Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Dial M for Murder


Starring: Ray Milland, Grace Kelly, Robert Cummings, John Williams, Anthony Dawson

Rated PG (for a Scene of Violence...I Guess)

It takes a special kind of talent to be good enough to have an entire genre named after you.  While Alfred Hitchcock didn't invent the thriller, he created a template to which many are matched up.  Hitch was capable of greatness (he has more than a few masterpieces to his name, and a few that are just below that), but not everything he did worked.  "Dial M for Murder" is one of them.  While it's a smart little thriller, it falls apart at the end.

Tony Wendice (Milland) has a problem.  His wife Margot (Kelly) is cheating on him and he wants to get rid of her.  The problem is that she comes from a hell of a lot of money, and he's grown accustomed to a certain level of living.  So he decides to blackmail an old schoolmate named Charles Swann (Dawson) into committing the perfect murder.  But as brilliant as his plan is, it goes wrong and he's forced to improvise.  But he's got two forces against him: his "friend" Tony (Cummings) who is Margot's real lover, and a police inspector (Williams) who won't go away.

No one who watches this movie will be surprised to learn that this was adapted from a play.  Hitch and playwright Frederick Knott made the decision not to open up the story, which makes sense considering that this is more about psychological mind games rather than action.  But there's an intimacy on stage between the actors and the audience that can't be replicated on screen, and Hitch isn't able to find a substitute.  As it is, the film loses its energy and seems to drag.

The acting varies.  Leading the pack is Ray Milland.  A popular box office draw (not least because he won an Oscar for playing an alcoholic in the groundbreaking Billy Wilder drama "The Lost Weekend"), Milland is delicious as the man without morals.  On the surface Tony is a polite and intelligent man, but beneath there is nothing but rot.  Grace Kelly is flat; Kelly was as good an actress as she was a great beauty, but she's rarely convincing here.  Light character actor Robert Cummings is quite good as the lover, although he doesn't have much to do other than look attractive, act dumb and be a sounding board.  John Williams (no relation to the famed composer) is excellent as Inspector Hubbard.  He's smart and perceptive, but also able to know when to play dumb in order to manipulate his quarry and get the job done.  Williams won a Tony for playing the role on Broadway and recreated the role on screen.

This was not a passion project for Hitch.  He was forced to do it by Warner Bros. to fulfill his contractual obligations, and he directed it with due passion-which is to say, not much.  He claimed that he could have phoned in the direction and the film wouldn't have been any less interesting had he staged it in a phone booth.

Better follow Hitch's idea and rent something else.

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