Films Revisited: Number 1

The Arts

Dial M
This piece is about the difference between suspense and mystery.

It’s BAFTA month, the perfect time to be stuck at home sick with a huge stack of screeners. I try to see most on the big screen but there’s no way you can see them all. So, stricken with man-flu and feeling pathetic, I thumb through a great choice of brand-new movies and put on – ‘Dial M For Murder’.

Why? I have no idea, except that I’m trying to nail the difference between suspense and mystery – and the problem with Hitchcock is that he totally crosses back and forth over the line. On the one hand we have a mystery; a cunning murderer with an opaque plan (all those damned keys!) and some dubious plot devices (he never locks the front door but always locks the lounge – who the hell does that?). On the other hand, we have suspense because we’re privy to more information than the victim.

But the genius of Hitchcock is that he switchbacks us from the charismatic villain (Milland) to the dull hero (Cummings) via Grace Kelly, who is virtually schizophrenic – first seen in virginal white with her husband, and immediately after in lurid red kissing her lover. Who do we root for? Well, Kelly is obviously stunning, but while it’s wrong for her husband to plan her death, why should we care for a blatent adulteress? We do, of course, because individual circumstances override conventional morality. Which is why I’m watching this and not, say, the new Harry Potter.

People should be shown to be perverse and uncontrollable. ‘Dial M’ is packed with tiny character touches – Milland throwing salt over his shoulder, Cummings over-eagerly trying to look through Milland’s cheque-book. Suspense and thrills without an explosion in sight.

7 comments on “Films Revisited: Number 1”

  1. Steve says:

    I don’t think you mean “schizophrenic”, I think you mean someone suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder (formerly know as multiple personality disorder). A schizophrenic is someone who cannot tell the difference between fantasy and reality.
    In any case I couldn’t agree with you more….people are flawed, are contradictory – and that’s what makes us interesting!

  2. Helen Martin says:

    Schizophrenic is not a term still in use. Where this movie is concerned, who cares? It is a marvelous piece of craftwork, and I think suspense is the better word for it, because for most of it the viewer is waiting for what happens next. Waiting is too mild a word; straining toward would perhaps be better.
    (but I enjoy Harry Potter, too. It’s just totally different.)

  3. I.A.M. says:

    Harry Potter plotting the death of Hermione, after she’s had a passionate affair with Ron, and he’s getting Ray Milland to do the killing, using really big laser-guided explosive missiles!

    …plus costumes by Dior.

    Now THERE’s a film, eh?

  4. Helen Martin says:

    And someone will do it, just wait and see. It could take the place of the Rocky Horror Picture Show – and I would go, in costume.

  5. Helen Martin says:

    But it would have to be fake Dior, of course.

  6. Steve says:

    “Schizophrenia, schizophrenia
    I got it, you got it
    We can’t lose
    Acute schizophrenia blues.”

    Ray Davies/The Kinks

  7. Ian Payn says:

    Many years ago, I presented an amateur production of Dial M for Murder. As with most amdram troupes everybody mucked in. I designed the poster. I carefully drew an old dial telephone, with an outstretched finger hovering above. Big letters above the phone screamed “Dial M for…” then in the fingerholes on the dial I had cleverly written the letters M-U-R-D-E-R.

    Or perhaps not that cleverly. One of the so-called actors took one look at it, and expressed surprise that he was appearing in a play called Dial M for Red Rum.

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