Monday, April 26, 2010

Reeling Backward: "Dial M for Murder"

It's usually not too hard to discern a film that was adapted from a stage play. There's an economy of cast and settings that indicates a necessity for limiting each. Alfred Hitchcock's "Dial M for Murder" has both: There are only five significant roles, and almost the entirety of the action takes place inside a single apartment, and nearly all of that in one room.

Hitchcock did a few stage-to-screen jobs ("Rope," "I Confess!"), often sandwiched in between bigger projects with multiple locations. In the same year, 1954, he also directed "Rear Window," which is similar to "Dial M" in the way the same setting can be exploited in different ways. By the mid- to -late 1950s, Hitchcock's films tended to be veritable travel pictures like "North by Northwest" and "Vertigo."

Ray Milland is the star, though it's remembered today for being one of Grace Kelly's first major film roles. (Most people have forgotten she got her start primarily as a television actress.) The period of 1954-55 was a fertile period for Hitchcock and Kelly, as she would also be featured in "Rear Window" and "To Catch A Thief." By 1956 she was done with the movies, trading her status as Hollywood princess to become a real-life one.

Milland plays Tony Wendice, a recently retired tennis pro who relies on his wife Margot (Kelly) for money. A clever, erudite fellow who enjoys his creature comforts, Tony wouldn't mind so much except that Margot has been cheating on him with Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings), an American mystery novelist. After a year away, Mark has returned to England to claim Margot permanently, and Tony is out to do away with her and get his inheritance while he can.

The plot is a labyrinthine twist of clues and plots and intrigue. The short version is that Tony blackmails a wayward old school chum, Charles Swann (Anthony Dawson) into strangling Margot while he and Mark are at a stag party. Thus his rival for his wife's affection will provide his alibi.

As Mark cautions about constructing the perfect crime in real life versus fiction, things go horribly awry. Margot fights off Swann and kills him with her knitting shears.

The second half of the movie concerns Tony having to adjust his plot on the fly, managing to plant evidence to make it seem as if Margot intentionally killed Swann because he was blackmailing her with evidence of her affair with Mark.

It has a lot to do with missing love letters and the presence or absence of latch keys. I suppose it works well enough for a stage potboiler, but for the more verite demands of cinema, it seems like a whole lot of flimsy evidence upon which to indict a murderer.

John Williams has a nice role as Chief Inspector Hubbard, the crafty detective who subtly stalks Tony's web of lies and manipulations. I loved the moment where he begs for more credit to be given to veteran policemen like himself to overcome the work of "a gifted amateur" like Tony.

It's a typical Hitchcockian thriller, as he slowly stirs the pot of brewing suspense. I do have to say the biggest weakness of the film is the character of Mark Halliday, who spends 9/10ths of the movie as a naive patsy, and suddenly manages to come up with enough brilliant deductions in the final sequence to put Sherlock Holmes to shame.

3 stars out of four

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