To be sure an excellent film like Dial M for Murder from the excellent filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock is not your standard according-to-Hoyle "Horror Flick". There's no monster with a bad skin condition and an inventive weapon just waiting to scream "BOO!" at you, very little blood and a lot more dialogue than obligatory orchestra hits to shock the audience into remembering to be scared!
But within that dialogue is some of the more chilling moments in mystery history and for the intelligent viewer, the suspense that Dial M for Murder metes out upon the audience is equal to or in excess of any of the in-your-face fright flicks out there. Dial M for Murder is brilliant and subtle, which makes the fact that it was filmed in 3D all the more noteworthy.
M is a drama of the most literal sort having sprung, as had Rope before it, from the stage. The screenplay was adapted (and neither for the first nor the last time) from the play of the same name by Frederick Knott and reportedly kept mostly intact seeing as how the screenplay was also written by Frederick Knott! Also like Rope, Hitchcock keeps the look, feel and limited locations of the stage play, preserving as much of the feel as possible. While you won't find the standard 3-D clichés like pick-axes being thrown at the screen or spear guns shot at the camera by hockey-masked pranksters, the 3-D effects could only serve to make this quality show feel more real and may even have furthered the illusion that Dial M for Murder was still very much a stage play!
Shall we to the plot? No... too soon.
Margot Wendice (Grace Kelly) is living something of the good life, being the "Strange Bedfellow" of an American Mystery Novelist named Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings, the actor, not the musician)! The couple is unquestionably madly in love, but their romance is not without its occasional hitch. Like, for example, the fact that one of their love letters has recently been held ransom by an unknown jerk who threatens to expose their wayfaring affair to the public.
Who cares, though, right? Aren't they unquestionably madly in love? Indubitably! But the fact that she has a husband does put a tiny green kink in their garden hose. (I'm sorry, but did that last pun work AT ALL? I'm thinking not. Sorry!)
As we soon learn, Margot's former Tennis Pro hubby Tony (Ray Milland) knows all about the lovebirds' liaisons and, in fact, more than a little about the blackmailing as well. Still, he seems to be content to play the "pip-pip, wot-wot, what's-all-this-then" Naive Englishman! He invites Mark over for drinks, plays the third wheel to his friendship with Margot, sits out on occasion while the two "friends" step out to cuckold him and even invites Marky on duo, best-buddy adventures (like attending a really tame Stag Party), all the while never letting on for a second that he's actually planning to serve up the Match Point!
Enter Captain Lesgate (Anthony Dawson), whom Tony invites over under false pretenses. Realizing just who Lesgate really is (a former College acquaintance named C.A. Swann) and knowing just why this man is operating under this alias (and a few others), Tony sets the steps in motion for what is, without question, to be the perfect crime. The Alibi is in place, the time has been marked, the keys have been hidden and the murderer-to-be has been queued! Nothing could possibly go wrong... go wrong... go wrong... go wrong... go wrong... go wrong...
Now make no mistake, at no point does Dial M for Murder devolve into some kind of thrilling comedy of errors like Unfaithfully Yours! In fact the plan goes remarkably well with manageable changes. Soon Chief Inspector Hubbard (played by John Williams, the actor, not the musician) is on the case and someone may well be on their way to facing the Death Penalty!
It's true that malevolent masterminds who act as puppet-masters, keeping impossible-to-control, divergent gears turning with every possible breakdown already considered are as commonplace as they are unbelievable in horror flicks these days. However, Hitchcock and Knott never fall into such latter-day trappings and succeed greatly in making this complex mouse-trap seem plausible coming from such a prepared mind. Tony Wendice is smart, but is still definitely human and not infallible. There is very little in this canny film that stretches the imagination or asks more of the audience's suspension of disbelief than is due, even when Tony skillfully adapts to the changing rules of the game. Dial M for Murder is so chilling because it could theoretically be just this real. The violence (while sparse) is likewise played realistically with an eye to the probable and the fallible.
Of course it takes good actors to pull off directing and writing like this. Trust me, Dial M for Murder has those actors and they all do an amazing job! In addition to being realized characters, each of our three (or four) leads brings a depth to their characterizations that shows us both the surface English politeness as well as the quiet desperation they hand on to just behind their masks. The good guys get our sympathy because of who they are, but the bad guys manage to mesmerize us just as much, if not more, because of their Richard III-like way of including the audience in their conspiracy. Likewise, the script never quite lets us forget that even our good guys are the ones who started it all by making their night music behind old Tony's back! Great actors all around! Grace Kelly alone steals the show. Incredible work!
Without giving away more of the film (and trust me, the setup I've described does not even scratch the surface) the most satisfying thing about this film is watching its brilliant and logical final act unspool across the screen! The ending comes in its own well-paced time, warning the audience of what is to come, but still managing to surprise the viewer just as it had time after time throughout the film's run-time.
Admittedly, this film is much more a crime drama or mystery than it is a "Horror Movie". However, there can be little question that this magnificently-acted, written and directed Gem is a Suspense Thriller and if that is not what Horror is, then that's what Horror should be!
Five Stars out of Five for Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder, the thrilling suspense play that shares its best ingredients with the best of horror. This one still ranks among Hitchcock's best and that distinction alone is worth the rating! So was it the perfect crime? Well, it's a near-perfect movie that takes a near perfect hand to make this imperfect crime feel so fully formed as a thriller.
And what a Thrill it is. I'll see you thrill-seekers in the next reel. I'll bring the Rope, you bring The Birds and we'll keep all the Psychos away from our suspenseful horror Frenzy!
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