Dial M for Murder (1954)

Yes, I know. Another Alfred Hitchcock. But I really can’t help it: this man directed some of the most gripping suspense films ever, and he deserves more than just a passing mention in any site dedicated to the films. So here goes: a great film starring the lovely Grace Kelly, and with some brilliant twists and turns in the plot.

Margo (Grace Kelly) is married to Tony Wendice (Ray Milland), who used to be a tennis star but has given it up—egged on by Margo—to become a purveyor of sports equipment. They live in London, where Margo’s former lover Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings), an American writer of detective fiction, has returned after a year.

Mark arrives in London

Margo had said her farewells to Mark a year back, and had even burnt all his letters—except one, which she kept in her handbag. She tells Mark the letter was stolen, along with her bag, six months earlier. She received two anonymous notes asking for £50 for the return of the letter, and though she sent the money to the given address, no-one collected it, and she never got the letter back.

Margo tells mark about the letter

Tony comes home, is introduced to Mark (they’ve planned a trip to the theatre), and at the last minute, backs out. He makes Margo go with Mark, and then he makes a phone call to a Captain Lesgate, regarding the purchase of Lesgate’s old car. Tony persuades Lesgate to come and visit him right then to finalise the deal.

Tony on the phone with Lesgate

Lesgate (Anthony Dawson) turns out to be C A Swann, who was Tony’s senior at college. He’s a decidedly shady character who changes names, houses, and mistresses with startling frequency, leaving a trail of embezzled funds in his wake. Tony tells him all about himself, Margo, and—surprise, surprise—Mark, whom he’s known about all along. It turns out Tony was the one who stole Margo’s handbag, sent her the blackmail notes, and still has the letter.

Tony tells Swann all

The conversation meanders along, and Tony reaches the crux of the matter: Margo’s the rich one in the family, and she’s willed all her money to Tony. And she hasn’t been particularly faithful either. It’s time, says Tony, for Margo to be bumped off. And guess who gets to do it?

Swann balks

Tony has it all planned out. The next evening, he and Mark will be off to a stag party, leaving Margo alone at home. Tony will leave his latchkey under the stair carpet outside, from where Swann will collect it, open the door, and enter the house. Tony will phone home precisely at 11 PM, getting Margo out of bed into the hall, where Swann can then strangle her. He’ll leave deliberate clues behind to suggest Margo was killed by a burglar.

Tony gives Swann a guided tour...

Swann protests and picks holes in the plan, but Tony’s got the goods on him. And the plan seems foolproof.
…but on the big night, two things go wrong: Tony’s watch stops, and he ends up phoning Margo later than he’d planned. And Margo has the presence of mind to grab a pair of scissors and hit out at her attacker.

Margo strikes out at her attacker

Swann dies, and the police, after much interrogation and investigation, decide that Margo deliberately killed Swann. Margo finds herself charged with murder, on trial—and sentenced to death.

Can it get any better for Tony? All of Margo’s lovely money will soon be his. And since dead men tell no tales, he has nothing to fear from Swann either. Things are looking deceptively rosy, but will it last? And there’s a Chief Inspector Hubbard (John Williams) who just may be more suspicious than he’s letting on. Watch.

Margo - on death row

What I liked about this film:
It’s vintage Hitchcock: the suspense is superb! The sudden twists in the story somehow reminded me of Where Eagles Dare—Major Smith’s on-his-feet brand of thinking was very much like Tony Wendice’s, though with nobler motives.
Ray Milland: an excellent portrayal as Tony Wendice. Charming, suave, and utterly ruthless too. And yes, Grace Kelly is gorgeous as always!
Interestingly enough, most of the film is shot in just one location, the Wendices’ home. There are a few shots elsewhere: the street, the docks, the police station, a restaurant—but too few to count, really. The single setting (well, not as single as Rope) makes the suspense even more taut, I think.

What I didn’t like:
Margo appears to have been convicted and sentenced to death on surprisingly flimsy evidence. I’d have thought the death sentence would be handed out less summarily (isn’t it?), but even on the day before Margo’s to be executed, the police end up admitting some things weren’t sorted out satisfactorily.
Despite that glitch, though, a great film.

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10 thoughts on “Dial M for Murder (1954)

  1. Was remade in hindi as Aitbaar with Dimple Kapadia.
    Dimple was simply great in this role. Danny was the inspector.
    Songs were good as well with ghazals sung by Pankaj Udhas. One of the better movies of the second half of 80s

  2. This is the perfect Hitchcock movie, my absolute favorite. North By Northwest has more action, Psycho is more chilling, but this one is the most cerebral. I can watch it any day, such a well-made one, with fantastic star power. Agree with you that Margo was convicted on really flimsy evidence, the only glitch in this otherwise flawless movie.

  3. Heh. I’m reading this now and realising just how much your style of reviewing has changed. :)

    What a lovely film this was. Your reservations about the film: once the police arrest and charge her, it is out of their hands. If things haven’t been sorted out satisfactorily, it is the defence counsel’s prerogative to point that out. Besides, as Tony points out, her extra-marital affair with Mark makes her very unsympathetic to the jury. And I nearly a couple of months had passed since she was arrested and the last day when she was supposed to be executed. (The day when Mark, and then the inspector shows up at Tony’s.)

    • “realising just how much your style of reviewing has changed. :)

      For the better, I hope!

      Actually, now that I come to think of it, if I were to rewatch a lot of these films (or re-compile a lot of the lists I made) from the early days of my blog, the end results would probably be very different from back then. :-) I would probably think differently about how the film played out. Maybe.

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