Sunday, 24 May 2020

Dial M for Murder by Frederick Knott

Dial M for Murder isn't considered to be one of Alfred Hitchcock's greatest movies, but I loved it, and it's now one of my favourites.

Because while it's true this may not be great Hitchcock, Dial M for Murder is a great stage play — a masterpiece of suspense and surprise — and Hitchcock did a fine job of adapting it to the screen.

The play was written by Frederick Knott and it is considered one of the all time great stage thrillers, listed by Ira Levin in Deathtrap as being up there with Sleuth and Angel Street (aka Gaslight) — and, I should add, Deathtrap itself.

Not to mention Agatha Christie's masterpieces, The Mousetrap, Witness for the Prosecution and Go Back for Murder.

I've been making a study of these classic theatrical thrillers and Dial M for Murder was next on my list. I'm looking to get a copy to read, but meanwhile I wanted to see Hitchcock's film, so I ordered the Blu-Ray.

The movie was originally released in 3D and indeed the Blu-Ray had a 3D option — if I had all the appropriate kit (I don't). 

But, more importantly, it had a very useful documentary detailing the origins of Dial M for Murder.

I'd always thought it was an American play and had originated on Broadway. Far from it...

Frederick Knott was a British writer who had worked for Hammer Films and the 'M' in the title stands for Maida Vale, a London suburb where the BBC has long had studios — highly appropriate. 

Because Dial M for Murder began its long life as television play on the BBC TV anthology series Sunday Night Theatre in March 1952. 

Apparently Knott had originally written it for the stage, but it had been "turned down by seven London producers." More fools, they.

Within three months of appearing on television, the play was on stage at the Westminster Theatre in London — and four months later it was on Broadway.

Dial M for Murder was a smash hit (what morons those seven producers were) and by 1954 it was being filmed by Hitchcock. 

Nice going, Frederick Knott. (And screw you, Seven Stupid Producers.)

It's difficult to discuss too much about Dial M without revealing the fantastic, twisting snake's-nest of a plot devised by Knott (a perfect name for this writer, by the way).

Essentially, though, it's the story of a love triangle — Tony, a former professional tennis player is married to the wealthy Sheila. But she is in love with Max, a crime writer.

But very little is what it seems as Frederick Knott unleashes a serpentine series of plot twists involving blackmail, murder, a deadly phone call, a crucially important housekey and a miscarriage of justice...

Which will take both Max the crime writer and Inspector Hubbard the cop to puzzle it out.

Or to put it differently, it's the story of a perfect murder which almost succeeds...

When I wasn't squirming with suspense, I was laughing out loud with pleasure.

Although the trappings of Hitchcock's film (for instance, the phoney back-projection) are dated, the essential story remains fresh and powerful. 

And Hitchcock's approach with successful plays was to do the very minimum to make them filmic... essentially he wanted to preserve the nature of the stage experience.

A very smart move, because Frederick Knott's play is simply brilliant.

Knott would go on to write very little else — notably two other suspense thrillers for the stage, Write Me a Murder in 1960 and Wait Until Dark, another massive hit, in 1966.

I remember the movie of Wait Until Dark scaring the heck out of me on TV when I was a little kid.

I may have to watch that next.

(Image credits: The retro airbrushed looking poster of the telephone dial with the bloody fingerprint — my favourite — is apparently a modern specimen by Clark Orr and is from Pinterest. The genuinely vintage 1950s posters are from Etsy ("Is that you, darling?") and Heritage Auctions ("Better let it ring"). The vintage blue horizontal poster is from Amazon. The silhouette of Hitchcock with the phone dial on him is designed by Monster Planet and is from Redbubble. The red poster with the hanging phone is from eBay UK. The French poster (entitled "The Crime Was Almost Perfect") with the blue key is from Original Film Art. The other French poster is from the Official Alfred Hitchcock Facebook page. The Italian poster is also from Original Film Art. The poster by Suzanne Powers (red stain on a grey background) is from Fine Art America. The pale blue theatre poster is from Bygone Theatre. The purple poster is from Ten Blade Media.)


  1. I love the actual murder sequence. The stocking. The way we see his face behind hers. The scissors... And the mechanical telephone exchange. Before Mrs T privatised the phones the Post Office had open days to encourage us to buy shares and I remember seeing a massive enormous room of such machines clicking away... It's such a good plot device too that she saves herself only to become... It's a bit like Columbo... We know who did it the tension is in will they get away with it.

  2. I couldn't agree more. And the retro phone technology is just one more reason to like this film! Thank you for commenting!