Dial M for Murder is a 1954 mystery/thriller film directed by Alfred Hitchcock and based on a play of the same name by Frederick Knott, who also wrote the screenplay adaptation for the movie.
In London, retired tennis player Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) discovers that his wealthy wife Margot (Grace Kelly) is cheating on him with crime author Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings). Tony decides to have her murdered, because he is the inheritor of her will, but if she were to divorce him he'd lose her money. With a mixture of blackmail and reward, he gives the task to Swann (Anthony Dawson), an old classmate of his, whom he knows to be a crook.
Tony creates a plan which he believes to be perfect; however, things go wrong, and Margot manages to kill Swann. Tony is still able to use the situation to his own advantage, making it look as if Margot murdered Swann because he was blackmailing her. It appears to be working, except that Mark doesn't believe she's guilty and the police, led by Chief Inspector Hubbard (John Williams), uncover a few anomalies...
Dial M For Murder was filmed in 3D, but by the time of its release, the 3D fad was dying out, so it had only a brief theatrical run in the format, followed by a conventional, "flat" release. Despite 3D being a gimmick, Hitchcock was able to employ it effectively, without too much distraction from the rest of the film.
The film was remade in 1998, with the title A Perfect Murder.
This film provides examples of:
- Action Survivor: Margot, she's a delicate socialite who was being strangled by a stranger from the back and just when it looks like she's a goner, she pulls a pair of sewing scissors and stabs him in the back with them, killing him and ensuring her survival.
- Affably Evil: Tony. He wants to get rid of his wife while continuing to enjoy her money, but he really doesn't hold a grudge against her for cheating on him. Even after being exposed as the mastermind, he doesn't lose his friendly attitude and even offers the protagonists a drink, with a smile.
- Assassin Outclassin': Margot turns the tables on her hired killer Swann and is able to stab him to death instead.
- Asshole Victim: Downplayed with Swann. While he is a con artist and implied to be a would-be murderer already, he really doesn't want to become Tony's assassin and ultimately agrees largely because Tony's backed him into a corner and is going to ruin his life either way. His death by Margot's hands in self-defense brings the audience no catharsis, not least because her troubles are only just beginning.
- Batman Gambit: Tony's plans rely on exploiting what he understands of the natures and mindsets of the people around him.
- Black Cap of Death: Margot's trial scene ends with the horrified look on her face after the judge puts on his black cap.
- "Blackmail" Is Such an Ugly Word:Tony: I was hoping sooner or later I might catch you at something and be able to...
Swann: Blackmail me?
Tony: Influence you.
- Bottle Episode: Except for a few cutaways, the whole film takes place in the Wendice flat.
- Break the Cutie: Poor, poor Margot. She's almost strangled, then convicted of murder and sentenced to death, then discovers her husband (for whom she had started to renew her love) was the one trying to kill her. By the end, she's surprised at how calm she is over all this, and Mark assures her she'll soon have "the most wonderful breakdown."
- Brutal Honesty: Tony admits to Swann that he married Margot for her money.
- Chekhov's Gun: When Margot wants to go out at the night she's supposed to be killed, Tony persuades her to stay home instead, and finish pasting her newspaper clippings. She forgets to put away the scissors she uses for that, and eventually manages to stab Swann with them.
- Chekhov's Armory: Almost every single detail in the earlier scenes ends up affecting the course of the investigation.
- Colour-Coded for Your Convenience: Margot wears bright colors at the start of the film, then progressively darker ones as time goes on. Even more, she is first seen in white with her husband, then red with her lover Mark.
- Creator Cameo: As usual for Hitchcock, but a particularly clever example — he is in the class reunion photo along with Swann and Tony.
- Curtain Camouflage: The killer hides behind the curtains.
- A Deadly Affair: Initially, Tony plots to have Margot killed for cheating on him with Mark. When this is foiled by Margot killing the would-be murderer in self-defense, he switches to framing her for murder instead.
- Dramatic Irony: After Margot is found guilty and sentenced to death, Mark comes to Tony with a plan to exonerate her; Tony will go to the police and confess to hiring Swann to murder Margot, clearing her and sending Tony to jail in her place (though Mark points out that while Margot is accused of premeditated murder, Tony would only be guilty of attempted murder, so he would likely get jail time instead of an execution). What Mark doesn't know (but we and Tony do) is that this is precisely what happened — which leads to the irony of Mark trying to convince Tony to confess to a crime (that Mark believes Tony didn't commit) to save his beloved wife (who Tony actually wants dead).
- Dutch Angle: Used when Swann is waiting at the desk and then concealing himself behind the curtain.
- Faking and Entering: Disguising a premeditated murder by making it look as if the victim discovered a robbery in progress and the robber panicked.
- The Film of the Play: With Anthony Dawson (Swann) and John Williams (Hubbard) reprising their roles from the Broadway production.
- For Want Of A Nail: If Tony's watch hadn't stopped working, odds are his scheme would've played out as he intended.
- We get a lingering closeup of Swann as Tony says that he'd thought of killing Margot, but he saw something that completely changed his mind. A few minutes later, Tony explains that what he saw was Swann himself.
- Mark says that if he tried to commit the perfect murder, he'd make some mistake and never realize it until everyone was looking at him. This is what happens to Tony. He even acknowledges that Mark was right.
- Fourth Wall Psych: The famous courtroom tableau where Margot stares straight at us in a tight close-up as the events of the trial speed by in front of her.
- Graceful Loser: Tony. After a brief moment of shock when he's eventually caught, he calmly congratulates everyone and pours them some liquor.
- Gold Digger: Tony is a male example, as he married Margot for her money. She, however, as opposed to most Meal Tickets is young and beautiful.
- Ignored Epiphany: We see Tony's face when he listens to the murder of his wife over the phone, and he seems uncomfortable and even remorseful to actually have the deed done. But when he has the chance to try to scrub the whole thing under the rug, he instead chooses to rapidly try to frame her as a murderess to get rid of her anyway.
- I Have Many Names: Swann is also known as Captain Lesgate, Mr. Adams, and Mr. Wilson. Hubbard admits that he isn't sure what his actual name is.
- I Need a Freaking Drink: Tony takes a swig of liquor after Mark and Hubbard leave, since he's a total bundle of nerves over how close they came to figuring out what actually happened.
- Improvised Weapon: Margot stabs Swann with her scissors.
- And he was trying to strangle her with a scarf.
- The Joy of X: The title is frequently parodied.
- Key Under the Doormat: The key under the staircase carpeting is a key plot point.
- Killing in Self-Defense: Margot manages to stab Swann while he's trying to strangle her.
- Lady in Red: Margot wears a sexy red dress when she meets with Mark.
- Laser-Guided Karma: For all four main characters. Swann is a con-man who attempts murder, which gets him killed in self-defense. Margot starts out as a spoilt upper-class lady who cheats on her husband; she survives attempted murder and death row, but gets redemption in the end (and probably reparations for miscarriage of justice), and gets rid of Tony. Tony is rightfully indicted for having plotted the murder of his wife, and tried to set her up for murder. Though Mark has an affair with his friend's wife, he is the most honest character; he solves the case in the end, and will probably end up as Margot's companion.
- Lingerie Scene: Margot is in her nightgown when she's attacked. In the original script, she was to put a robe on, but Grace Kelly argued that a woman who thinks she's alone would have no reason to do that.
- Miscarriage of Justice: Margot is found guilty and sentenced to death for the premeditated murder of Swann.
- Mystery Writer Detective: Double Subverted — Mark, a crime mystery writer, manages to independently formulate Tony's murder plot entirely by accident. Rather than trying to solve the crime, Mark thinks of a story that Tony can tell the police to exonerate Margot, which just so happens to be exactly what transpired, approaching Tony with the idea under the assumption that Tony (who Mark thinks is innocent) will do anything to save his wife. However, Mark quickly realizes that his fabricated plan was what actually happened.
- Oh, Crap!: The look on Tony's face when he turns on the lights and sees Mark, Margot, and Hubbard standing in the apartment is priceless.
- Paddleball Shot: The famous shot where Kelly reaches out to the camera as she's being strangled (see the poster above) was originally a Paddleball Shot taking advantage of the 3-D.
- Pay Evil unto Evil: Tony blackmails Swann into trying to murder his wife, but Swann is a career criminal and murderer himself, so he's far from an innocent victim.
- The Perfect Crime: Tony wants to commit the perfect murder; he even asks Mark if he believes in it. Mark says that it's possible on paper, but not in real life.
- Police Are Useless: One of Hitchcock's favorite tropes, but notably subverted here; the police officers at first seem to fall for Tony's manipulations and arrest Margot, but Chief Inspector Hubbard (John Williams) eventually solves the case. Near the film's climax, he even scolds Mark for nearly blowing the case.Hubbard: They talk about flatfooted policemen. May the saints protect us from the gifted amateur.
- Pretty in Mink: Margot wears a brown fur wrap for a date.
- Reverse Whodunnit: The audience knows from the beginning that Tony is behind everything.
- Sarcastic Confession: Tony gets overconfident and makes the mistake of giving one to Hubbard.
- Shear Menace: Margot manages to kill Swann by stabbing him with a pair of scissors. The initial stab may not have been fatal, but Swann stumbled and fell to his back, pushing the scissors all the way in.
- Shout-Out: A clever little one to Strangers on a Train (which Hitch made three years before, in 1951), when Mark is talking about how he would plot the perfect murder, and he alludes to a possible scenario involving a tennis champ (like Tony — or like Guy in Strangers).
- Sleeping Single: Tony and Margot have separate beds.
- Spanner in the Works:
- Tony eventually fails, because he underestimates the intelligence of Swann. To elaborate, he expected Swann to keep the key to entering the office in his pocket, and he swiped it out when he was cleaning up after Margot's self-defense kill (to frame her). In reality, Swann placed the key back where he had found it and Tony took Swann's own house key instead, not finding out until it was too late, which put the police on his trail.
- Margot ruins Tony's assassination plan because he got her to stay home by insisting she do some clipping, resulting in her leaving the scissors out to use as an improvised weapon during a struggle, forcing him (even if rather smoothly) to frame her for Swann's murder instead when she manages to kill Swann.
- Speech-Centric Work: Most of the film consists of people talking. It was, after all, adapted from a stage play.
- Tempting Fate: Tony literally guaranteeing to Swann that he faces no risk.
- This Is Reality: Near the end, Mark is desperate to save Margot from being executed and comes to Tony with an idea he's worked out of how Tony could claim he had been trying to kill Margot and spend a few years in prison in exchange for saving her life. Unknowingly, he proceeds to outline almost the exact same plan that Tony actually used. Tony says that nobody would believe a story like that.
- Tragic Villain: Not Tony, but Swann, who Tony basically stalked, then blackmailed into going along with his plan, only to have Tony mess up on a couple fronts. The end result is Swann gruesomely dying when scissors get jabbed into his back.
- Unspoken Plan Guarantee: Considering that the audience sees Tony spend several minutes/almost an entire act (in the original play) explaining to Swann the plan to murder Margot, is it any wonder that it ends up badly?
- Villain Protagonist: Tony, who notably doesn't have any moments that try to humanize him or suggest he was acting out of desperation.
- Within Arm's Reach: When Swann tries to strangle Margot she spots a pair of scissors and has to stretch to reach them and stab him to death.
- Wrongly Accused: Due to Tony's manipulations, Margot is accused of murdering Swann for blackmailing her over her affair.
- Xanatos Speed Chess: One of the great film examples, when Tony manages to turn Swann's death to his advantage.