Stay Classy: Dial M for Murder

Maybe you’ve never heard of it. Maybe you’ve always wanted to see it. Or maybe you’re just tired of the new. Whatever your reason, the classics are always worth a nod. Every Friday in Stay Classy, we look some of the films that started it all and how they hold up today. So sit back while we reel through the past.

Photo: source unknown

Modern suspense has nothing on Dial M for Murder. In newer suspense films, you yell at the screen. You tell the police officers where the weapon was hidden or where the body is buried or whodunit. Then the cops walk right by it, inches away from it, and walk on past. In Dial M for Murder, you hold your breath. You don't want to speak and you don't want to miss a word. You can almost feel your pulse as they crawl closer and closer to the truth. This is real suspense that somehow, over the course of 66 years, has gone missing.

In Dial M for Murder, Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) finds out his wife, Margot (Grace Kelly), has been cheating on him through a letter he finds in her purse from her lover, Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings). After much thought, he decides that the only logical action is to kill her, but he won't do it himself. He devises a very detailed plan to go down the next night. The night of the planned murder, things start to go wrong, and that's just the start of it. You should also be forewarned that after watching this film, I may be speaking in a rather 1950s murder-mystery tone of speech. Ahem, yes.

The most beautiful part of this film is the coldness that Milland gives Tony. He wants to kill his wife and it is simply so. He explains to a friend that the day he found the letter from his wife's lover he went to a bar and tried to think of what to do. "I thought of three different ways of killing him. I even thought of killing her. That seemed a far more sensible idea," he says as calmly as if he were giving the time. He's clearly insane and fools everyone around him but in this scene, we get a peek at how frightening he is underneath.

Kelly plays the beautiful pawn-of-a-wife. Poor Margot, she's so frail and easy to take advantage of. She's the obedient wife who falls into her own murder plot, more than once. Kelly really makes us feel for her toward the end when Margot confronts her feelings. Sort of. You'll see.

What really makes this film though is the story written by Frederick Knott, originally as a play for television. It's nothing like you could come across today. It begins as a simple narrative, Tony's plot to murder his wife. Then it's layered by the actual plot going through and finally by the aftermath. The entire film is supported by one scene and the rest of the film is that scene's dissection. This is not like Memento or Donnie Darko, where you know things are related but it's not really clear. This film seems to be held together by a much stronger, almost poetic thread.

For a film from the 50s, it's also unpredictable. Maybe it's because we're so used to the modern take that we expect the film to play out like a modern thriller should, but it doesn't. We don't know what's coming next. We don't know who will knock on the door. We don't know who knows what. We feel like we should know everything because we've seen the crime but we know nothing.

It's also such a driving story that you don't even realize that almost the entire film takes place in the same apartment living room. The story moves, characters move and everything unravels, in pretty much the same space. Maybe that's partly what adds to its charm: it's simplicity.

It's such a beautifully-crafted story that it shouldn't have been remade in 1998. In a perfect world, this film should have remained untouched but re-watched generation after generation.

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