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The Times (19/Jul/1954) - Ingenious plot for Mr Hitchcock: Dial M for Murder

(c) The Times (19/Jul/1954)

The Arts


Mr. Frederick Knott's thriller Dial "M" for Murder, written for television and afterwards adapted for the stage, has now reached the screen and is to be seen at the Warner Cinema. In each transition it seems to have undergone the minimum of alteration for a different medium. For this there is one main reason: the ingenious plot is necessarily tied down to a single room and to long passages of verbal duelling between any two or three of the five characters who are virtually the entire cast. Even in the cinema there are very few opportunities for the action to get out and about, and the dependence of the film on words makes it unusually difficult for Mr. Alfred Hitchcock to give the production as a whole his characteristic subtle touch.

How satisfactory it would have been if Mr. Hitchcock had created that sense of claustrophobia which would have enabled the audience to share the mixture of exhilaration and fear in the criminal on the alert which is one of the curious pleasures to be had from watching detective films. The use of colour, too, hardly helps; the bright interior simply refuses to brood. But the real difficulty with which Mr. Hitchcock has to deal is only apparent in the final scene. What made Dial "M" for Murder the most successful play of its kind since Ten Minute Alibi 20 years ago was the ingenuity of the puzzle we are invited to solve; at what point has the homicidal husband (Mr. Ray Milland) made his fateful mistake? In the cinema the director's problem is how to preserve the puzzle in all its ingenuity and how to serve at the same time, as far as possible, the peculiar requirements of the film. It may be that there is no perfect reconciliation of the two; that a kind of exercise in applied mathematics and the emotional tension of the chase are fundamentally incompatible; and that the best that may be hoped for is a compromise. At all events Mr. Hitchcock's many admirers will be disappointed to find that in his care to be lucid he has merely become obvious and thus weakened the crowning effect of the tension so carefully built up in the rest of the film. Mr. Robert Cummings is the writer of crime stories, and Mr. John Williams the all-important police-inspector, a policeman in whom, for once, one can believe.