Alfred Hitchcock, the undisputed master of suspense, retains the theatrical origins of this lovely melodrama by confining most of the action to one room. The result is an intellectual chase scene for the mind rather than the body, as the audience watches the police inspector unravel the puzzle of the keys. The success of the film rests with the sound plotting of the script, the fine pacing, and the cinematography. Since there is only one action scene, a stabbing which occurs halfway through the movie, most of the tension is derived from the way Hitchcock first involves the audience in the murder scheme, and then in the efforts to entrap the murderer.
From the beginning it is clear that charming tennis pro Tony Wendice (Ray Milland), is planning to have his beautiful but unfaithful wife, Margot (Grace Kelly), murdered. Tony, who is nothing if not thorough, has been planning her demise for more than a year, ever since he discovered that she was having an affair with Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings), an American television mystery writer. Having married Margot for her money, Tony is now. afraid that she will seek a divorce, thereby depriving him of his luxurious life style.
In the first scenes, Margot, seeing Mark for the first time in a year, explains that she had stopped their correspondence after the one love letter she had saved had been stolen from her purse at Victoria Station six months before. After that she had received two extortion letters, but the money she had sent in payment had never been collected by the blackmailer. She is convinced that Tony knows nothing of their affair.
The audience soon learns that Tony not only knows about the liaison, but that he is also her extortionist. Furthermore, Margot is not the only person he is going to blackmail. Pleading a heavy workload, Tony backs out of the theater engagement he and Margot have planned with Mark. Playing the role of the congenial, unsuspecting husband, he invites Mark to join him at a banquet being held at his club the following night. After Margot and Mark leave, Tony lures Captain Lesgate (Anthony Dawson), a disreputable rogue, over to the apartment. Lesgate, whose real name is Swann, was at Cambridge at the same time as Tony, who even then recognized a soul as unscrupulous as his own. Having followed Lesgate's activities for several months, Tony has now amassed a portfolio of crimes sufficient to convince Lesgate that he must carry out Tony's well-conceived plan, or he will go to jail.
Throughout the film Hitchcock uses a ground-level camera to capture the interaction between the players. As Tony outlines the perfect murder, how ever, the camera shifts overhead to give the audience a godlike perspective. Lesgate is to arrive at 10:37 the following night, take the key from under the carpet of the fifth step of the stairway just outside the apartment door, enter the flat, and hide behind the draperies behind the desk. Tony will excuse himself from the dinner at 10:40 to call his boss, but first will call home. When the phone rings, Margot will get out of bed and come to the desk, where Lesgate will strangle her. He will then whistle into the phone, at which point Tony will hang up and call his boss to support his alibi. When the deed is done, Tony will pay Lesgate a thousand pounds, which he has unobtrusively been saving at the rate of twenty pounds per week.
The next night the camera is returned to the human, fallible level to watch the drama unfold. Much of Hitchcock's brilliance is revealed in the way he manipulates the audience's involvement. When Margot suddenly announces her intention to go to a movie, thereby ruining all of Tony's masterful plan ning, the audience roots for him as he persuades her to stay home. Ironically, his vain suggestion that she clip articles for his scrapbook results in the ultimate failure of his plan, by providing her with the weapon she needs for her own defense. Tony unobtrusively removes her latchkey from her purse and places it under the carpet in the stairway before he and Mark leave for dinner.
When Lesgate enters the apartment that night, Hitchcock uses the tech nique of "film time" to stretch out action which normally would take only a few seconds. The result is an increase in the level of tension as the importance of the events is emphasized. In one of the few cuts outside the apartment, the audience sees that Tony's watch is slow and that Lesgate is about to leave. To the audience's relief, the call comes through just in time, and as Margot answers the phone, Lesgate slips a knotted stocking around her neck and begins violently choking her. The dim lighting creates an ominous atmosphere which emphasizes her agony as she struggles against his superior strength. Suddenly, however, she is able to grasp the scissors on the desk and plunge them into her assailant. In the one truly gruesome shot, Lesgate falls on his back, driving the scissors in deeper.
Tony, realizing that the plan has gone awry, now comes on the line to tell Margot not to call the police until he gets home. Panic-stricken and grateful to hear his voice, Margot follows his instructions. Clever as well as diabolical, Tony quickly alters the plan to make it appear that Lesgate had been blackmailing Margot, who in turn killed him. Tony plants Mark's love letter on Lesgate, removes the latchkey from the victim's pocket and places it in Mar got's purse, and hides a knotted silk stocking in the wastebasket before calling the police.
From here on the tension is derived from a cat-and-mouse game between Tony and Inspector Hubbard (John Williams), an investigator who is the epitome of the British detective. The audience now begins to identify with the inquisitive, perceptive Inspector.
The bewildered Margot is amazed to find that all the evidence is suddenly distorted against her. Tony, as her loyal husband, staunchly defends her on the surface, while subtly providing all the evidence needed to convict her of first-degree murder. He informs the Inspector that he is sure that Margot does not know Lesgate (that is, Swann), but that he had known him briefly in college; he had only seen Swann once since, and that was at Victoria Station six months before. This, together with the love letter found in Les-gate's pocket, makes the blackmail motive for murder very plausible. When the silk stocking is found in the wastebasket, it appears likely that Margot's neck bruises were self-inflicted. The most damning piece of evidence, however, is the fact that the carpet and the condition of Lesgate's shoes prove that he must have come in through the front door, and that she must have let him in.
For the trial, Hitchcock maintains a claustrophobic intensity by using an effective series of close-ups of Margot's face illuminated with colored lights against a neutral backdrop. She is convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. Wiley Inspector Hubbard, however, is bothered'by the fact that Lesgate carried no latchkey, so the day before the sentence is to be carried out, he devises a scheme to unearth new evidence. Hubbard goes to the apartment purportedly to question lbny about the large sums of money he has been spending lately, but during the course of the interview the Inspector manages to switch raincoats with Tony. He suggests Tony drop by the station to pick up some of Margot's possessions. After Tony goes out, Hubbard uses the key inside Tony's raincoat to enter the apartment. Upon returning, he finds that Mark has broken in hoping to find evidence to save Margot.
Inspector Hubbard then initiates step one. Margot is driven to the front door and told to go inside the apartment. The Inspector and Mark wait quietly inside the darkened flat and listen as she enters the building, walks down the hallway, and tries to open the door with the key from her purse. When she is unable to open the door, she walks back outside. Hitchcock heightens the effectiveness of this scene with the use of real tiles in the hallway which emphasize the drama as the footsteps echo and recede.
The police then rush Margot's purse back to the station where Tony soon picks it up. Inspector Hubbard explains to Mark and Margot that the key in her purse was Lesgate's own latchkey and that he has Tony's key. The In¬spector has located Margot's key under the carpet on the fifth step of the stairway; she has proven that she did not know it was there; her fate now rests on proving that Tony does know. The tension mounts as Tony's footsteps are heard in the hallway. He tries the key from Margot's purse; it does not work; he starts out, then stops. Suddenly, he realizes that Lesgate must have returned the key to the step before entering the apartment. He retrieves it, unlocks the door, and turns on the light, illuminating the scene.
Though Hitchcock maintains the theatricality of the production by confining the action to one room, he uses close-ups to capture the terror on the actors' faces which would be missed on stage. Changes in lighting, from the dimly lit attack scene to the symbolic illumination of the villain at the end, add to the atmosphere. Hitchcock's use of color also helps set the mood. Margot is first dressed in lovely colors, she is wearing white when attacked, and as her plight becomes desperate she wears black.
Though most audiences saw Dial M for Murder in the traditional format, it was filmed in Naturalvision, Warner Bros.' version of 3-D. The 3-D format was useful in this case, not for special effects, but for giving the film additional depth and intimacy within the confining set.
Hitchcock, always noted for his inconspicuous appearances in his films, has cleverly worked himself into a reunion picture which Tony shows to Lesgate during their interview.
The performances are generally good. John Williams and Anthony Dawson reenacted their Broadway roles. Williams is well cast as the Scotland Yard-type detective who enjoys unraveling clues. Dawson has made a career out of playing snakelike villain roles. Ray Milland is convincingly pathological as the venal Tony, and Grace Kelly is good at conveying bewilderment and terror. All in all, Hitchcock's talent for creating suspense blends with Fred¬erick Knott's well-crafted plot to provide an interesting and diverting mystery.