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The perfect murder
on January 11, 2015
Alfred Hitchcock committed many fictional murders onscreen, but I suspect he knew that few of them would plausibly work in real life.
In fact, "Dial M for Murder" is all about how murders can never be pulled off perfectly -- especially the complex, think-on-your-feet types that are usually seen in murder mysteries. In this adaptation of the stage play, Hitchcock keeps a low-simmering tension throughout the story, even as he juggles several clues and misdirections that end up tangling all the wrong people. It's not a question of whodunnit, but whether the truth will be found.
Wealthy socialite Margot Wendice (Grace Kelly) has been carrying on a secret affair with crime-fiction writer Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings). But when a love letter from Mark (the MacGuffin!) is stolen from her handbag, she reveals to Mark that she's currently being blackmailed by an unknown person. Her husband Tony (Ray Milland), seemingly oblivious to both the blackmail and the love affair, invites Mark to a stag party.
The twist: Tony knows all about the affair, and he is the one who stole the letter. He's also afraid that if Margot leaves him, he'll be left destitute since she has all the money.
So he enlists an old schoolmate named Swann (Anthony Dawson) to murder his wife, and stages the "perfect" crime and alibi. But things go wrong when Margot manages to stab Swann with a pair of scissors, and the carefully-arranged crime becomes a tangled web of clues and secrets that all seem to incriminate Margot. Will the truth be found before she is hung, or will Tony get away with murder?
While "Dial M For Murder" is based on a stage play by Frederick Knott (who also adapted it for the movie), it's one of those stories that just feels very Hitchcockian. There's a "wrong woman," a MacGuffin, murder schemes, a beautiful blonde, a high-society setting and a charmingly genteel psychopath who calmly plans the murder of his wife just because he wants her money -- it seems perfectly designed for Hitchcock's storytelling style.
The first half of the movie is devoted to the "perfect crime" going wrong. While Tony insists that he's planned out the perfect murder, little unexpected things cause his scheme to go awry -- a stopped watch, an old man, a pair of scissors, and a missing key. The second half... well, it's about untangling the same web from Margot, and somehow figuring out how it all applied to Tony. There are some leaps in logic, but for the most part it juggles the clues well.
And Hitchcock brings a low-simmering sense of suspense to the story, with events unfolding prety slowly... until Swann tries to strangle Margot, when everything becomes raw and visceral. Despite the languid pacing, he actually keeps the movie pretty lean and nimble. For instance, Margot's entire legal battle is summed up in a nightmarish montage of questions and condemnations, and it lasts less than a minute before she's condemned to death.
This is probably the best performance I've yet seen from Grace Kelly -- she gasps and sobs incoherently through the attempted murder, slowly crumbles through the investigation, and floats numbly through the final act. Milland gives a chillingly genial performance, although Cummings is just kind of... well, he's enthusiastic, but the character is an idiot. And of course, there's John Williams as the veddy veddy British Inspector Hubbard, who is much more devious than anyone gives him credit for.
"Dial M For Murder" can be a bit slow at times, but the slow-burning tension and intricate plot were beautifully handled by Hitchcock -- and the clever subversion of the "perfect crime" makes a nice brain-bender.