The case for “Dial M for Murder”

It’s no secret that Alfred Hitchcock is the master of suspense. And really, anyone who can make a flock of birds, a shower, and even a bouquet of flowers absolutely terrifying, for many, many years, is clearly not someone to be trifled with. Of course, what Hitchcock is most known for is his complex, often dizzying, psychological thrills of horror (or at least some sort of terror), such as Psycho, Rear Window, or Vertigo – plus North by Northwest, certainly dizzying in its own right but not really “scary,” although it’s possible that some people may have nightmares about being chased in endless corn fields, I can’t really say.

Nevertheless, sometimes his other films get left behind, Dial M for Murder among them. Certainly a famous title, and yes, it was remade as (the critically disliked: 55% on Rotten Tomatoes – ouch!) A Perfect Murder in 1998, but not often listed among his true classics. In fact, upon its release, Variety said in a review that:

Dial M remains more of a filmed play [the movie is based on a stage play by Frederick Knott] than a motion picture, unfortunately revealed as a conversation piece about murder which talks up much more suspense than it actually delivers… There are a number of basic weaknesses in the setup that keep the picture from being a good suspense show for any but the most gullible.

If that is the case, then, well, I’m not afraid to admit that I do in fact believe that gullible isn’t in the dictionary, finding the film made up more of the “elegant coils of murder drama,” as the New York Times said in its 1954 review, than drooping waves of lackluster suspense.

In fact, in today’s Lost age of hyper-convoluted stories, and seriously overwhelming numbers of characters and plot lines (Wait, what happened in Syriana again? And I really have no idea what happened in The Number 23 – see Cracked’s article), it’s soothing, in a Zen sort of way, to watch a well-acted, well-thought out, basically bloodless, complicated but not labyrinthine, and just plain enjoyable movie of edge-of-your-seat suspense. Think Law and Order: Criminal Intent via Sherlock Holmes and Murder on the Orient Express, but with less detective and more murderer.

Taking place for the most part in just one apartment (it was based on a play after all), the film tells the story of, as I say in the Hitchcock cheat sheet:

[…an] ex-tennis player Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) and his extremely carefully planned plot to kill his wife, wealthy Margot Wendice (Grace Kelly), for her money and because of an old (now ended) affair with Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings). Of course, the best laid plans of mice and men…

And to be completely honest, I literally was on the edge of my seat during much of its hour and 45 minute run. My friends even started bouncing up and down in their chairs (whether or not they would admit it later on) in the excruciatingly anticipatory climax – where all the different moments and setups lock thrillingly into place. Like Ocean’s Eleven and The Sting, it has the very satisfying adrenaline rush from plans gone very well (and very awry). True, it’s not Ocean’s Eleven in the sense that there’s no glitz and glamor here (apart from Grace Kelly, of course, who brings, well, grace with her wherever she goes), no Las Vegas lights, and it’s all talk and not much dramatic action. But, as anyone can tell you who’s heard Verbal Kint speak, talk can be a powerful and riveting tool in the story of a criminal.

So if you like elegant murder mysteries with evolving dénouements, then get some popcorn now and watch one of Hitchcock’s best, without having to turn on all the lights.

As Hitchcock once famously said, “As you have seen on the screen, the best way to do it is with a scissor.”

(Trust me, that’ll be meaningful once you watch the film.)

Click here to go to CNN’s nice little “Celebration of Alfred Hitchcock” article. And here to go to the Alfred Hitchcock cheat sheet, which covers all of his classics.

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