explains that when his tennis career was over, he was not well off financially, but that Margot is independently wealthy and that she’s named him in her will as the benefactor of her fortune. He tells Swann about noticing his wife’s letter, then stealing her purse himself and sending her the blackmail requests. Removing the letter, he casually drops it to the floor and Swann picks it up. He then tells Swann that he wants him to murder Margot or he will reveal all he knows about the man’s criminal activities. When Swann threatens to take the matter to the police, Mark tells him that since his fingerprints are now on the letter, he can claim that Swann was the blackmailer and was trying to extort money from him. When Mark offers to pay him a thousand pounds for the deed and then explains his foolproof plan, Swann agrees to commit the murder the next evening when Tony will take Mark to his club for men-only party.
Things immediately begin to fall apart the next night as Tony tries to maneuver Margot into following his plan, then Swann bungles the murder. He is not a professional killer and uses a clumsy scarf to try to strangle her. She fights back and plunges her scissors into his back. He falls on the scissors driving them further into his body and dies. Then the movie becomes all about Tony trying to salvage himself and establish that Margot murdered Swann when he threatened her with the letter. Unfortunately, for him, Chief Inspector Hubbard (John Williams) is suspicious when the clues just don’t add up.
This is one of Hitchcock’s best suspense films and stands out from the rest because the audience is placed in the murderer’s shoes almost from the beginning. The suspense is generated from our misplaced sympathy for Tony’s attempts to cover his tracks and we both fear and hope that he will be caught. It is a masterpiece of suspense filmmaking.
Ray Milland is perfect as Tony. His suave and compliant demeanor covers his cold-blooded plan for murder and we feel his tension as the plan unravels and then changes, as he works to cover his tracks and convince everyone of a different reality. Grace Kelly is her usual beautiful self, so easily winning the audience that we hate and regret our sympathy for Tony. Robert Cummings is fine in his supporting role.
The color, in the restored print used for the DVD, is excellent and allows Hitchcock to weave his spell beautifully with Robert Burks’ stunning cinematography.
Dial M for Murder is a classic of the suspense genre and must be ranked among Hitchcock’s greatest achievements.