I can’t say I mind that my #1 Hitchcock film may challenge conventional wisdom. To the critics and casual fans most would say that only Psycho, The Birds, Vertigo, or Rear Window can take claim as the greatest Hitchcock film of all time, while other celebrated titles such as North By Northwest, Rebecca, and 39 Steps may fall in as potential honorable mentions. And while their top five rankings may vary what they’re likely to have in common is their indifference to this particular film, one that seems to have slipped through the cracks in regards to popularity and reputation. Yet supporting that disinterest was none other than Hitchcock himself, who in his later life was documented by saying that he actually didn’t have much to say about the film, more or less insinuating that it wasn’t even memorable enough to deem it worthy of discussion. With that in mind it’s my great honor to correct that misconception with the utmost respect, as not only is this film worthy of deliberation, it’s worthy enough of commemoration and consideration as the most impressive film in his entire catalogue.
As stated before Hitchcock could make any type of film, and perhaps it’s no surprise that psychological and espionage thrillers took home most of the acclaim. Yet it was the limited setting theatrical films that garnered my greatest admiration for Hitchcock, as it was the ability to do so much with so little that made it crystal clear how brilliant he truly was. Similar to Rear Window, Rope, and Lifeboat, this particular film takes place almost entirely in one setting, in this case inside the ground floor flat of a rather ordinary building in London. The characters are minimal as well, yet like the previous films mentioned the characters are enormous in their magnitude as the story depends on their relationships to be the film’s greatest virtue. Yet where Dial M shines brighter than the rest is the healthy balance between storyline and character development, as not only are the performances unforgettable, but the actual plot is for my money the finest work of art that I’ve ever laid eyes on.
Right out the gate the opening scene vividly illustrates the relationship dynamic between husband and wife, as retired tennis player Ray Milland quietly eats his breakfast with his lovely wife Grace Kelly, who looks angelic in her white ensemble as she reads the morning paper. She’s looking for an article on the arrival of a ship carrying her lover, who she will introduce to her husband as an old friend played by Robert Cummings. Yet before Cummings and Milland can make that acquaintance, Kelly is shown in a deep and passionate kiss with her lover inside her apartment. Kelly is wearing a vibrant red dress that is elegant yet far more sensual than the previous attire she wore with her husband, and her body language is noticeably more engaged than the pleasantries shared between the married couple in the scene before. The fact is that she is in love with the other man, and had planned on leaving her marriage until her husband had changed… for the better, in which case she is trapped in a complicated love triangle where she maintains her devotion to Cummings yet can’t bring herself to walk away from Milland.
While she has an idea of when, she can’t exactly pinpoint how and why this positive transformation occurred, yet the reality is that Milland is no longer the man that she wrote about in her letters, and she explains to Cummings that she’ll notice his decency when they go out to the theatre that evening. Sure enough, Milland opens up the doors to his flat and he is a gentleman to his wife and a gracious host to her company, as he provides them with drinks and conversation to help them unwind before they plan to set out on the town. This particular sequence in which Kelly introduces Cummings as an accomplished crime writer is riveting as Milland grills him on whether or not it’s possible to pull off the perfect murder. Considering that’s the man’s line of work the question comes off as genuine intrigue as opposed to asking with any malicious intent, and Cummings humors the inquiry ever so poetically stating that “of course it could never work out like it does on paper.” Rather amused, Milland makes sure Cummings finishes his drink and reluctantly tells his wife that he won’t be able to accompany them to the theatre after all, as unexpected business matters have come up that are too important to ignore. Kelly halfheartedly asks Milland to reconsider, yet ultimately doesn’t need much persuasion to spend the evening with her true love as any consolation. The two love birds leave the apartment and Milland picks up the phone, making it clear that perhaps he’s not as oblivious as he’s been made out to be.
With his wife and her lover out of the apartment Milland calls a mysterious man played by Anthony Dawson, who has put an ad in the paper with intentions of selling an automobile. Milland calls Dawson over to the flat, and in an unforgettably brilliant scene proceeds to blackmail him into murdering his wife. His technique is as masterful as it is meticulous, as slowly but surely he reveals his intentions while incriminating the man all in the same moment. He explains that they are indeed not strangers after all, as Milland and Dawson actually go all the way back to their university days, and therefore he knows that he’s been using a pseudonym as if he has something to hide. Of course Milland already knows what Dawson has been hiding as he has been tailing him for months, and with the intel he has collected he explains to Dawson that he has put him in a very compromising position. Nonetheless, Milland assures Dawson that this misfortune can work to his benefit if he agrees to accept the murder proposal for a lump sum of money.
It’s important to note that this extortion scene plays out like a masterpiece in more ways than one. The dialogue is first and foremost immaculate as Milland is able to plant a damning piece of evidence right in Dawson’s hands, as he inconspicuously shows him the letter that he stole from his wife’s handbag, which was the moment he found out his wife was cheating on him and started crafting his master plan. Since that moment he had anonymously bribed his wife for money in exchange for the letter, in which case she sent the money and never got anything back in return. As Milland is revealing his own criminal activity to his old college pal, the indifferent Dawson has his guard down and makes the fateful error of picking up the incriminating letter when Milland drops it at his feet on purpose. The fingerprints are the final piece to the puzzle, as Milland cunningly explains that if Dawson doesn’t agree to murder his wife, then he will frame him for the extortion whereas due to his other indiscretions he’d have no credibility to defend himself. After being convinced that the plan is foolproof and that he really has no choice, Dawson warily accepts the deposit and asks for the logistics on how exactly he’s supposed to finish the job.
In a continuation of this one extraordinary scene, Milland walks Dawson around the loft to demonstrate how he will be required to carry out the murder. This is where Hitchcock flexes his muscles and compounds the genius of the script with the brilliance of his camera work. When analyzing this film it’s crucial to keep in mind that 99% of it takes place inside the London flat, where only on rare occasions and for a few split seconds do you see outside the flat, and somehow that doesn’t impede the entertainment value of this film at all. The storyline is so compelling that you don’t even realize that you haven’t left the room as you watch it, and Hitchcock’s technique of displaying the apartment is a fundamental reason for that as well. As Milland instructs Dawson on how precisely they will be able to get away with murder, Hitchcock films the discussion using a variety of different angles, most notably using a bird’s eye view that draws you closer to the action while the camera takes you further away. Looking down on Milland’s very particular instructions the audience has a perfect view of every step he takes, leaving them impressed but concerned that the scorned husband had really thought of everything in his desire to carry out the perfect murder.
The plan is that the following night Milland will invite Cummings to join him at a party and will persuade Kelly to stay home. Once Kelly retires for the evening Dawson will enter the flat using a latchkey that Milland will leave behind for him, and will hide behind the curtains as he waits for a phone call. Milland will call the flat at 11:00 pm sharp, prompting Kelly to answer the phone half asleep as Dawson approaches her from behind and strangles her. Once she’s no longer breathing Dawson will open the french doors to stage it as a robbery gone awry, and will exit the same way he came in leaving the latchkey where he found it. If everything goes according to plan, Milland will have vengeance for his wife’s infidelity and the satisfaction of knowing that he was smart enough to get away with murder.
However, on the night in question it appears Cummings is right about not being able to plan for the unexpected, as Milland’s watch stops a few minutes before 11:00 and he is late getting to the telephone that is being occupied by another patron. As Dawson waits behind the curtains he contemplates on whether or not he should stay any longer, and even starts walking to the door until the number is finally dialed. Kelly walks out of her bedroom and answers the phone as expected, yet as Dawson appears behind her it is evident that he has clear trepidation on going through with it, as the frightened look on his face is far too vivid to ever forget. Nonetheless he puts his scarf around her neck and the great struggle begins, as Milland listens attentively on the other line while Dawson uses all his strength to take Kelly’s last breath away. Yet true to Cummings wisdom the plan is foiled when Kelly fortuitously grabs a pair a scissors, likely the same pair that Milland persuaded her to use for clippings that kept her inside that night in the first place, and proceeds to ceremoniously stab Dawson in the back to save her life. Overcome with emotion she is horrified to see Dawson’s lifeless body beneath her, and frantically picks up the phone for help only to hear her husband’s voice, who acts surprised and tells her to not to call the police until he gets there.
Once Milland arrives he effectively calls the authorities and puts his hysterical wife to bed, insinuating that she had dealt with enough that night and that he would take care of everything. With Kelly out of the room Milland begins to improvise, deciding that if he can’t kill his wife then perhaps he can frame her for murder. He hastily begins to doctor the crime scene, as he exchanges the knotted scarf for Kelly’s own stocking, plants the stolen letter in Dawson’s jacket, and most importantly takes the latchkey out of Dawson’s pocket and returns it to his wife’s hand bag. Kelly would never know that her key had been missing as she had been instructed to stay home that night, and based on the evidence the authorities would believe that Kelly had opened the door to Dawson and effectively murdered him in rage due to his continuous blackmail over the letter.
John Williams plays the chief inspector and is remarkable in his role as the man of reason while additionally providing some comic relief. The humor comes off as non deliberate in true Hitchcock fashion, as it’s more idiosyncratic than in your face or over the top, yet it’s a perfect curveball to the script as Williams quirky personality blends effortlessly with the inquisitive Cummings and the conniving Milland. As Williams grills Kelly and points out inconsistencies in her story (thanks to her husband of course), Milland is brilliant as he half heartedly defends his wife, relishing in the fact that he knows full well that their counterclaims won’t add up. The bottom line to Williams is that every indication of the crime scene suggests that Dawson walked through the front door, in which case Kelly has no alibi and is subsequently charged with murder. What follows is a rather expeditious scene where the trial is shown as a blur using 3d effects (a marketing ploy that Hitchcock later said he wasn't fond of), yet it’s purpose is clear as ultimately Milland gets the finality he hoped for when Kelly is found guilty as charged and sentenced to death.
On the day before her execution all seems to be lost until Cummings makes a visit to the flat with a proposal for Milland. At this point the affair is on the table as of course it had come out in the trial (the letter, blackmail, etc.), where it's been assumed that Kelly didn’t get any sympathy from the judge due to her infidelity. Nonetheless, in a final attempt to save her life, Cummings approaches Milland with a hypothetical scenario, a story that he came up with that would exonerate Kelly altogether. Granted the scenario would implicate Milland, but that should be a small price to pay in exchange for saving her life, contingent on the idea that they both still love her. With nothing left to lose he pleads with Milland to tell Williams that he had hired Dawson all along, and as far fetched as it seems as a writer he knows that the story would work; in fact he has a strong conviction that the story makes sense. Of course the beauty of the scene is that much to Milland’s chagrin Cummings proceeds to diagram his hypothetical story almost to the exact detail of how the crime was actually committed. Yet without any leverage or the knowledge that his story is actually true, the author’s gift for writing crime is essentially useless when Milland simply dismisses it as “unrealistic,” yet his fortune soon changes when Milland is surprised by another unexpected visitor.
In the hours before the execution, as Milland is trying to deflect Cummings and his theory, the chief inspector comes to the door to ask the husband about some unusual spendings. With Cummings hiding in the bedroom he overhears Milland say he had lost a particular attache case, only to look down and see it sitting beside him filled with cash. Now convinced that Milland is hiding something, Cummings reveals himself to Williams and shows him the attache case in question. Put to the task Milland comes up with a story on the fly that portrays him to be unethical but hardly a murderer, an alibi that seemingly leaves Williams content as he goes on to explain to Cummings that there’s a hole in his theory. If Milland gave Dawson the key then why wouldn’t there a key on Dawson when the police arrived? And since there wasn’t a key found on the crime scene how could it be explained that Dawson entered through the front door? Frantically and rather remarkably, Cummings proclaims that perhaps Dawson left the key outside the door before he entered, a theory that makes sense despite the audience already having seen Milland take the key off out of Dawson’s pocket to put it back in his wife’s hand bag. Impressed but not convinced, Williams explains that Milland’s story is more conceivable, yet unbeknownst to anyone he switches raincoats with Milland before he leaves.
Once everyone disperses Williams uses Milland’s key to re-enter the flat, while an overlooking Cummings arrives only seconds later eager to know what the chief inspector is up to. He allows him back into the apartment and instructs him to be quiet as the truth is soon to come to light. Moments later Kelly arrives back on screen accompanied by police and tries to open the door with the latchkey in her handbag. Perplexed as to why the key doesn’t work, she walks through the garden and tries to enter through the back, revealing that she doesn’t have any knowledge of a hidden key in the stairwell. Cummings and Kelly rejoice when they see one another yet are confused on what Williams has up his sleeve, as the inspector asks for the handbag to be returned to the precinct and tells them both that they will understand in due time. Sure enough, Milland arrives back at the flat and realizes that he doesn’t have his key, thus he goes to the precinct to retrieve his wife’s hand bag so he can enter with hers. Yet when he returns and he as well can’t enter with the latchkey from her handbag, his immediate reaction is to turn back up the street as there must have been some mistake. However, it only takes a matter of seconds before he stops, turns around, and seals his fate when he opens the door with the missing latch key that had been in the staircase all along.
The great twist of the film is that the key found on Dawson’s body was actually Dawson’s own latch key, and as Cummings suggested he returned the key before he actually entered the apartment. Williams as it turns out was already privy to this information as he had used the key from Kelly’s hand bag to open Dawson’s apartment at some point off screen. It had taken approximately thirty minutes for him to find Kelly’s key in the staircase, and as soon as Milland went to retrieve it there were no more questions as to how it got there in the first place. Although deadly close to crafting the perfect murder the simple oversight of not assuming Dawson had his own latchkey is Milland’s fateful error, and as soon as he opens the door it’s checkmate.
That final moment in which Milland gracefully succumbs to his fate is the exclamation point to a perfect film, as with class and composure he calmly pours himself a drink and like a gentleman asks his wife if she’d like to join him. I always marveled at how Milland carries himself in this scene, as in some ways it fits his cold and callous demeanor, yet considering the fact that Kelly accepts his request shows that it’s perhaps indicative of something else as well. Hitchcock was always a master of sophistication as much as he was a master of suspense, and where most directors would end this film with aggression he decides to end it with dignity. The amount of nobility and grandeur that a Hitchcock film exemplifies has perhaps always been too good to be true, yet I’ll always commend the man for envisioning a world that could be so effortlessly graceful just the same. This film was the perfect script illuminated by the finest performances, all the while directed by the greatest visionary in the history of motion pictures. Dial M For Murder is for my money the greatest film of all time.