In the UK plays and operas from London are broadcast live to cinemas across the country
in a desperate attempt to
justify all the arts funding going to the capital in a laudable effort to present
the best of the arts to the widest possible audience. Of course, one consequence of this is that
the director must choose where the audiences eyes are looking through his
selection of shot angles and zooms.
Films that closely follow an original play and choose to retain the constraints of the staging – such as Hitchcock’s Dial M For Murder – sink or swim on the skill of the director in framing the shots in a skilful way to avoid the action seeming contrived or television-like in its ambition. Hitchcock does a great job of this and it would be nice if the directors of the streamed operas and plays learned a few lessons from his films.
WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS
What Hitchcock can’t avoid in his close following of the play is the lengthy scenes of explanatory dialogue in the first third of the film, particularly between evil jilted husband, Tony Wendice (Ray Milland), and the slimy spiv he coerces to perform his perfect murder, Robert Cummings (Mark Halliday). Once the scheme is set up, however, things flow more naturally and enjoyably.
Wendice is a retired pro tennis player who married his wife for her money. He is then surprised when he finds she is not in love with him and has found love with another man – and he shows his true colours when his first instinct is to kill his wife in order to receive her money through his will. There is some subtle balancing of character flaws with audience sympathy in this film, because Wendice is an affable, rather likeable character in the Cary Grant mould. The audience instinctively roots for him and hopes he’ll get away with his murder. At the same time, the wife, Margot (Grace Kelly) can’t be blamed for her infidelity given that she was effectively hoodwinked into a loveless marriage. A nice touch that isn’t rammed down our throats is that there are parallels between the respectable Wendice and the conman, Cummings.
Review continues below...
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Cummings and Wendice studied at Cambridge together. Cummings was already performing petty theft at college and after graduation got himself into some adult trouble, leading him to be court marshalled and sent to prison. By following Cummings, Wendice has established that he now supports himself through attaching himself to rich widows, frequently changing his name and skipping rent. But it’s made clear that without the support of friends, and with his criminal record, Cummings has little choice but to support himself through crime. What’s nice is that within a conventional, respectable life, Wendice has been equally morally reprehensible in marrying Margot for his money and subsequently feeling no qualms about murdering her.
Perhaps a more interesting film would have been in exploring the desperation and opportunism of Cummings’ life. Perhaps Margot’s character could have been explored more fully. Perhaps it would have been more satisfying if Wendice had got away with it and the detectives discovered the truth too late, or if he got away with it altogether with a further twist.
But the play was what it was and Hitchcock did a good job of filming it.
Personal Score: 6/10
This is part of a series of film reviews where I give my comments on IMDB Top 250 films as a writer. The idea is that over time these posts will build into a wide-ranging writing resource.
For more details about the approach I've taken, including some important points about its strengths and weaknesses (I make no claims about my abilities as a film critic or even the accuracy of my comments... but I do stand by the value of a writer's notes on interesting films), see my introductory post here.