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The 1950's were arguably the most successful for the “Master of Suspense”, Alfred Hitchcock.  Enjoying wild success in color films with stars such as Cary Grant, James Stewart, and Grace Kelly, three of Hitchcock’s four AFI’s Top 100 Films were made in the 1950's: Rear Window, North by Northwest, and Vertigo. It was also this time when his TV series was taking off in homes around the country.

Originally premiering on May 29th, 1954 Dial ‘M’ for Murder was shot initially as a 3-D film. It was during the 1950's that the motion picture industry was feeling the threat of television taking away their viewers, so 3-D was one of the many attractions that were used to lure audiences into theaters. However, a combination of Alfred Hitchcock being a big enough draw of his own and audiences complaining of headaches during screenings of other 3-D movies, the gimmick was quickly dropped for this film. Dial ‘M’ for Murder thoroughly tests the talents of Hitchcock as a director, especially with the main character with the most screen time being the so-called villain of the plot.

Dial 'M' for Murder
Movie
Dial ‘M’ for Murder opens, in Britain, like most of Hitchcock’s films with a statement of the musical score, written by Dimitri Tiomkin (who had previously collaborated with Hitchcock on I Confess and Shadow of a Doubt, and won an Academy Award the previous year for High Noon). It is interesting to note that the score sometimes takes the place like it would in a scene change during a play (which is what this movie was derived from). In this case the opening is an overture in which we are introduced to the main characters. Ray Milland and Grace Kelly play Tony and Margot Wendice, a married couple living together in a small, town-house apartment. Almost immediately we are then swept to a scene in which Margot is embracing her lover Mark, played by Robert Cummings. Margot insists that Mark is simply a friend from America visiting. Tony is well aware of their affair, but keeps that secret from the two lovers.

While Margot and Mark are catching a play, Tony entices a supposed stranger named Swan (played by Anthony Dawson) over to the apartment.  It is in this scene that actor Ray Milland makes or breaks the picture for you. This scene explains the plot of the movie, the situation the characters are in, and what Tony’s plan is to combat all of this. The exposition is roughly twenty minutes in length, the overwhelming majority of which is spoken by Tony. Milland exemplifies confidence in his role as the plotting husband; he never falters in his play, whether it is removing fingerprints from a piece of furniture for evidence, or blackmailing Swan into taking part of his plan.  If you buy into Milland’s performance here, Hitchcock totally has you hooked.

We learn here that Tony is a washed up tennis pro who has grown financially dependent on his wealthy wife, Margot. By pure accident, he stumbles onto her relationship with Mark. In fear of losing his only financial source, Tony plots meticulously over an entire year to murder his wife. He thoroughly and almost emotionlessly explains this plan step by step to Swan. It is Swan who is to murder Margot for a profit, and then completely disappear. Having had no contact with Tony or his wife, Swan would never be a suspect, nor would Tony who would be out with Mark during the murder. Tony was to dial home to Margot while at a party, in which she would be strangled from behind when she answered the phone. The intelligence and confidence of Tony is only magnified when his plan goes completely astray, and he improvises a brilliant alternative plan on the spot.

Dial 'M' for Murder
Alfred Hitchcock’s direction of Dial ‘M’ for Murder magnifies his extraordinary talents as a director. Because 99.9% of the movie takes place in this small apartment, it would have been easy for the film to feel confined very quickly. Hitchcock almost laughs at this notion by using probably over 200 different camera angles to give scenes a fresh and new sense. Also, thinking he was presenting the movie in 3-D, Hitchcock has a lot of shots with objects in the foreground of the scene; these would have been 3-D to the audience. Of course, Mr. Hitchcock has his trademark cameo which is sure to make you chuckle.

The acting performances are what will make or break this movie for you. I cannot stress enough the weight that Ray Milland’s character carries; he gives all the exposition, is in all of the scenes, and delivers the majority of the dialogue. The rest of the characters are really played to type. Grace Kelly (who won an Academy Award for her work in The Country Girl) plays a very likeable, attractive woman caught in a desperate situation. Swan is played very used-car salesman like, very sly and shady. Mark is almost a plot device, a reason for Tony to murder his wife. The Police Inspector, played by John Williams (the actor, not the composer) is your standard policeman; inquisitive and there to thwart the plans of the antagonist. The actors and actress all play their parts perfectly, which allows Dial ‘M’ for Murder’s plot to unfold fluidly and believably.

Tony and the man he's blackmailing
Video
Shot initially at a 1:37:1 aspect ratio on color 35 mm, the transfer on Dial ‘M’ for Murder is unfortunately quite inconsistent. In the beginning shots of the movie, we are treated to very grainy looking images; this is prevalent in any shot that had some kind of optical composite (such as the streets outside of the apartment). Also, particularly in the first couple minutes, there are some glaring edge enhancement issues. Having said that, much of the rest of the film is quite brilliant considering it is fifty years old. The dark colors are stable while others are very vibrant, particularly Grace Kelly’s red dress in the beginning. There is some noticeable grain at times, but the majority of the movie looks very good.

Audio
The audio in the movie is actually pretty poor. The DVD audio is presented in 2.0 mono, so no real sound effects jump out at you.  The dialogue is generally clear, but the score does not fair well. The music accompaniment sounds like a fifty year old score, in that it almost makes the audio fuzzy and distorted.

Extras
Not too much in the way of extras on Dial ‘M’ for Murder. We have a theatrical trailer and a couple of short documentaries, nothing more. The trailer is nothing special and the documentary on the making of the movie might be nice for a once off viewing. The short feature on the history of 3D is very interesting and is probably the only feature you should make a point of watching. A fun DVD-ROM feature would have been a play script to movie script comparison, but sadly there’s nothing of the sort on this release.

Dial 'M' for Murder
Overall
Dial ‘M’ for Murder still holds up today as a viable piece of suspense cinema. Milland’s performance is completely gripping as a man who is trying to murder his wife and you’re rooting for him to win. Grace Kelly, while clearly not at her best, is still beautiful and a great screen presence. The direction of Alfred Hitchcock is nothing short of exemplary, really making something noteworthy out of a small production. This film is defiantly worth at the very least a rental, if not a blind buy.


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