Dial M for Murder ★★★★

2017 movie viewings, #125. I'm 48 this year, which means that with some luck and some good health insurance, I can reasonably expect to live another 50 years in a best-case scenario; and that should hopefully give me just enough time to become a "completist" of such prolific directors as Woody Allen and Alfred Hitchcock, or in other words someone who has legitimately seen every movie these directors have ever made. (Of all the directors over the last century with ten or more films in their oeuvre, I'm currently only a completist of a handful of them, including David Lynch, Ben Wheatley, Todd Solondz and a few others.) My current Hitchcock total is 10 out of 54 full-length features, now 11 that I've watched 1954's Dial M for Murder, picked in this case simply because it was about to leave Netflix's streaming service last month.

It's one of his "stagy" movies from the Mid-Century-Modernist era, which also includes such better-known titles as Rope and Rear Window; based on the hugely popular play from just the previous year by Frederick Knott (who adapted it for Hitchcock himself), the movie version is essentially filmed just like a stage play too, a kind of stilted but yet lovely relic of the 1950s that it's a shame we don't see more of anymore in contemporary films. Like so many of Hitchcock's projects from this period, it's a dark and convoluted tale, in which a professional tennis player (Ray Milland, still basking in the glow of his Oscar win for The Lost Weekend) cooks up a plan to kill his wife (Grace Kelly) for having an affair with a hardboiled crime author (Robert Cummings), a deliberately complicated caper because he wants to simultaneously prove how much more clever he is than the philandering writer and the police assigned to investigate; the first half of the movie sets up the crime and witnesses it take place, while the second half basically sees the whole thing unravel, as it turns out that the police and the crime author are much smarter than Milland ever anticipated.

Like many of Hitchcock's more stagy productions, you're here mostly to watch a great story get told, not necessarily for great visuals; The Birds this is not, which of course is just fine, because Hitchcock was such a master of mood and pacing that he didn't always need flashy visuals to make a compelling movie. Of course, in those films where he did marry a great story with great visuals, it tended to result in the highlights of his career; and that's why films like Vertigo and Psycho tend to be the must-sees that casual fans turn to as their first-ever Hitchcock experiences, while a movie like Dial M for Murder tends to be a more obscure one that makes most people frown and go, "Oh, yeah, I've heard of that movie, I think." That's the best attitude to take when watching this yourself, to not expect Hitchcock at his very best, but to still delight in what turns out to be a solid and engripping movie that's certainly worth the time of a Saturday night Hitchcock double feature. (I myself suggest pairing it with a late-period movie like 1969's Topaz, as an interesting exercise in seeing what 15 years and the birth of the Countercultural Era ended up doing to Hitchcock as a director.) Recommended, but only for the serious Hitchcock fan, not someone just starting out.

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