The Key's the Key

It all comes down to a silly little key.

Never mind Grace Kelly in a scarlet dress, her icy blond locks and clipped Philadelphia accent melting before our eyes; never mind Ray Milland's sniveling, scheming husband, all clumsy heft and cuckolded menace; never mind the telephone and the stocking and the scissors, the terrors of domestic life waiting for a "happy" London couple to unravel.

Dial M for Murder, Alfred Hitchcock's claustrophobically brilliant suspense thriller, rests on the kind of throwaway detail a lesser director would toss at us halfway through and never come to reclaim. The key is, punningly enough, the key.

Margot and Tony Wendice (Kelly and Milland) are the kind of couple that has quiet breakfasts with the paper and drinks highballs before dinner, Londoners for whom the prospect of the swinging '60s would seem distinctly uncouth. But their placid lives, enclosed in a small, plush apartment heavy with tans and browns, show the strains of claustrophobia — too many moments shared, too much privacy sacrificed.

One senses a crackling tension in the air, but it's subtly depicted (the fastidious, almost matronly Tony, for instance, constantly tidies up after his glamorous but somewhat slovenly wife). They've been living with the tension for years, it seems, and grown so used to it that it's faded into the background like the sound of a nearby highway: omnipresent but easy to forget before, in an awkward pause, it roars back to life.

Weaving together short scenes of banality with an undertone of terror, Hitchcock has a fine sense of gently neglected domesticity. In Shadow of a Doubt it was the creaking back stairs or the car idling in the garage, in Rear Window the shy neighbor across the courtyard, in Vertigo an old friend's portraiture.

He infuses his films with a silent decrepitude, a foreboding, in which daily life carries with it some prelude to disaster. Boredom, in life as in film, is the cardinal sin. Here, it's the gulf between husband and wife, the massive emotional chasm in a tiny room. By restricting the action to the Wendices' apartment, he includes us in the claustrophobia, gasping for fresh air. There's a staleness in the clean surfaces and perfectly kept surroundings; it's the mausoleum of a failed marriage.

Why the marriage has failed is easier to pinpoint: Tony's an ex-tennis pro who's lost his skill, his income and his masculinity, relying on his wife's money for survival. His obsessive cleaning has an air of housewifery, pinning him to the home while she gallivants about in beautiful gowns with a younger, more attractive man, the novelist Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings). In nearly every way, he's emasculated. And divorce, because of the money, isn't a possibility. So he plans to kill her.

This isn't giving too much away; the film's narrative is deceptively simple. The film is really a chamber drama, taking place, literally, in a single chamber - like a jail cell or an execution room, the death is as much emotional as physical. Take Kelly's wardrobe, the gentle decline from stunning crimson to crummy brown: it's as though she's being absorbed by the apartment, stultified by the entire ordeal. She's so spent she takes up the coarse fabric of her unhappy life and wraps herself in it, trying to make herself disappear.

Despite the complexity of the denouement - watching the scene with the key, one almost fears the possibility of a simple plot hole that would ruin the proceedings — the real story is all Margot, with Kelly striding across the frame as if it were her natural habitat. Her Margot isn't the innocent figurine she might be in less skilled hands: she's cunning and witty and sly, embarking on an affair she knows can lead only to trouble.

A Perfect Murder, director Andrew Davis' paltry 1998 remake of Hitchcock's classic, starring Michael Douglas and Gwyneth Paltrow, is cold and sleek, like a film nerd's science project. But it illuminates the brilliance of Hitchcock's version, the idea that murder (or marriage, for that matter), is less about planning than fortitude. It's about having the strength to see it through to the last, silly little detail, opening the door to breathe the fresh air outside rather than to lock oneself in.

The problem with Tony is his inability to see life as an unkempt apartment, strewn with loose ends: Margot, for him, is just another spot to be wiped away when she's an indelible, unpredictable mark.

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