Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Dial M for Murder (1954)


Margot Wendice is the wealthy wife of retired tennis star Tony Wendice. She is also the sometimes-lover of Mark Halliday, an American author of detective fiction. Unfortunately for her, her husband is wise to the affair and decides to have her bumped off before she divorces--or disinherits--him. The murder plot seems foolproof, but circumstances intervene and his wife survives. The hired killer is not so fortunate. Now Tony Wendice has to deal with the police snooping about, and they're bound to get suspicious, unless he can convince them that his wife is herself guilty of murder ...

Released during Hitchcock's 'peak years', this film is most definitely deserving of its place in classic cinema. It was adapted from a play, and you can tell--approximately 90% of the action takes place in the Wendice's apartment, yet somehow the film never feels restrictive. Grace Kelly is the lovely-but-naive Margot Wendice, unfaithful to her husband and oblivious to his nefarious and mercenary intentions. Robert Cummings is long on earnest enthusiasm and a bit short on actual brains (in other words, an American as written by a Brit--lots of energy and good intentions but none too clever). Anthony Dawson is the weaselly con man bullied into becoming a hired killer. Both do their jobs admirably, but the real stars here are John Williams as the keenly insightful Chief Inspector tasked with solving the case and Ray Milland as the reprehensible and cold-blooded Tony Wendice.

Williams is a master of speaking looks, reacting to the statements of others with a slight air of skepticism that is quite amusing. He is a sort of pre-Columbo, seeming to be persuaded by Wendice's explanations, only to immediately respond that of course thus-and-such couldn't be the case because of X fact that the police discovered. We get the impression that he knows a lot more than he is letting on, and perhaps is not as snowed as Wendice would like to think he is. American moviegoers might expect that the detective-fiction-writing lover of the accused would be the one to solve the mystery, and indeed he comes very close to figuring out (albeit without realizing it), but it is the Inspector who ultimately puts it all together and catches the bad guy.

As for Milland, Hollywood's drawing room debonair leading man makes for a deeply disturbing villain--not unlike Cary Grant's ambiguous turn in the unsettling Suspicion. Only there's nothing ambiguous about Milland's Wendice, who oozes a certain Cary Grant vibe that, combined with his blackhearted schemes and heartless behavior, makes him that much more effective as a villain. He even sounds like Cary Grant at times. As it turns out, Grant himself was eager to take a crack at the role, but apparently he was still too much a hero to be a believable villain, at least according to Hollywood--a missed opportunity if ever there was one (and as far as I know, they never did let Grant play a bad guy).

Still, Milland is excellent as the suave-yet-sinister Wendice--not least because I remember him from such jolly,good-natured romps as the politically incorrect and morally questionable The Major and the Minor. Even in The Lost Weekend, he was deeply flawed; he was not actively evil. And, it turns out, he does evil really, really well. Milland also bears a vague resemblance to eternal good-boy Jimmy Stewart--something about his mouth and brows, I think--which just makes it worse when he's callously discussion his wife's murder or framing her for deliberately plotting the death of her assailant. [Shiver]

The film was shot in 3D (in an attempt to pull viewers away from their televisions and back into theatres), and I would imagine that it's well worth seeing in that format. If you're at all a fan of Hitchcock's work, or of mysteries in general, I highly recommend this film.

Also, if you like the film, you may enjoy the 1998 thriller version starring Andrew Douglas (as the killer husband), Gwyneth Paltrow (as the wife), Viggo Mortenson (as the lover), and David Suchet (as the detective). Apparently there have also been a few made-for-TV versions as well, including one starring Angie Dickinson and Christopher Plummer, which obviously I need to see immediately.

Also, for a slightly different story with a similar feel (and an equally effective villain), I recommend Midnight Lace, wherein a terrifying Rex Harrison plots to drive his young wife Doris Day out of her mind. John Williams is once again the investigating officer, and Roddy McDowell and Myrna Loy also star.

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