Based on a stage play, Dial M for Murder is like a play exclusively screened for the curtain. Much of the action revolves around the house of Mr. and Mrs. Wendice. The movie rarely treads out of the house amidst murder, deceit, and treachery—making excellent use of spatial elements. Frederick Knott penned the screenplay that is adapted from his own play.
When ex-tennis player Tony (Ray Milland) finds out about his wife’s affair with common friend, Mark Haliiday (Robert Cummings), he chalks up a petrifying plan to kill his wife and inherit her property. Blackmailing one of his old college friends (Anthony Dawson), Tony envisions a foolproof plan of getting rid of his wife, Margot (played by the classy Grace Kelly). But things do not go as planned for poor Tony after which he improvises another plan to eliminate his wife. In a moment of sheer epiphany, Tony uses the gnarls of law to send his wife into a sentence, thereby, inheriting her estate and taking his willful revenge.
Just like Tony’s plan, Dial M for Murder is a well-planned, meticulous, and an intelligent movie. It builds on the underlying psychologies of the characters and clutches viewers in the home-centric drama of Mr. and Mrs. Wendice. Dial M is quite similar to Rear Window (1954) as both movies appear claustrophobic and entangle in mysteries surrounding wives. While Rear Window is more passionate less tactical, Dial M, on the other hand, is more tactical, less about passion.
What’s unique in Dial M is the mise-en-scene environment. If we ignore the camera movement, Dial M almost feels like a stage play. It has a well-drawn set—the Wendice Apartment—and 95% of the action occur within the confines of this cozy-looking home. Yet, extending beyond this space, the mind does go off for a saunter and Hitchcock does, what he does best—create riveting tension and build towards an imploring climax.
Despite the themes of deceit and greed, Dial M remains classy. Tony Wendice is a man of elegance. Margot Wendice is a woman of virtue and charm. Mark Haliiday is an empathizer, a detective fiction novelist and journalist—he’s aware of most murder mysteries and the intricacies of planning a perfect murder. His profession does have a major role to convey during the latter sequences of the film—rounding off his character with sincerity.
The star of the show, of course, is Ray Milland for his smooth reprisal as Tony Wendice—the silent assassin who has his way with words, manners, and etiquette. He can think on the spur and can generate ideas with ease. It was almost the perfect get-away, but as they say with crime and punishment—the criminal always leaves behind a trace.
Grace Kelly is her usual elegant self as in most Hitchcockian thrillers. As a free spirit, as the vocal woman, and as the companion of Tony, or the secret lover of Mark, she is on her game—with vivacity and a powerful screen presence. The rest carry off their roles smoothly. Robert Cummings does not have much scope due to the nature of his role, but does a fine job. John Williams, as Chief Inspector Hubbard, is somber yet penetrating and decisive, and he steals the show.
Dial M for Murder is trademark Hitchcock. It’s jumpy and intriguing despite being a notch below other Hitchcock classics. It can get a bit slow at times, but Hitchcock’s mastery as a storyteller is enough to carry it off to an edgy climax—keeping viewers anticipated and enthralled for most parts. Not to ignore the brilliant extension of time and space, of mise-en-scene elements, and of subtleties only a master could transport with minimalism.