Classic Corner: Dial ‘M’ for Murder

Alfred Hitchcock made two films in 1954. First came Dial ‘M’ for Murder at the end of May; then Rear Window on the first day of September. Read the often-cited conversation between the director and François Truffaut, and it is apparent that Hitchcock spent much of the former film’s production more concerned with the latter, a befitting fact for a film preoccupied with adultery. 

The pair of 1954 movies marked the end of Hitchcock’s play with “limited settings.” Lifeboat (1944) was the first of what would become a quartet of such films. It was followed by Rope (1948), which, like Dial ‘M’ and Rear Window, takes place in an apartment brimming with tension. In fact, one sees much of both Rope and Rear Window in Dial ‘M’ for Murder. Ray Milland plays Tony Wendice, an ex-tennis-star, who, like the young men of Rope, tries to execute the perfect murder, covering his tracks using the domestic trappings of a comfortable London flat shared with his wife, Margot (Grace Kelly). Margot’s lover, Mark (Robert Cummings), and the cunning Chief Inspector Hubbard (John Williams) unite and eventually piece together the facts of Tony’s plot and save Margot’s life in the process. 

Dial ‘M’ for Murder takes its story from a successful stage play of the same name by Frederick Knott, who also penned the script. (Knott also wrote the play on which another limited setting classic is based, 1967’s Wait Until Dark, starring Audrey Hepburn.) The challenge, as Hitchock explained to Truffaut, was how to adapt a stage play in a way that still felt cinematic. This can be seen best in the film’s greatest sequence, when Tony, like a siren, lures an unsuspecting former classmate, Charles Swann (Anthony Dawson) to the flat and hires him to murder Margot, an act motivated both by revenge and the money Tony will inherit upon her death. 

After Tony reveals his true intentions, Swann, a seasoned criminal, still requires some convincing: how is Tony sure this plot will work? Tony, the suave-as-ever Milland, moves about the apartment like a cat, demonstrating to Swann how he has thought through every detail of the murder-to-be. Hitchcock’s clever camera work includes a god’s-eye-view of the flat, in which Tony acts out just how his wife will make her way from the bedroom, past the otherwise charming bar cart, and to the spot on which Swann will later pounce. At another moment, Tony sits with one leg casually crossed over the other in an armchair before a cozy fireplace. Hitchcock and cinematographer Robert Burks put the camera in the floor of the flat, shooting Milland from below so as to demonstrate the power and confidence his character exudes. The otherwise comfortable, domestic space becomes disrupted through the camera’s lens. 

Tony and Swann seem to be doing a dance around the apartment as the former talks, rehearsing for his accomplice the steps that will become the perfect murder. Often set in between them is a green lamp, a seemingly banal object that comes to heighten the tension between the two men. In the decades since its release, most viewers would have experienced this lamp, and indeed all of the film itself, as “flat.” Why is Hitchcock so obsessed with this lamp? The answer can be found in the film’s production history. The release of Dial ‘M’ for Murder came at the end of what is now referred to as the “Golden Age of 3-D Movies,” a period that the 3-D Film Archive marks as lasting from about 1922-1955. Like many objects throughout the Wendice apartment, the lamp adds a layer of texture when viewed in 3-D. But reviewers, moviegoers, and projectionists alike soon found that the viewing experience of Dial ‘M’ was better “flat,” thus leading to the version of the film most commonly circulated today. 

The best scene to view in 3-D is Swann’s failed attempt on Margot’s life. Gruesome to this day, Swann strangles Margot on Tony’s desk. She reaches behind her head, towards the camera, fully extending her fingers to grab a pair of scissors, which she then shoves into Swann’s back, killing him. In 3-D, Kelly as Margot extends a hand to us in the audience, a plea for help that we cannot return. It makes the moment all the more devastating. Tony then returns to the apartment and immediately begins to alter the crime scene, placing evidence that the police will use to charge Margot with murder. She killed Swann, the logic goes, to stop him from blackmailing her about the affair with Mark. 

Dial ‘M’ for Murder is a film in two parts: before and after the murder. In between, Margot appears before a judge, who sentences her to death. But rather than bring us inside the courthouse, Hitchcock offers an unusual courtroom scene, one reminiscent of the dream sequences found in films like Spellbound (1945) and Vertigo (1958). Single shots of Margot and the judge are filmed against a glowing, blood red background, condensing the scene so as to abstract the legal process into a visceral one, capturing the might of the law and its ability to punish even the innocent. The whole ordeal must have felt like a dream, or, indeed, a nightmare, to Margot. 

Beyond the strong performances by all in the cast, the genius of Dial ‘M’ for Murder is how it functions as a smörgåsbord of cinema, blending the talky scenes of the theater with unconventional camera angles, an abstracted courtroom sequences, and a mix of 3-D magic. We have, perhaps, the distractions provided by Rear Window to thank for this under-appreciated, oddball of a Hitchcockian masterpiece.

“Dial ‘M’ for Murder” is streaming on Tubi and Kanopy.

Back to top