DIAL “M” FOR MURDER: Take the Call


Did you miss the film of DIAL “M” FOR MURDER when it was released in 3-D?

Probably, for it debuted in 1954. Since then you might have taken the opportunity to don cardboard glasses when a film-revival house or a festival screened the Hitchcock classic in its originally intended medium.

If you’ve always missed it, you now have another chance to see DIAL “M FOR MURDER in 3-D — albeit in a very different format.

That is, on stage.

For The Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, Pennsylvania is doing Frederick Knott’s big hit of the 1952-53 season. When it ended its run at the Booth Theatre, it was the second-longest-running thriller in Broadway history.

Max Halliday is visiting Margot Wendice in her London home. They’d been illicit lovers, but Margot has ended the relationship. In the past year, husband Tony has been wonderfully attentive which he hadn’t been for a while. Now Margot feels that because of Tony’s newfound devotion, he deserves a second chance and that she can no longer cheat on him.

Tony, however, intends to cheat Margot out of her life. He’s known about the affair for some time. (“Phone calls ended abruptly when I walked into the room,” he tells an old college chum.) After he found incontrovertible proof, Tony became utterly adorable to Margot while concocting a plan to murder her.

We hear what he’s devised in great detail, and it does sound to be the perfect crime. He’s also got an excellent alibi up his sleeve that’s right next to his black heart.

You’d think with his every-base-covered planning that he was a writer of detective stories. No, that’s what Max does for a living. Max starts the play by telling Margot of his new career in writing for this brand-new medium called television. Most of his murder stories, he says, involve jealousy, revenge and money.

Those three are certainly true of Tony, who’ll also inherit a bundle with Margot out of the way. He plans the murder for tomorrow night. (Yes – in the best plays, things happen fast.)

Listen and look carefully – which you must always do with thrillers. You’ll then note that Tony’s way of getting Margot to stay home so she can be murdered will actually contribute to the failure of his seemingly foolproof plan.

Knott himself acknowledges in early dialogue that the thriller is somewhat of a bastard child in the theatrical realm. However, he has Max insist that “there’s no reason why a murder story can’t be as good as anything else.”

The playwright proves that to be quite true here. Yet Knott wasn’t merely expert in writing a feverishly good plot; he knew how to create characters. Inspector Hubbard gives Margot one pointed question after another that points to her guilt. Margot knows that she didn’t do anything ostensibly wrong but her inability to prove it frustrates her into anger and panic – which makes her look even more guilty.

Olivia Gilliatt admirably handles this simmering-to-a-boil. On Anna Louizos’ regrettably worse-for-wear set – the Wendices are supposed to have money, remember – Gilliatt also displays a firm English accent that accents Margot’s high-born background. She looks superb in the dress that Tristan Raines designed for her; it’s a virtual gown that women of this class tended to wear even when home.

Gilliatt’s best moment comes when Tony tells Margot that he had fallen asleep quickly after the worst night of her life. “I know you did,” she says icily, as she starts to suspect that event may not have been as accidental as it seems on the surface.

Inspector Hubbard certainly wants to get to the bottom of this. The excellent Graeme Malcolm shows the experience of a man on the job for a long time. While he investigates, his attitude is utterly professional; although he suspects that Margo is responsible for what has happened, he’ll consider her innocent until proven guilty. All the while, though, he reserves the right to suspect that she may be lying.

Grant Harrison is able to make Captain Lesgate, Tony’s one-time classmate, a man to whom bad things have happened and not an inherently evil person. Similarly speaking, Clifton Duncan, although responsible for Tony’s cuckolding, comes across as a good guy, too. As he tries to figure out what really happened, he shows his experience with murder mysteries and becomes increasingly secure in his assumptions.

JD Taylor shows Tony’s narcissism when he gets tremendously annoyed after Inspector Hubbard spells his name incorrectly. However, director Mike Donahue apparently is taking no chances that we wouldn’t hate Tony for planning a murder. He’s directed Taylor to be a smarmy and jolly smart-ass so we’ll root for his defeat.

Whether or not we’ll get it seems questionable right to the final curtain. And that’s part of the suspenseful fun.

Knott could have given Tony any of a number of occupations, but one might wonder if he chose him to be a former tennis star because his play is almost a tennis match in itself. We look from one side of the stage to another as one character asks a searing question and another on the other side gives as good an answer – or as deft a lie – as possible.

After more than two hours, there’s a point when everyone exits and the stage is left empty. So why didn’t the theatergoers applaud in assuming that the play was over? No, they had a feeling there’d be more to come. Knott didn’t disappoint them. He brought the lights up on a new scene that made the final curtain a most satisfying one.

Long before that, these Bucks County attendees were having a wonderful time. Early on, they gave out bubbly laughter when they began to infer where the plot was headed. After they’d survived a scare that they hadn’t seen coming, they brought out their nervous laughter.

Bless Bucks Country producers Robyn Goodman, Alexander Fraser and Josh Fielder for bringing back what was once a staple of summer stock: the thriller. A theatergoer would be well-advised to call 215-862-2121. When you press the “6,” you’ll be dialing “M” – but this time, it means “Marvelous.”