Dial M for Murder: a film review

I never thought much of Grace Kelly’s long-admired performance as the ever-so-poised Margot Wendice in Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder. She’s as lovely as a mannequin and about as lifelike: hollow, rigid, passionless. Most strikingly, Margot is passive, unwilling to accept any sense of agency or responsibility: she doesn’t act, she only reacts. I also find Margot a surprisingly unsympathetic protagonist, a cool adulteress who spouts fluid lies to her husband.

Far more interesting is Tony Wendice (Ray Milland), the affable, genial former tennis star who sets his wife up for a most unpleasant murder. I can’t imagine what Margot sees in her bland Romeo (Robert Cummings), but it’s easy to see how appealing Tony could make himself: so polished, so urbane, and underneath it all so very, very calculating. He’s an adroitly camouflaged sociopath, and the interview with his selected murderer is one of perfectly balanced tension barely submerged in pleasantries.

Despite Hitchcock’s claim that he simply transferred a successful play to the screen, Dial M shows Hitchcock’s gift for using subtle elements of the set design to mirror the interpersonal dynamics. The lovers sit amid flowers (in vases, inlaid on a cabinet, on the upholstery, in a splashy still-life) in the background and foreground, while Tony’s scenes draw the eye to the shelves of trophies from his tennis career, those trophies echoed in the shapes of lamps and vases throughout the set, in the carved backs of wooden chairs and the swooping curves of his wing chair, and again in the headboard of the bed prominently foregrounded in the last act.

Even Tony’s measured pacing and conversational pattern of easy poise punctuated by a sudden tactical pounce mimic the rhythm of an accomplished player dominating a match. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it. At its heart, Dial M for Murder is less a thriller and more a character study… but one where the characters’ true natures emerge in the face of murder.

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