Favorite Movies A-Z: Dial ‘M’ for Murder

Grace Kelly was killing it in 1954. She took home an Oscar for her work in The Country Girl and it wasn’t even her most memorable role. Among four other films she had a pair of appearances in movies directed by the legendary Alfred Hitchcock. One of those was Dial ‘M’ for Murder, written by Frederick Knott for the stage and adapted by him for the screen. (Incidentally, there are a number of interesting links between the better films of the year. John Williams reprises his Tony winning performance on the stage as Inspector Hubbard here, but also has a small, key part as the father of Audrey Hepburn’s title character in Sabrina.)

Kelly is Margot Wendice and her character’s husband is played by the solid Ray Milland. The film opens with the arrival of Mark Halliday; he’s an old friend from America played by Bob Cummings. The first reveal is that Mark and Margot at one point had a romantic attraction, but his absence has prevented them from carrying on what would now be considered an affair. They exchanged letters for a time; all but one has been destroyed, and that one seems to have been lost where it could not be found again. They admit they have feelings still, but these seem (as is customary for a 50s film) to be destined to go unrequited. Unfortunately for them, the second big reveal is that the suspicions of husband Tony were piqued and the “lost” letter is in his possession. He lifted it from her purse, then “lost” the purse to cover his tracks.

Since Margot is the one in the marriage with the wealth inherited from her family, Tony decides he’d like to become wealthy in a similar manner, but without the waiting. In a plan that is clearly long-established and coldly calculated, Tony blackmails an old college classmate with a criminal bent into being his semi-willing assistant. He threatens exposure of his past crimes along with the bait of a large cash payment and secures someone to do the deed while Tony is busy establishing an air-tight alibi. The plan is thoughtful, cautious, executed with care, and runs into serious problems. It is a Hitchcock film, after all.

Like a number of Hitchcock movies based on plays, this capitalizes on the small cast and limited scope of the scenes to create a cloistered, claustrophobic effect. Williams, Milland, and Kelly are clearly the stars, and though the other two named characters are important to the tale, they do seem a bit like nonentities beside their more talented co-stars. This is probably by design to a large degree. The assassin is there to fill a small role both within the confines of the story and in the film generally and his oily unscrupulousness is note-perfect. Mark is similarly feckless as the helpless boyfriend who has far more good intent than wit or talent. For my money, Williams steals his scenes and should be better remembered for his great talent as a character actor in this and other movies.

The last point is also a significant point of the movie’s appeal for me; Hubbard shares some common elements with one of the greatest fictional detectives of all time: Columbo. Each, for different reasons, initially seems less than fully in command of the situation, unsuited to his job, prone to ask seemingly foolish questions, but in the end both reveal hidden depths. If you like one, I’d be willing to bet you’ll like the other.

Addendum: the movie title is one that may seem slightly nonsensical to anyone born in or near the current millennium. The reference to ‘M’ is a play on how telephone numbers used to be assigned. The first two numbers were actually stand-ins for a prefix of letters. The two letters were derived from the location of the local telephone exchange for the phone being called. Phone numbers were often given with the full name and then the number of the specific phone following. Such as “Butterfield 87253”. This would be dialed as “BU8-7253” and the letters would translate to the numbers 2 and 8 making the modern way of expressing the number 288-7253. As well, operator assistance would be needed on certain calls before all the exchanges were automated, which is why people in old movies pick up phones and just ask for numbers instead of dialing themselves.

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