Dial M for Murder screens at Barbican Cinema

by Warren M. Sherk

Reporting from London, October 30, 2011

The concluding event in a near month-long celebration of the music of Dimitri Tiomkin took place at the Barbican Cinema 1 on Sunday. From the stage, I introduced the matinee screening of Dial M for Murder to a crowd of more than fifty. The film was the fourth and final collaboration between director Alfred Hitchcock and composer Dimitri Tiomkin. Dial M is based on a play and the studio agreed it would not exhibit the film before a certain number of days had passed after the stage play had closed. When the time came for Warner Bros. to screen the film for the press, the contracted number of days had not yet passed so they were forced to cancel the screening. In its place, The High and the Mighty, which also happened to have been scored by Tiomkin, was presented. So the press heard Tiomkin’s music, just for a different film. The contrast between the two scores is striking.

Based on repeated viewings I have concluded that Tiomkin scored Dial M as a love story with suspense. This is evident in the main title music which introduces the suspenseful music briefly but places more emphasis on the romantic side represented by the waltz theme. In fact, one might argue that Tiomkin bases the entire score on the character played by Grace Kelly and approaches the score from her point of view. There’s not a lot of music in the film; however, Tiomkin does an admirable job in the first few minutes of the picture in telling the story through music, for example when Kelly is sitting at the breakfast table. The next time you see the picture pay particular attention to the music whenever Kelly is on screen.

Upon close examination one notices that throughout the film Tiomkin’s music constantly shifts between playing the suspense and playing the romance. For example, when Kelly walks into the bedroom to retrieve an item from the bedside stand the music is terse as she walks away from the camera then menacing as she rifles through the drawer. However, as soon as she turns back and approaches the camera the music turns romantic.

Tiomkin wrote special music for Grace Kelly when she married Prince Rainier. Read about it in “Wedding Music by Dimitri Tiomkin.”

Olivia Tiomkin Douglas was present at the screening and afterward remarked this was her first time seeing the film projected. Dial M was released in 1954. At the time, the American film industry was beginning to feel the effect of the success of High Noon and producers were seeking exploitable theme songs. Shortly after taking on Hitchcock’s melodrama, Tiomkin was interviewed in Time magazine. Of Dial M for Murder Tiomkin said, “I can’t make theme song with title…”

Dial M for Murder in the poster exhibit in the Barbican Hall foyer.

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