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Dial M for Murder

Dial M for Murder (1954) is a U.S. film directed by Alfred Hitchcock starring Grace Kelly and Ray Milland as a married couple. It is based on the stage play of the same title by English playwright Frederick Knott[?] (b. 1918). Dial M for Murder premiered in 1952 as a BBC television play before being performed on the stage in the same year (West End, June; Broadway, October). One of the classic examples of a stage thriller, it has been revived again and again ever since. The screenplay for the film was written by Knott himself and is almost identical with the stage play (Samuel French acting edition ISBN 0573011028).

Knott, who moved to the U.S.A. in 1954, has only written one other well-known play, Wait Until Dark (1966), which was filmed in 1967 starring Audrey Hepburn as a blind woman in New York City who happens to come into possession of a doll filled with heroin. Generally, Knott's work tends to focus on women who innocently become the focus, and the potential victims, of evil plots.

Warning: Wikipedia contains spoilers

Robert Cummings[?], Kelly and Milland
There is just one setting in the play of Dial M for Murder: the living-room of the Wendices' flat in London (61A Charrington Gardens, Maida Vale[?]) (Hitchcock's film includes a second setting in a restaurant, late in the film when Tony is waiting for it to be time to call home). Tony Wendice is a former tennis player who has succeeded in marrying Sheila (called Margot in the movie) only for her money, without the naive young woman realizing that. To please his wife, he has given up tennis and now has a job selling sports equipment. Sheila is not in love with her husband though: She had a relationship with Max (called Mark in the movie) Halliday, a crime writer for American TV, but they broke it off when Max went to the U.S.A. for one year. Eventually, they also stopped writing each other.

As Tony and Sheila have both made their wills, with each other as the beneficiary, Tony decides that after Max has left for America the time has come to act: For one year, he meticulously plans Sheila's murder. Sheila has no idea that Tony knows all about her relationship to, and love for, Max, but he does: He went to great lengths to steal his own wife's handbag containing one of Max's letters, and then he even assumed the role of an anonymous Brixton-based blackmailer to find out whether his wife was prepared to pay any amount of money for the retrieval of the letter (she did, but he only asked for £50). He even watched them having a little farewell party (eating spaghetti with mushrooms) in Max's studio flat in Chelsea.

In order not to arouse any suspicion, Tony withdraws small amounts of money for a year -- always more than he and his wife need to live -- and this way collects £1,000 in (used) one pound notes. This is the money he wants to pay the contract killer[?] with. He also singles out the perfect man to do the job: C A Swann, who now calls himself "Captain Lesgate", an old schoolmate of his who embarked on a life of petty crime already when they were at school together. Tony knows that now he will be able to blackmail Swann into murdering his wife.

When the action starts Tony's careful preparations have been going on for a year. Now he uses the opportunity of Max's return to London to carry out his plan. Under some pretext -- he has to prepare an urgent report for his boss -- he has Sheila and Max go to the theatre and, when they are gone, he invites Swann round to his flat under another pretext -- wanting to buy an expensive American car from him. When Swann arrives at 61A Charrington Gardens that Friday night, Tony gets down to business very quickly. There is no time to lose, as he has planned the murder for the following night. Finally, Swann accepts the deal.

For Saturday night, Tony has invited Max to join him at some stag party in a nearby hotel -- this is how he secures himself an alibi. The idea is that the police should think that a burglar was surprised by Sheila, that he panicked, attacked and strangled her and left without the loot. He has told Swann that he is going to phone his own flat at exactly 11 p.m. Sheila will come to the living-room to answer the phone, and then she will be murdered by Swann. There are only two keys to the Wendices' ground floor flat. Before leaving for the stag party, Tony steals Sheila's key out of her handbag and hides it under the stair carpet outside their flat for Swann to use.

Max, a writer of crime scenarios, says at one point that theoretically he, Max, would be able to plan the perfect murder but that it would be impossible to carry out any plan of his because in real life people just do not act according to other people's plans. This is true of Sheila, too: Instead of listening to the radio in her bedroom when Tony and Max are away, she tells her husband of her (own) plans to go to the cinema that night. Tony has a hard time persuading his wife to stay at home and stick some old newspaper clippings of his when he was a tennis star into an album instead. Sheila finally consents and for that reason takes a (seemingly) huge pair of scissors out of her mending basket (which also contains a pair of her stockings). When she has finished the tiresome job she goes to bed, carelessly leaving the scissors lying on the desk next to the phone.

According to (Tony's) plan, Swann secretly enters the Wendices' flat shortly before 11 o'clock, hides behind the drawn curtains, a scarf in his hands, and waits for the telephone to ring and for Sheila to come out of her bedroom to answer it. When she does, the plan goes really wrong: Swann attacks her from behind -- with Tony all the while listening in to what is going on over the phone -- , but Sheila turns out to be rather strong and eventually stabs Swann in the back with the scissors. He falls to the floor and is dead at once. In his (temporary) panic, Tony tells his sobbing wife not to touch or do anything until he has come home, which he hurriedly does. Then they both find out that it is high time they called the police.

Tony's mind has to work fast now if he wants to come up with an alternative plan. And this is it: He realizes he can make it look as if Sheila had been blackmailed by Swann, that the blackmailer[?] came to her flat in person and that she actually let him in with the intention of murdering him (rather than killing him in self-defence). By now it has been established that Swann came in through the hall door rather than the French windows leading into the garden, as his shoes are not dirty. This would mean that she will be hanged, and that he will inherit her money after all.

In the course of the police investigations, Tony succeeds in cunningly and artfully planting clues in a way that gets his unsuspecting wife deeper and deeper into trouble . For one thing, he hides Swann's scarf, replaces it with one of Sheila's stockings from her mending basket and hides the other stocking deep down in the waste-paper basket. For another, before the police arrive at the scene of the crime, he puts Max's letter into one of the inside pockets of the dead man's suit -- which will go to show that he actually was blackmailing Sheila. Also, he extracts Sheila's key (he thinks) from one of Swann's pockets and puts it back into his wife's handbag. Soon Sheila is seen as the main suspect, arrested, and eventually tried.

There are two things Tony has not reckoned with: (a) that Swann replaced the key under the stair carpet immediately after using it rather than when leaving the flat again and that, accordingly, the key Tony takes out of the dead man's pocket is the key to Swann's own flat; and (b) that getting rid of £1,000 in cash (the money he would have paid to Swann, which he does not have to now that he is dead) by paying bills here, there and all over the place is a conspicuous thing to do bound to be investigated by the police. They do, but Tony is not aware of it.

On the day before Sheila's execution Max visits Tony to propose a very unusual thing to him: Rather than seeing his wife hanged, he could come up with a completely new story, confess at the last minute that he hired Swann to kill his wife and save her life by going to prison for some years himself instead. As it happens, Max has come up with exactly Tony's original plan. Max argues that during Sheila's trial all arguments revolved around three things only: (1) Max's letter found on Swann; (2) the fact that no key was found on Swann (and that there was no forced entry either); and (3) Sheila's stocking. Max argues that all this could be altered, and that Tony could put all the blame on himself, claiming that it was he who had done all that.

Then the police detective arrives at the flat again, allegedly to ask Tony about the money he has been spending lately. This is when Max discovers Tony's attaché case filled with the remaining one pound notes. Pressed for an answer, Tony manages a final impromptu lie in front of both Max and the police: He tells them this is the money Sheila had ready when she met Swann but that she changed her mind and killed him instead of paying him off.

Then the inspector, who has not given up the case yet but who pretends he has, uses his final trick: He says good-bye and deliberately takes Tony's raincoat instead of his own. Now Tony's key to the flat is in the pocket of his raincoat, so on returning to his flat some time later he realizes that he cannot get inside. He notices Hubbard's raincoat and goes off to the police station to exchange it. Meanwhile, Hubbard has brought Sheila to the flat. Her key -- actually Swann's -- does not fit into the lock, so she cannot open the door. What Hubbard wants to find out is if she knows the hiding place under the stair carpet. She does not, so that clears her of any suspicion. Some time later, Tony comes back. When he takes the key from under the stair carpet he gives himself away. --

A commentary on Dial M for Murder ascribed to Hitchcock goes like this: "As you can see, the best way to do it is with scissors." This refers at the same time to the film's pivotal scene, in which Grace Kelly stabs her would-be murderer with a pair of scissors, and to the clever editing which is a hallmark of his movies. One of the finest scenes is when we see Tony Wendice at the stag party, slightly nervous and frequently looking at his watch. It is already past eleven when he notices that it has stopped: He gets up from the table, hurries to the phone booth, has to wait there and eventually calls his flat well after 11 o'clock, at the very moment Lesgate is about to leave it again, believing that he has waited in vain. This is a miniature race against time full of dramatic music, complete with a cut[?] to the automatic telephone exchange.

There is no real courtroom scene. This part of the film is done in a highly stylized way: The camera is on Sheila/Margot, there are no props (only colours), and the various people present at a trial are only introduced by means of voice-over. Tony's wife being sentenced to death is altogether missing from the stage play; it is only reported.

Apart from a few short outdoor shots -- Tony Wendice approaching and leaving his flat etc. -- , the claustrophobic atmosphere of other Hitchcock films (Rope, Rear Window) can also be found here. Most of the action is restricted to a single set. The angle of the camera is also of interest (several times shot from the ceiling, a sort of bird's eye view).

We can see Hitchcock in a black-and-white reunion photograph sitting at a banquet table among former students and faculty.

Dial M for Murder must not be confused with a film with a similar setting and subject-matter, Midnight Lace[?] (US; David Miller, 1960), starring Rex Harrison and Doris Day. In Midnight Lace, another thriller, a woman (Day) receives harassing telephone calls that escalate until she is in physical danger. In the end, the baddie turns out to be her own husband (Harrison), too. There is also some police inspector around, and the setting is also very British.

A Perfect Murder (US; Andrew Davis, 1998) is a remake starring Michael Douglas and Gwyneth Paltrow in which the characters of Halliday and Lesgate are combined. In other words, the husband (Douglas) hires his wife's lover to kill her. Apart from that, he uses a mobile phone to make the decisive call.

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