Saturday 14 November 2009

Dial M for Murder (1954)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: Ray Milland, Grace Kelly and Robert Cummings
TCM's star of the month for November 2009 is Grace Kelly, in celebration of what would have been her 80th birthday on 12th November.
I began this blog in 2007 when I started getting serious about writing reviews. Prior to that I'd spent a year scratching together reviews that were often more like notes, insubstantial and often pretty poor stuff. However I began investigating classic film at depth in 2004 as I waited for the US immigration authorities to grant me permission to work and then to actually get a job. At that point I'd only seen a few Hitchcocks: Psycho, of course, and Rear Window and Rope. I'd also seen his silent Jack the Ripper story, The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog. And then came TCM with Hitchcock their star of the month sometime in late 2004 or early 2005 so I caught up with most of the rest. I've now seen 41 of his films, over two thirds of them, but I only have a single review on this blog because all the others came before I began the thing. The only one here is Rope because it was a rare Hitch that I didn't like and I wanted to revisit it.

This one is one of his masterpieces. It opens with only a hint of suspicion that anything's up, as we watch a husband and wife kiss at the breakfast table, but being a Hitchcock film we know that there's something going on and his camera whisks us through the setup effortlessly. They're the Wendices, Tony and Margot, played by Ray Milland and Grace Kelly, and they both have a secret: she's been cheating on him and he knows it. The third party is an American crime writer called Mark Halliday and the morning newspaper announces that he's on board the Queen Mary on his way back to London. It doesn't mention that he's also coming back to Margot Wendice.

He doesn't find what he expects though, as times have changed and she's not leaving her husband for him after all. Tony Wendice was a tennis player, whose profession kept him away from his wife too long, long enough for her to dally with Halliday, but in the year since she's seen him her husband has reformed. It's as if her dreams had come true: he's retired from the game and now he spends all his time taking care of her, making her happy again and no longer planning to leave Tony for Mark. What she doesn't realise is that it's all a con. Tony knows about Mark because when she burned all his letters she kept one and her husband found it. He's been biding his time, planning the perfect murder, which of course goes wrong.

The film is perfectly cast. Ray Milland is smoothness personified, as he excuses himself from a night out at the theatre with his wife and Halliday, ostensibly to complete a report for his boss but really to cleverly entangle a crooked old university colleague into his schemes with a knowing smile and a smooth line of banter. He's been planning the whole thing long enough to come up with an intricate plan, one that he doesn't see any chance of failing. He even manages to bring up the concept of the perfect murder to Halliday just because he can and because it's Halliday's stock and trade.

Halliday is Robert Cummings, young and full of life, even though this was towards the end of his screen career, which had flourished in the thirties and forties. He was 44 when this film was released. As a professional crime writer, his character talks about putting himself into the mind of the criminal. He even suggests that while the perfect crime is theoretically possible on the written page, he'd never get away with it himself because he'd slip up on some little detail and everything would fall apart. Sure enough, that's what happens to Wendice, initially because C A Swann, the man he'd hired to kill his wife, failed to do so, instead dying at the hands of a pair of scissors snatched up at the last minute by Margot.

Grace Kelly, only in her fourth film, was the epitome of Hitchcock's perfect leading lady. She was beautiful, of course, and elegant, with a cultured voice and inevitably short blonde hair. As Margot, she's believable as a decent but flawed wife, able to have an affair but also to end it. She's also believable as the victim, not just of her husband's initial plans to murder her but of his subsequent patch job that sets her murderer up as her blackmailer and her as his murderer. She's a big part of the first half of the film but then leaves it, having been arrested for the crime and she reappears only on the day she's about to die for it. She was a big hit here, so returned the same year for Hitchcock's Rear Window, an even greater film than this one. All in all, five of her eleven films were released in 1954, not just these two but also The Country Girl which won her the Academy Award for Best Actress.

There are only really a couple of other actors in the film, the story revolving tightly and almost entirely around the core players. Anthony Dawson, the English actor not the Italian genre director Antonio Margheriti under his standard western pseudonym, is fine as C A Swann, gradually but carefully won over by Wendice who seems to know more about him than he does, having followed him for months. Dawson had played the role before in New York, even winning a Tony award for his work in the original play. It's surprising to find that a film that has Alfred Hitchcock stamped all over it originated instead as a play a couple of years earlier.

It's John Williams who comes close to stealing the show though as Chief Insp Hubbard, also reprising his role from the stage. He's perfect as the cultured and polite English policeman, brushing his moustache with a comb and presaging Columbo with his 'Just one more thing...' lines. It seems almost wrong to think of a Hitchcock character spawning a TV series, but he would have been fascinating to follow into such a thing. Hitch must have liked his performance too, not just to hire him for the film version but also for ten episodes of his Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV show and for To Catch a Thief a year later.

Hitchcock himself could do no wrong at this point in his career, it would seem, though the only films he made in the States that I haven't caught up with yet come right before it: Under Capricorn, Stage Fright and I Confess. Strangers on a Train had come two films earlier and I rated six out of his next nine films with my highest rating as they include some of the greatest thrillers ever made. Rear Window would be next in 1954, Vertigo in 1958 and Psycho in 1960. The Trouble with Harry and The Wrong Man are less known but almost as good. I still have problems with North By Northwest, but even so it's still a great film, and that leaves only To Catch a Thief and Hitch's remake of his own The Man Who Knew Too Much to bring down the average and even though they're notably lesser than those around them even they are hardly bad films. One of these days I'll have to work my way through his career afresh so I can post reviews.

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