DIAL M FOR MURDER began the Year of Grace Kelly in style, that of the slyly devious Alfred Hitchcock variety. In her 4th film, the 23-year-old beauty started 1954 with this critical and commercial hit, a civilized (apart from some strangling and a handy pair of scissors), sophisticated chamber piece suspenser, dialog-heavy, with only five players, confined mostly to one set. *
Oozing smug cadness, former tennis toff ‘Tony Wendice’ (Ray Milland) wants to get back at his wife ‘Margot’ (Kelly) who’s been having an affair with smarmy crime-writer ‘Mark Halliday’ (Robert Cummings) and he needs her inherited wealth to continue his indulgent lifestyle. He blackmails another rotter, ‘C.A. Swann’ (Anthony Dawson) into a lock-proof (as in key) murder plot. Properly civil but ceaselessly probing ‘Chief Inspector Hubbard’ (John Williams) sniffs rodentia. “For the same reason that a donkey with a stick behind him and a carrot in front always goes forwards and not backwards.”
Milland is appropriately distasteful (he’d also aged significantly in just a few years); Cummings is—for me—always hard to take; Kelly is fine. The leads are trumped by the top supporting work from calmly dignified Williams (one of his best roles) and the saturnine Dawson. Frederick Knott’s detail-crammed script, dense with descriptive plotting and lengthy counter-explanations, was lifted from his successful play (it ran 552 performances on Broadway), and Hitchcock wasn’t all that intrigued by the project other than as a ‘job of work’, and later essentially dismissed it. Filming in 3-D, he didn’t enjoy wrestling with the cumbersome camera process, though he was impressed enough with his actress and her double-edged appeal (demure & hot), as well as her form-fitting his predilection for cool blonde heroines, that he cast her twice more. **
His cameraman, Robert Burks, had just finished Hondo in 3-D (and had toiled uncredited on House Of Wax) so was familiar with the bulky monsters; the challenge for the director was working them to advantage in restricted interiors, and the film is best seen in that format to appreciate his subtle staging (leaving aside some blatantly obvious process shots set ‘outdoors’). On release, receipts foundered when patrons, already tired of the format by that time, shied away from the clunky glasses, so it was quickly re-sent out ‘flat’ and proceeded to make $6,000,000, easily chalking off the $1,400,000 cost and coming in 17th place for the year. One aspect that doesn’t work is Dimitri Tiomkin’s over-emphatic score. Ordinarily, I love Tiomkin’s flamboyance (and can detect flourishes here from some of his other assignments) but I think he mostly bonks it over the head this time. 106 minutes.
* Real suspense comes from wondering how Grace Kelly could steel herself to kiss Ray Milland or Robert Cummings? Following this picture Kelly was on display, one-atop-another in 1954 with Rear Window, The Bridges At Toko-Ri, The Country Girl and Green Fire. They were all hits, ‘Window‘ the year’s #1, and ‘Country Girl‘ winning her the Best Actress Oscar (that rightly should have gone to Judy Garland for A Star Is Born). At the Academy ceremony, m.c. Bob Hope quipped “I just wanna say they should give a special award for bravery to the producer who produced a movie without Grace Kelly.” Back to those kissing scenes: longtime Hollywood rumors (with ‘legs’) had Milland and the 23-years-his-junior ice princess/flirt-machine in an affair that nearly foundered his marriage. The future real-life Princess purportedly conquered Cooper, Gable, Holden, Bing and Frank, among others. None of those blokes were averse to diversion. Well, who knows, and really, Who Cares? But.. .Bob Cummings? Jeeezus, I’d rather plant one on Ernest Borgnine….
** Hitch on his leading-lady thing: “Blondes make the best victims. They’re like virgin snow that shows up bloody footprints.” Okay, the man had some issues, but at least he used Art to work them out on. He put Kelly in his next two teasers, Rear Window and To Catch A Thief, both of them amping up her wattage. In Alfred’s blonde ambitions, she’d followed Madeleine Carroll (The 39 Steps) and Ingrid Bergman (Spellbound, Notorious, Under Capricorn). Hard on Kelly’s high heels came Doris Day (The Man Who Knew Too Much), Kim Novak (Vertigo), Eva Marie Saint (North By Northwest), Janet Leigh (Psycho), Tippi Hedren (The Birds, Marnie) and Barbara Harris (Family Plot). No doubt he’s observing Margot Robbie, through a telescope, from his study, somewhere in the Twilight Zone.