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Dial M expresses criminal intrigue with fine film craft


LSC Classics.

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

Starring Ray Milland and Grace Kelly.

10-250, Friday at 7:30 p.m.

By Carolyn L. Phillips

In Dial M for Murder, Alfred HItchcock, the ultimate master of plot twists, explores the question of how to create a perfect crime. In this case, of course, the crime is murder.

Ray Milland plays the husband who plots how to murder his wife. A former tennis star who married his socialite wife for her money, Ray Milland's character decides to arrange the death of his wife so that he might inherit her fortune. He's also annoyed she's been cheating on him. Since it would certainly be counterproductive if the murder was pinned on him, Ray Milland has to plan the murder so that he is personally free from all suspicion.

Pause to consider what sort of planning this would take. Doing it yourself is needlessly risky. Not to mention that best alibi will always be the truth. Therefore, a substitute murderer of unscrupulous nature must be convinced to perform the crime. Then every step must be intricately planned, every detail scrutinized like your worst nightmare of a problem set. Then relax and watch your crime unfold. But, as in the ancient saying, "The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry."

Ray Milland's character is a cerebral and appealing character. The audience clearly sees the evil and cruelty in Ray's personality, but still has a sneaking desire to root for him anyway. In fact, were it not for the bitterly cruel trap he lays for his wife in the second half of the picture, we would be tempted to really like the guy. Perhaps this is because Alfred HItchcock himself always seemed enamored with his criminals. Although they are almost always foiled in the end, it seems as if they shouldn't be. Their plans are so perfect. And that the law could catch such perfectionists seems strange in light of the recent embarrassment of the LAPD. (It might be noted that this is one of the few pictures by Hitchcock where the law isn't a bumbling idiot.)

Hitchcock planned every camera angle setting and prop so carefully that by time the scene actually was shot, the great master himself would be found asleep in his director's chair. He had run through it so many times in his head that the actual filming was boring. This is the film about which Alfred made his most famous quote. After being shown a section of film, Hitchcock ordered the scene to be reshot. Everything was perfect except one thing: the murder weapon. "The scissors don't gleam," he said. "Scissors that don't gleam are like asparagus without bearnaise sauce."

The wife is played by Grace Kelly, who later became the Princess of Monaco. Grace Kelly was an actress who always played pathetic, aristocratic characters who are victimized by someone close to them. Grace Kelly oozes blue blood and vulnerability on the screen.

At first we are tempted to dislike her because she is cheating on her husband. But when we see how devoid of love her marriage is, we sympathize a little more. The scene in which she foils her husband's first plan in a way he could have never predicted endeared her permanently to my heart. But still, the eventual outcome of her character remains a mystery through the whole movie, especially considering how the era in which this movie was created would consider death a fitting and moral end for a woman who cheated on her husband. (If you don't believe me, watch a movie called Wild Heart made in 1950.)

Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder is an example of pure and classic Hitchcock. One difference between it and most typical mysteries is that we explore a perfect crime from the inside, knowing ahead of time what the plan is. Unlike an Agatha Christie novel, where an unbelievably complex solution is provided in the last 10 pages, the audience knows the complex method from the start. We watch in suspense to see if it is actually going to work and then in dread that it actually might.

Hitchcock's fine attention to detail and his skill at creating unforeseen plot twists is why Dial M for Murder is one of my favorite movies ever. And by the way, don't forget to watch for Hitchcock's cameo.