Movie Review: DIAL M FOR MUDER (1954) Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

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Classic Movie Review

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Starring Ray Milland, Grace Kelly, Robert Cummings
Review by Steve Painter


An ex-tennis pro carries out a plot to murder his wife. When things go wrong, he improvises a brilliant plan B


Alfred Hitchcock is known as “The Master of Suspense.” This is true when it comes to the film world. In the literary world, no one was a better suspense writer than Frederick Knott. So when the mater of literary suspense had his play optioned by the master of cinematic suspense, a quality movie was sure to be produced. It was in the form of Hitchcock’s most suspenseful picture, Dial M For Murder (1954).

Unlike in other movies adapted from literary works, Hitchcock didn’t tinker with the successful stage play Knott had written. There are a few Hitchcock touches, like stalling the climatic murder sequence by having Ray Milland’s watch stop and then having him wait to make a phone call as someone is using the phone booth. All this heightens the suspense as the audience waits, paralyzed to see if Grace Kelly will be murdered.

One of the most poignant Hitchcock touches comes at the very beginning. We see Milland kiss Kelly in a standard, everyday, run-of-the mill kiss given by a wife to a husband before he leaves for work. When the American, Mark, arrives on the screen he has a passionate kiss for Kelly. Without words we know the relationship of the three main characters of the story. That is a standard device employed by Hitchcock. It allows the audience to see the exposition quickly at the beginning of the movie and does not have it intrude on the story. Much like his cameo appearances. He appears here in a photograph Tony shows Charles Swann. It appears about 20 minutes into the picture.

Knott’s story is not that original. A husband wants to kill his wealthy wife for the insurance money. It is the motive in countless suspense or mystery stories. What makes this so suspenseful is that Ray Milland’s character, Tony, sets out how the murder will be committed. From there the audience is hooked as to how everything should go. It is up to Knott and in the movie Hitchcock to introduce devices that stall the plan and make the audience squirm as they wait for Grace Kelly to be murdered. It is suspense at its most basic, but most brilliant. A key aspect to making the suspense work is the way Ray Milland acts. He is a suave criminal who is completely confident in his ability. He meticulously blackmails common criminal Charles Swann, played by Anthony Dawson, to help him murder his wife. Throughout the picture, the audience wants Tony to be successful. He has gotten us to believe that murder is a perfectly innocent thing to do, like buying a car.

Another interesting aspect of this movie is that it was released in 3D. Just like today, in the 1950s the 3D craze was in. Most famously The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) was shot in this way. Hitchcock had amazing foresight, one of the qualities which make his movies so wonderful for today’s audiences, and felt that the 3D craze was just a fad. In order to not ruin his movie, but still give in to the 3D crazy studio bosses,

Hitchcock used to form sparingly, but effectively. The most breathtaking example of 3D occurred while Grace Kelly was being strangled. At one point she reaches back for a pair of scissors. For an audience watching this in 3D it seemed like she was reaching out at them. In today’s prints without the 3D, the shot is still stunning. Ray Milland gives a great performance. As does Grace Kelly, who seems unaware of the whole thing. Robert Cummings as Mark, the American, is good in a supporting role. As is detective, and constant Hitchcock supporting actor, John Williams.

Anyone interested in the art of suspense needs to see this movie. It should be taught in film and writing classes as textbook examples of how to manipulate an audience.


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