There is a lot to admire about Alfred Hitchcock's "Dial M for Murder," and I do hold the film with a great deal of admiration and respect. However, what I adore about the movie the most (more than the cinematography, the suspense, the acting, and even the direction) is the work by screenwriter Frederick Knott. Mr. Knott based the screenplay for "Dial M for Murder" on his successful stage production, which I have never seen, but am told contains almost all of the words we hear in the film. And the words are music to the ears. They sing with intelligence, wit that Mr. Hitchcock certainly found attractive, and, best of all, an easy transition to the screen. Many times when a stage production goes to film, as far as I am concerned, the results, even if good, are uneven. Frequently, the dialogue and restricted set space allowed tend to give off the impression of a filmed play, not a cinematic experience. Another Hitchcock film, 1948's "Rope," though valiant, interesting, and successful, attempted this and suffered from this difficult struggle.
But the dialogue, put on film here, is exceptional. I write this review having seen "Dial M for Murder" two or three times and wanting to see it once again. Many reviewers, myself included, have tried watching films with the sound off. I want to try the opposite. I want to close my eyes and just listen to the dialogue because it's so strong. The MacGuffin conversation at the beginning, with a perfectly cast Ray Milland blackmailing a perfectly cast Anthony Dawson into murdering a perfectly cast Grace Kelly is brilliantly written by Mr. Knott. It was clearly from a stage production, as it explains the plot background in great detail, and goes on for the better part of twenty minutes. Both men are fleshed out, giving us their personalities and individual tendencies. And even though "Dial M for Murder" pretty much stays on just one small set (an apartment in London, in which we see mostly the foyer, a little of the bedroom, and just a glimpse of the kitchen), what happens there is so fascinating that we do not really want to venture out into the city.
And that is just the setup. The dialogue remains insistently interesting and clever throughout the picture. It also has that subtle, dark sense of humor that Alfred Hitchcock was keen on. It also has the ironic touches, such as when Mr. Milland, as the jealous husband, kisses his unfaithful wife on the night she is to be murdered, and tells her: "Goodbye, my dear." The audience, having been given every single little detail about the scheme and how it is to unfold, cringes with a dark realization that Mr. Hitchcock might just go through with Mr. Milland's plot. Mr. Hitchcock, as the director, is also due tremendous credit for his trademark of creating tension. Screenwriter Knott brilliantly lays out for the audience, not the victim, how the murder will go through, but Mr. Hitchcock's camera dutifully follows everything as the scheme goes along. And, before we realize it, if something starts to go wrong, we become scared and tense. And you can imagine my guilt when I realized I was feeling scared that a plan to murder someone just might not go through. It's Mr. Hitchcock's gift at work.
Dimitri Tiomkin, a very good film composer, hits all the write notes; that includes knowing when he needs to tell his violins and trumpets to shut up. Robert Burks' cinematography is also strong with effective usage of shadows and streaks of light. Colors are omnipresent. And even though "Dial M for Murder" was shot with the intent to be seen in 3D, it is hardly evident. When I first saw the film, in much superior 2D, I did not mind the lamps and such in the foreground, such as when one bisects the screen between Ray Milland and Anthony Dawson during the opening sequence. I just thought it was a clever piece of filmmaking and misc en scene, not a cheap gimmick like in most 3D movies today. "Dial M for Murder" is a near-perfect movie of its kind, pumped full of smart dialogue and dazzling energy. This is one of the few play-to-movie transition that I have seen where I have suddenly become eager to see the original stage production.