An appreciation of Alfred Hitchcock’s elegantly constructed and spellbinding ‘Dial M for Murder’

There are only a handful of directors on this planet who can narrate a story that takes place entirely in a single setting and manage to put you in a transfixed state for the duration of one and a half hours. British auteur Alfred Hitchcock was one of these directors and the film is Dial M for Murder, an excellent adaptation of a very successful play of the same name. This elegantly constructed and spellbinding thriller has Welsh actor Ray Milland playing Tony Wendice, an ex-tennis champion who comes up with a seemingly brilliant and flawless scheme to have his socialite wife Margot (a divine-looking Grace Kelly) murdered, when he learns that she has been having an affair with an American writer called Mark Halliday (played by Robert Cummings).

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Tony is currently unemployed and hopes to live off her insurance money after her death. So, he invites a former batch mate of his called C.A Swann (played by Anthony Dawson) from his University days to his house for a couple of drinks, under the pretext of negotiating a used car sale with Swann. Tony is well aware that Swann also happens to be a crook and takes full advantage of this fact. He has been following him for a long and has been tracking every activity of his. Using all these against Swann, he cunningly manages to blackmail Swann into accepting his risky proposition. But things don’t work out exactly as planned and when the police are alerted, Tony improvises and concocts an elaborate story to throw them off the scent.

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The suspense and intrigue in this film comes not from the fact that we already know who the main villain is, but from the way things play out during  the remainder of the film. We are so eager to find out whether Tony will get away with it or whether he’ll get his comeuppance. The strength and joy of the film lies in its masterful plotting and brilliantly edited shots. Hitchcock arouses our curiosity right from the opening scenes and succeeds in sustaining it till the very end. Watching the manner in which each scene unfolds is a joyous experience and you are left completely satisfied after you see the final resolution. My favorite sequence in the film is the one where Tony explains his scheme to Swann and Hitchcock’s expert handling of this scene is truly remarkable. As Tony, Milland oozes sophistication and menace in equal measures and is one of the greatest villains to ever grace the silver screen.

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I’ve now seen the film more than twice and everytime I see it, I sit there mesmerized as I see Milland coolly and confidently explain each step of the plan to Swann. His wonderful performance overshadows everyone else’s in the film (except maybe Anthony Dawson’s). And notice the way Hitchcock has composed some of the shots. In one frame, the audience is made to look at the conversations from the POV of a voyeur and in some others, a strategically placed lamp separates the actors. As an aspiring filmmaker, I find all these visual choices very interesting. Director William Friedkin once said that you can learn everything you need to know about filmmaking by watching the films of Hitchcock and suggested a deep and thorough study of Hitchcock films as the best alternative to film school. I’m inclined to agree with him.

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