So much has been written about this film, and indeed every Hitchcock film, it is hard to think of anything worth saying here. I guess the interesting question with most of his films is how much of the finished product is thanks to the source material, and how much is attributable to “the Hitchcock Touch.” The director was known for his nonchalant attitude to the plays and novels that served as the basis for his films. He often made the original stories disappear almost completely, keeping just a few of the central characters and often disposing of even the title, something which raised the ire of more than one writer. In the the case of Dial “M” for Murder, the director hardly touched Frederick Knott’s original play. And so the dialogue, which is excellent, can be credited to Knott. The staging and framing of each shot, though, is pure Hitchcock, and the cinematography complements each utterance of dialogue while also existing on its own, almost as a separate work of art. Peter Bogdanovich relates that Hitchcock said that he had “simply filmed the play,” but in Bogdanovich’s words, that meant the camera always being in the right place at the right time.
At this point in his career, Hitchcock had fought hard to win creative freedom, and he was in the mood to experiment. As with his following film, Rear Window, the action is almost completely confined to a single location. Hitchcock only leaves the London flat to show the gentleman’s club that is crucial to the alibi constructed Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) and to the courtroom scene in which Margot (Grace Kelly) is sentenced to death. The latter scene is handled in a very expressionistic manner, with Margot’s fading sense of hope being portrayed through changing the colors of the lighting. The courtroom, one of the few locations outside of the apartment, is reduced to an abstraction of tinted lighting and shadows. Likewise, Margot’s dresses become more somber as the plot progresses, beginning with a stunning red gown and ending with a drab gray dress under a brown wool cape.