Because Dial M For Murder is an unusually close adaptation of a successful play, it does not seem to garner the same attention that other Hitchcock films do. There is simply less to say about Hitchcock as auteur. But as a masterful film of suspense, red-herrings, and the overlooked little things that trip one up, it cannot be topped. I never tire of watching it; there seems to be something new to see each time.
The film begins with Margo Wendice (Grace Kelly), sitting in white at the breakfast table and enjoying a demure kiss with her husband, former tennis star Tony Wendice (Ray Milland). Next, it is evening and she is in a flaming red dress and enjoying a passionate kiss with mystery writer Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings), who is her former lover. They have broken off the relationship and believe that Tony knows nothing about it. He’s changed, Margo tells Mark. He’s a more attentive husband now.
And for good reason. In fairness, I should warn that this post is rife with plot spoilers. If you have never seen it before, it is a stimulating experience to watch the story unfold without prior knowledge. My only warning is that it’s a film you have to pay close attention to. There are a lot of red-herrings.
Tony, it turns out, knows everything about Margo and Mark’s affair. He married Margo for her money and when he realized that she could leave him flat, he concocted a scheme that was a year in the making. He’s going to blackmail an old school fellow from Cambridge, Swan (Anthony Dawson) – a man constantly skating “on thin ice” – into killing his wife for him. He has everything planned down to the last detail and it is a marvel as he calmly unfurls his plan to Swan, a man who is no slouch himself when it comes to criminal scheming, but has nothing on Tony.
But as mystery-writer Mark discusses with Tony and Margo, murders are only perfect on paper. People do not always behave exactly as you expect them to. Owing to a small change in the behavior of Margo earlier in the evening, instead of being murdered by Swan, she manages to kill him in self-defense with a pair of scissors. Tony’s year of planning is a shambles, but he quickly contrives a second plan, which seems to work much better. With the judicious planting of a few telling objects, he make it look like Margo deliberately murdered Swan. The police, lead by Inspector Hubbard (John Williams), seem to fall exactly in line and she is convicted of murder.
To me, the most fascinating part of this film is watching people think, especially Ray Milland as Tony. There are moments when he realizes that he has miscalculated, but everything still seems to fall his way. Will he succeed? Will he not? What is going to finally trip him up? The film is full of red-herrings. For example, part of Tony’s original plan was to call his wife on the phone while Swan kills her. But he’s late and we, as the audience, are convinced that his lateness is what is going to save her life. But ironically, it is something that happened earlier, that we’ve already forgotten about, that saves her life.
Earlier in the evening, she didn’t want to stay home alone while Tony and Mark went to a stag party and he had to convince her, suggesting it was an ideal time to paste his press clippings into an album. He persuades her, but as a result her scissors are on the desk instead of in her mending basket, providing her an ideal weapon.
Even Mark Halliday is a red-herring. Because he’s a mystery writer, one keeps expecting him to be the one to bring Tony down. But in what is the finest twist, the police actually turn out to be rather good at their job. As Inspector Hubbard says, “The saints preserve us from the gifted amateur!”
John Williams played the role of Inspector Hubbard on Broadway and reprised it for the film. He initially seems like your stereotypical British officer, conscientious, following his own line of reasoning and apparently missing the important details. The first time I watched this movie I maligned him twice. I thought he was a stupid policeman, began to rethink it as he seemed to be getting at something important and then impugned him again when he appeared to drop it. Williams is perfect, lending the character sympathy and kindness towards Margo, impatience with Mark and complete satisfaction when he gets his man. He even gets the last shot of the film, brushing his mustache with pleased self-congratulation.
Grace Kelly and Robert Cummings are perfectly fine in the film, but it really belongs to Ray Milland (with Williams coming in second). He’s smooth, sophisticated, and believes he has all the answers…which largely he does. But as much as he might feel like he owns people (as he says he feels about Swan), he doesn’t. He’s awfully good at it, though. He says he puts himself in the place of others to see what they will do.
But everyone does that to a certain extent, which is another part of the fascination of the film. Everyone thinks, realizes, and put themselves in each other’s shoes to arrive at the exact same conclusion at the end. Sherlock Holmes would be proud at how they logically arrive at the only possible solution.
Given all the red-herrings, this last time I was finally able to isolate the three things that undid Tony. They are the scissors, the latchkeys and the money. Three things that seem innocuous and – in the case of the money and the scissors especially – things we completely forget about.