Ray Milland in Dial M for Murder (1954)

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, “Dial M for Murder” starred Ray Milland as Tony Wendice, a retired tennnis pro, and Grace Kelly as Margot, his wealthy socialite wife. Bob Cummings played Mark Halliday, an American mystery writer who had an affair with Margot that has been over for some time.

This post is intended for folks who have already seen this film. It reveals the ending and it’s okay to discuss any part of the film in the comments.

The film is set in London and takes place almost entirely at the Wendices’ home. They are having breakfast when the film opens and Margot is reading an article that mentions Mark Halliday’s imminent arrival on the Queen Mary. She meets him and takes him home. Margot has no intention of rekindling their affair. She explains that after Tony retired from tennis, her reasons for being unhappy in her marriage vanished. All Tony knows about them is they met once before when he was in London. Mark is sorry he didn’t get her to leave Tony the year before. Margot says she burned all Mark’s love letters except one. It was stolen and she was sent blackmail demands for 50 pounds. Although she sent the money, it was never claimed. She lets Mark keep the blackmail notes.

They are all supposed to be going to the theatre but when Tony arrives, he begs off. He has work that must be done tonight. While Margot gets her things, Tony invites Mark to a stag party the next night. At this point, there’s no reason to believe Tony knows anything about Margot and Mark’s affair.

Soon, however, we learn that not only does Tony know about the affair, he was the one who sent the blackmail letters to Margot. Tony has concocted an elaborate and perfectly Machiavellian plan to do away with Margot. He would have murdered her himself when he first found out, but he decided that it would be better to get someone else to do it so he can inherit Margot’s money. I like an understandable motive. In comparison, in “Niagara”, Rose’s motive for wanting her husband dead was never quite clear to me. (I thought she could have just divorced him on grounds of mental cruelty and collected alimony.)

Ray Milland and Anthony Dawson in

Swann: “Smart, aren’t you?”

Tony has been shadowing the path of Charles Swann, a petty criminal he’s familiar with from his school days at Cambridge. Under the pretense of buying a car, he lures Swann (who is going by the name Captain Lesgate) to his place and “influences” him into agreeing to murder Margot. Tony is sure Swann will agree to do it “for the same reason that a donkey with a stick behind him and a carrot in front always goes forwards and not backwards.” The “stick” is the suspicious death of a Miss Wallace that Swann can be connected to. The “carrot” is 1,000 pounds. When Swann balks at that measly sum, Tony says it’s only a few minutes work and guarantees there’s no risk of being caught.

Tony has it worked out in minute detail. It’s going down when he’s at the stag party with Mark. He leaves Margot’s key under the carpet on the fifth stair so Swann can get in. Tony is supposed to call at precisely 11 o’clock to get Margot out of bed so Swann can emerge from behind the curtains and strangle her.

Ironically, before Tony and Mark head off to the stag party they have a little conversation about Mark’s detective stories. Margot asks her former loverboy if he really believes in the perfect murder. Mark does, but only on paper “because in stories things usually turn out the way the author wants them to; and in real life they don’t….” Margot was going to go out but Tony convinces her to stay home and work on pasting newspaper clippings in a scrapbook. He helpfully retrieves her scissors from her mending basket.

Those scissors end up in Swann’s back. Margot is badly shaken but still alive. Tony rushes back home, sends Margot to bed and calls the police. Before they arrive, he burns the stocking Swann used and replaces it with one of Margot’s. He also plants the stolen love letter on Swann. If he can’t get rid of her one way, he’ll make it look like she deliberately killed Swann to stop him from blackmailing her. Margot is convicted of murdering Swann and is sentenced to be hanged.

John Williams and Robert Cummings in

Inspector Hubbard: “…may the saints protect us from a gifted amateur!””

The day before the hanging, Mark confronts Tony and presents him with a scenario that could save Margot’s life. The story he wants Tony to tell the police is what really happened in close detail, except Mark doesn’t have an accurate handle on the key business. Tony plays it cool, saying the police will never believe such a wild tale and will know it’s a last ditch effort to save Margot’s neck. However, the police are already on Tony’s trail because he has been spending suspicious amounts of money ever since Margot was arrested. Chief Inspector Hubbard discovered that the key Tony took off Swann’s body and put in Margot’s purse was not the key to the Wendices’ front door. He found the key that was left under the stair carpet and devised a way to prove that only Tony knew it was there.

The film is a shining example of proper British manners at all times. The murder proposition conversation is the most outstanding, but Ray Milland’s sangfroid is something to behold, even when he is cornered. When Mark suggested that Tony should take the rap, he said Tony would only get three years for attempted murder. Even as he was pouring everyone drinks, Tony was probably cooking up some ingenious way to get even less time, if any at all, and making plans to take up with the rich widow, Mrs. Van Dorn, whom Swann was romancing for her money before he ran into a pair of scissors.

Notes on the Cast on page 2

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11 Responses

  1. rhonda says:

    VJ, I can’t believe that Dustin Hoffman is 80 years old! Where does the time go?

    • VJ says:

      Wow, yeah, Rain Man joins the Octogenarian Club as time marches on. When you think that he was born in ’37 and The Graduate came out in ’67, he was almost over the hill already when he made that film. 😉

  2. jacob ska says:

    No matter how many times I watch Dial M for Murder I like it more and more. Ray Milland and his eye movements speak volumes imo. My favorite part of the film is the ending when John Williams (the inspector) dials the phone and combs his moustache. LOL. That says gotcha more than any other movie I’ve seen.

    Hitchcock was a master in directing.

    @Rhonda I saw the movie with Gwyneth Paltrow & Michael Douglas. Didn’t like it. Poor attempt at imitation.

    • rhonda says:

      I agree, Jacob. No one comes even close to Hitchcock in cleverness or suspense.

    • VJ says:

      @Jacob, that bit with the mustache was a fantastic touch, as was the inspector’s annoyance with the “gifted amateur.”

      My very definition of a great movie is what you have said about Dial M — no matter how many times you watch it, you like it more and more.

      I came across a couple of excerpts from Anthony Dawson’s (Swann) unpublished memoirs that concern Dial M online — one about how Hitchcock gave him a heads up that he had the role in the film and another about how he was seeing Grace Kelly until Ray Milland showed up

  3. rhonda says:

    I don’t remember Ray Milland at all in Rich Man, Poor Man, that was such a great miniseries.
    I don’t care much for Gwyneth Paltrow myself. I used to think Michael Douglas was so cute, of course that was nearly 40 years ago when he was in The China Syndrome lol. I haven’t found him at all appealing in many years.

    • VJ says:

      Yeah, that’s what I mean about being fikkle. I thought Michael Douglas was so cute in Streets of San Francisco, and thought he’d be a big screen idol like his dad, but nah. Guess those shoes were too big to fill.

      Milland played the father of that girl, Virginia (Kim Darby), who threw herself shamelessly at Rudy even when he married Julie (Susan Blakely). I loved that mini-series and this other one called “Celebrity” about 3 high school friends with a dark secret. One becomes an actor, one becomes a reporter and the bad one becomes a preacher. That one is so hard to get– they sell it on Amazon for $40 and up, and from the complaints on there, a lot of the sellers are only selling one part. I managed to get one VHS tape many years ago that had all 3 parts for about $36. I doubt if you will ever find that one in the library, but you might find the book by Thomas Thompson. It actually has a better ending than the mini-series.

    • rhonda says:

      That was such a great miniseries. I do remember Kim Darby and who could forget Susan Blakely as Julie?
      I have no recollection at all of the Celebrity miniseries, although I did remember the book when you mentioned it. The library has a copy of the book, but it’s not available to borrow, isn’t that odd?

  4. rhonda says:

    VJ, have you seen A Perfect Murder with Michael Douglas and Gwyneth Paltrow? It was based on Dial M for Murder, a similar premise but not a remake.
    I wonder what Ray Milland was like in real life, he was so smarmy to me in films. Didn’t he play Ryan O’Neal’s father in Love Story?

    • VJ says:

      Yes, Milland did play Ryan O’Neal’s father in Love Story. I remember he also had a role as Rudy’s mentor Duncan Calderwood in the miniseries “Rich Man, Poor Man.”

      I’ve seen clips of A Perfect Murder but never the whole movie. I must admit, I am not a big fan of Gwyneth Paltrow and I’m rather fikkle about Michael Douglas. lol!

      I thought Milland was rather droll in Dial M..