Dir. Alfred Hitchcock
(1954, PG, 105 min)

Dial M for Murder is too clever by half. It starts, as many Hitchcock films do, with a deliciously tense setup: retired tennis player Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) invites an old college acquaintance over to discuss buying a car, but, in a scene that lasts almost half an hour, their discussion gradually, insidiously shifts into a discussion of Tony’s plan to murder his wife, Margot (Grace Kelly), who is cheating on him with American writer Mark (Robert Cummings). He has considered every detail, and the excitement of the first half is observing his meticulous preparations and watching them come apart in subtle ways; one can plan for everything but the unpredictable nuances of human behavior. Where many movie schemes are dependent on everyone to behave exactly as they must, this film derives its pleasure from watching Tony improvise; like a dancer he gracefully shifts from one desired result to another.

But the film loses steam in the second half with the introduction of Chief Inspector Hubbard (John Williams); a character of negligible personality, he exists to deduce facts and move the story forward. Both Hubbard and Mark start to suspect Tony of wrongdoing, but as the walls start to close in my interest flagged. Mark, who writes detective novels, figures out too much too fast, and Hubbard sets a trap that is curiously lacking in dramatic tension. I think maybe the point of view is wrong; the first half of the film assumes Tony’s perspective, and I found myself in sympathy with him, always on the razor’s edge between success and failure, concealment and discovery. When we switch to Hubbard’s POV, there is much less at stake. Will the spider catch the fly? It seemed pretty obvious to me, and the logical contortions are so excessive that finally I lost interest. All the pieces of the puzzle fit, but it’s unnecessarily convoluted, like using advanced calculus to prove that two plus two equals four.

 

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