Dial M for Murder

Year: 1954
Studio: Warner Bros
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writer: Frederick Knott
Cast: Ray Milland, Grace Kelly, Robert Cummings

There are plenty of movies I always think of as Hitchcockian – detective stories of a sort where rather than see the whole story play out with the protagonist (s), the sting has actually already taken place, the protagonist (s) left to catch up and piece together exactly what happened.

I'd have to sit down and go through Hitchcock's entire oeuvre to see if all his films were like it - or even most. Psycho and The Birds are notable exceptions.

But this is one of the best examples of it. Former tennis star Tony (Ray Milland) has hatched the entire plan, and as we watch him execute it we're no more omniscient than Tony's cheating wife Margot (Grace Kelly) or her lover Mark (Robert Cummings), left to play catch-up as he moves the various pieces into play.

When Tony invites a seeming stranger, Charles (Anthony Dawson) into his house ostensibly to talk about buying his car, it turns out he knows the guy. He not only went to college with him, he knows Charles has become a small time crook, and after a bit of chitchat Tony lays down his offer – accept $1000 and murder Margot so Tony can inherit her money, or go down for blackmailing her.

Tony's already been secretly blackmailing Margot after finding love letters from Mark in her handbag six months before, and when he shows one to Charles, he's actually tricking the hood into putting his fingerprints on it so he can frame him for the ruse if he doesn't agree to commit the murder.

It's all planned for a night when Tony will accompany Mark (who Mark and Margot think Tony only knows as an old friend of Margot's) to an event. He tells Charles to break into the house and wait, after which Tony will ring the house, Charles striking when Margot gets out of bed to answer, making it look like a burglary gone wrong.

It's all predicated on the key to the apartment, which Tony will leave under the carpet on the stairs opposite the front door for Charles to find. But it becomes the Hitchcock-iest of MacGuffins later when confusion about which key ended up where is put to very effective use by the London police inspector, Hubbard (John Williams) who smells a rat.

The appointed night comes but it all goes wrong when Margot, having left her sewing scissors on the desk, manages to retaliate against Charles, killing him instead. With no indication of forced entry the police deduce Charles must have come in through the front door, but Hubbard doesn't quite buy the idea that Charles stole Margot's key somehow and made his own copy.

What ensues is a kind of proto-CSI episode where Hubbard gradually pieces together what actually happened, even after Tony has been as careful as possible. It even sees Margot framed for Charles' killing and condemned to death when Tony has everyone believing it was Charles who was blackmailing her, causing her to turn on him when he came to collect.

It's a little-realised thing about Hitchcock that he wasn't a horror or action director. Apart from the single telephone attack sequence there isn't a hint of violence or even barely a raised voice in the rest of the film (a lot like Psycho , where if you took Marion's murder and the mother reveal out it'd be fairly procedural).

He was interested in how people intend to do evil, and how objects, timing and happenstance can conspire against them, or reveal what really happened to those smart and sensitive enough to pay attention.

Like his other work it's all plot, only now years later so endlessly discussed and editorialised in search of deeper intent. But while it's going on it's great potboiler fun.

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