Saturday, February 28, 2009

Dial M for Murder

I watched ‘Dial M for Murder’ over the last two evenings. I don’t normally split films over two nights unless we’re talking ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ or ‘Fanny and Alexander’ type running times. In this case, however, I just couldn’t bring myself to watch the whole thing in one sitting. And not because the tension was eating away at my nerves, either.

‘Dial M for Murder’ scores 8.1 on IMDb and ranks at 204 in their top 250. I must be missing something.

The plot (spoilers abound) in a nutshell: Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) isn’t happy that his wife Margo (Grace Kelly) is two-timing him with American crime writer Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings). He engineers a meeting with former college friend Charles Swann (Anthony Dawson), on whom he has some incriminating information. Wendice coerces Swann into undertaking Margo’s murder. Wendice has it all worked out and Swann’s hardly in a position to say no, particularly when Wendice sweetens the deal with the promise of £1,000 in cash.

Only Margo proves more resilient than either man suspects and despatches Swann (in the most notorious – but not the best – scene) with a pair of scissors. Wendice calmly seizes upon the presence of a corpse on his living room floor and his wife in a state of shock, and sets Margo up to take the rap. Only he’s reckoned without the obstinacy of Halliday and the suspicions of Chief Inspector Hubbard (John Williams).

‘Dial M for Murder’ works – despite its staginess, its naff back-projection and its moments of overwrought melodrama – whenever Wendice is locked in a battle of wills with someone. Ray Milland delivers career-best acting: smooth, suave, cool, calculating; the villain par excellence. Grace Kelly is luminous and elegant in the early scenes and although she disappears from the screen for long periods in the second half, provides the only trace of a human element during the rampant plot mechanics of the finale. Anthony Dawson is by turns reptilian, pitiful and dangerous as Swann; he makes an excellent foil to Milland.

The supporting cast let things down badly. Cummings is stiff and unconvincing, nobody’s idea of the kind of romantic hero who could sweep Grace Kelly off her feet! Williams overdoes the old-school in his characterisation of Inspector Hubbard, tipping his every scene into cliché.

Worse, apart from the murder scene itself (hampered by some hamfisted editing and am-dram acting) and a bit of business involving a hidden key, there’s none of Hitchcock’s trademark suspenseful set-pieces. What there is, however, is a lot of talk.

Hitchcock’s source material is a play by Frederick Arnott. And boy, does it show! Even ‘Rope’ – an experiment in recreating a theatrical experience for the cinema screen – feels more like a movie than ‘Dial M for Murder’.

Granted, Arnott’s play is an intricate and well-thought-out treatise on the perfect murder, an ingenious improvisation when the plan goes awry, and the fatal flaw – the forgotten detail – that proves the perpetrator’s downfall. It probably grips and entertains on the stage. But I’ve never been that great a fan of the theatre – ‘The Royal Hunt of the Sun’ and ‘Taking Sides’ are probably the only two plays I’ve really enjoyed.

I’m a film fan, and ‘Dial M for Murder’ adds nothing to the language of film.

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