Sunday, May 1, 2011

Dial M For Murder

Title: Dial M For Murder
Year: 1954
Studio: Warner Brothers
Screenplay: Frederick Knott
Source Material: Based on Knott's own play
Running Time: 101 minutes

Sunday 1st May, 8:00am
I was up at five o'clock this morning. I'd had a kind of premonition. I thought I heard an alarm and then I smelt burnt toast. This all faded as I stirred and entered the real world, but only half an hour later, I actually burned my toast and the kitchen was filling with smoke - if I had a battery in my smoke alarm, it would have been making quite a fuss, I have no doubt. No why can't I have a dream about lottery numbers for crying out loud??
So, up early, I caught up on some TV viewing which I was behind on (in this case, Being Human) and the settled down to watch the latest in the line of Hitch...

I do have a penchant for murder mystery play-cum-films. There are some classics out there: Twelve Angry Men, Sleuth, Deathtrap and of course Rope. Here is another which falls neatly into that category.

Tony Wendice - Ray Milland
Margot Wendice - Grace Kelly
Mark Halliday - Robert Cummings
Inspector Hubbard - John Williams
Swann/Lesgate - Anthony Dawson
Storyteller - Leo Britt
Pearson - Patrick Allen
Williams - George Leigh
First Detective - George Alderson
Police Sergeant - Robin Hughes

It's Friday 26th March and American TV mystery writer Mark Halliday arrives in Britain on the Queen Mary. He makes a rendezvous with his lover, Margot Wendice at her home. She tells Mark that since their last meeting a year ago, her husband has changed and become a better man. She also tells of how she had kept one of Mark's love letters but it had been stolen from her at Victoria Station when her handbag had gone missing. She then received blackmail letters but never found out who it was who was doing the callous deed.
Her husband, Tony, returns from his work and they all behave in a civil manner toward each other.
The three of them were planning to go out to the theatre together, but Tony declines and says he has work to do. When the others are gone, he telephones a man about a car he'd like to purchase and invites the gentleman over.
This turns out to be merely a ruse. He knows this gentleman from long ago and has spent the past few months following him. The man's real name is Swann and Tony has discovered his nefarious lifestyle. He proposes a plan in which both men will make some money. He reveals that he has known about his wife's affair and has been saving money for twelve months to pay Swann to kill her whilst he has the perfect alibi. Swann is reluctant, but Tony explains how he ought to do as he is told, otherwise his dodgy dealings will be exposed to the police. Swann has little choice other than to go through with it the following evening.

Tony explains everything in the plan:

Tony and Mark will attend a stag do at a hotel. He will leave his wife's key to the flat outside in the hall under the stair carpet. (The front door to the apartment block is always open)
Swann should then use this key to let himself in.
When indie, he will wait behind the curtain until 11pm. At which time, Tony will telephone the flat from the hotel. This will wake Margot who will come to the desk to answer it. This is when Swann should kill her. Then, once she is dead, he should arrange the place to look like a burglary and then exit leaving the key back under the stair carpet.

The following night, things are set up, but Tony's plans are almost foiled when Margot says she might go out after all. He persuades her to stay in and slips her key out of her handbag without knowing and leaves it in the right spot on the stairs in the hallway.

Swann arrives just before 11pm and lets himself in. He waits behind the curtain but Tony is late in calling - this is because Tony's watch has stopped and only realises a few minutes after 11. Eventually, Tony makes the call. Margot wakes, comes to answer the phone and Swann attempts to strangle her with a scarf. In the struggle, she reaches for some scissors on the desk and plunges them into his back. He falls backwards and the scissors thrust deeper inside, killing him.
Tony has heard the whole thing over the phone. She picks it up and he speaks to her saying he'll return immediately.

Once home, he waits for Margot to go into the bedroom before removing her key from the corpse. He also plants the incriminating love letter in Swann's breast pocket. He then destroys the scarf in the fire and replaces the weapon with a pair of her stockings.
The police arrive and examine the scene and evidence and find the delicately positioned stockings.

The next morning, Inspector Hubbard comes around to make inquires. Mark turns up and feels they have to make their affair known to Tony and the police.It isn't long before the evidence piles up against Margot. It all points to her knowing that Swann was the blackmailer and she had killed him on purpose, not in self defence.

At trail, Margot is found guilty and she is sentenced to death by hanging.

The day before the execution, Mark turns up at Tony's again. He has had plenty of time to think things through and he has come up with a scenario. He has figured the plausible answer which may save Margot's life. If Tony would only admit to planning the whole thing. Tony is adamant that the whole scheme is nonsense, but when Inspector Hubbard turns up to enquire about some stolen money, plus the fact it seems Tony has been spending more than usual recently, Mark is convinced about his notion being true and not just the over-active imagination of a mystery writer.

Eventually, the inspector leaves, but he switches his coat for Tony's before he exits.

When Tony leaves his home, Hubbard returns and lets himself in. Mark also returns and asks what is going on. Margot is escorted from her cell to her home and she cannot let herself in because her key won't work, so she goes with the police to the back entrance where Hubbard and Mark are waiting. This is the clue he had been waiting for. Then, Tony returns. His key doesn't open the door either. He is about to leave when he realises something... The key he had extracted from Swann's pocket was not his wife's and her key must still be under the stair carpet where Swann had left it on the night of the murder (having returned it prior to entering the room).
As soon as Tony lets himself into the room with that key, Hubbard has all the evidence he needs. Tony is defeated and Margot is safe from the noose.


Great Lines
Wendice on his recent spying activities:

"You take up a hobby, the more you get to know it, the more fascinating it becomes!"

Then, whilst persuading Swann:

Swann: "What makes you think I'll agree?"

Wendice: "The same reason a donkey with a stick behind him and a carrot in front always goes forward, not backwards."

and Inspector Hubbard's brilliant line:

"They talk about flat-footed policemen. May the saints protect us from the gifted amateur."

Ray Milland is so casually smooth and nonchalantly evil. There are moments when he seems to have a James Mason thing going on, which can't be a bad thing.
John Williams is superb as Inspector Hubbard. Delightfully watchable as the man not easily persuaded by convoluted plots.
Robert Cummings is also good in his role as a 'mystery writer' and lover, but when he starts to piece things together in his own dramatic way, I couldn't help thinking of Jessica Fletcher.

As is reasonably common knowledge, this was filmed in 3D - a gimmick I am desperately unfond of, partly due to my eyes not being very good - and the murder scene is the only moment which might benefit from a bit of 3D action.

The courtroom scene is played beautifully with only our focus on Margot's face. This technique was also applied to great effect in an episode of Murder Most Horrid entitled A Determined Woman.

A couple of other moments which stand out for me as far as direction is concerned are:

At the beginning, when Margot and Mark are in an embrace and Tony returns, we see them separate but viewing their shadows part as they are cast along the door through which Tony enters. It's so simple but very effective.

There are a couple of times we watch the scene from above and we witness the layout of the flat as the crime is plotted. This gives us a detached perspective but almost one of a voyeur who knows more than he should. Hitch knows how to make his audience uncomfortable.

One of the most notable things about Dial M For Murder is the rapid nature of the plot. 100 minutes simply fly by thanks to a terrific script and taught direction.

It has been remade a number of times since, but most notably in 1998 as A Perfect Murder starring Michael Douglas, Gwyneth Paltrow, David Suchet and a pleasantly naked Viggo Mortensen.

My Verdict
The simplicity of the evidence which leads to Wendice's downfall is the 'key' to the success as far as I'm concerned. A very classy mystery. 8/10


  1. It is brilliant, was on sky the other day, Mums and I couldn't work out why any one would want to kill Grace Kelly, though.

  2. And did you know about it being filmed in 3D?

  3. Hi Sam, yes, I did know about the 3D (plus I mentioned that in the comments section!)
    I hate 3D stuff. If I want to see something in 3D, I will go and watch a play.