Alfred Hitchcock’s best known films from the 1950s tend to star James Stewart or Cary Grant, but “Dial M for Murder” depends instead on the charismatic menace of Ray Milland, an actor best known for his Oscar-winning performance in “The Lost Weekend” (1945). Milland displays neither Stewart’s neurosis nor Grant’s intensity, and that’s what makes him so perfect as the sociopathic husband in this picture, which continues to be a favorite with Hitchcock fans.
When former tennis champion Tony Wendices (Ray Milland) finds out about his wife’s affair with an American mystery writer, he hatches a plan to murder her and keep her money for himself. He blackmails an old acquaintance (Anthony Dawson) into doing the job for him, making sure that his wife, Margot (Grace Kelly), will be home alone when the killer arrives. The scheme fails to go according to plan, but the intended victim is still in danger from her duplicitous husband, who finds another way to ensure her demise and his own possession of her wealth. Her lover, Mark (Robert Cummings), and a clever police inspector (John Williams) must get to the bottom of Tony’s web of deceit in order to save Margot from a terrible fate.
Ray Milland’s performance as the charmingly amoral Tony keeps the picture going. Here’s a man who doesn’t really resent his wife’s affair so much as he worries about losing access to her money. He feels so little for Margot one way or the other that his behavior toward her never changes and never seems forced. It isn’t personal, after all; it’s just business. As the wife more sinned against than sinning, Grace Kelly is a lovely cipher, beautiful to look at but basically catatonic throughout the second half of the film. It’s as if the struggle to defend herself from her attacker uses up every ounce of energy she has, and there’s simply nothing left in the aftermath. That being the case, Tony’s apathy seems more believable than Mark’s passion, but the film is really about the intricate games being played by the three men, with Margot as both pawn and prize.
Adapted from the stage play by Frederick Knott, who also wrote the screenplay for the film, “Dial M for Murder” does at times reveal its theatrical roots, with almost all of the action taking place inside the Wendices’ apartment and some rather dated rear projection sequences filling in for the world outside. The movie was originally intended to be shown in 3D, which explains some of the more striking images, including the way Grace Kelly’s frantic hand reaches out toward the camera while she’s being attacked. Overall, the film holds up very well, and the suspense of the “will he or won’t he” murder attempt is terrific, even when you know what’s coming.
Grace Kelly can be found in two more Hitchcock films, “Rear Window” (1954) and “To Catch a Thief” (1955); look for her in “High Noon” (1952), as well. You’ll find Ray Milland in more sympathetic roles in “The Major and the Minor” (1942) and “Rhubarb” (1951). Robert Cummings also appears in Hitchcock’s 1942 film, “Saboteur.” For more of the iconic director’s work, try “Rebecca” (1940), “Suspicion” (1941), “Lifeboat” (1944), and “Vertigo” (1958).
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