Cinematography and direction that would put most modern filmmakers to shame? Check. A palpable tension, like when that really rude uncle comes to Thanksgiving dinner? Check. A blonde-haired beauty? Check. Mix it all up and you have the makings of a movie masterpiece by one of the most influential filmmakers of all time.
What begins as a sleepy slog through middle America tropes (the dwindling bank account, the depressed wife, staples of slick modern thrillers washing each technicolor scene) quickly drifts into unfamiliar territory when former tennis star Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) plots to murder his wife Margot (Grace Kelly). A husband offing his wife seems commonplace amidst so many murder-porn investigatory TV shows these days, but rarely was it handled with so much tact back in the 50s.
Tony was forced to retire from his professional tennis days after Margot complained about his busy schedule and never being around. She began her own affair with American crime-fiction writer Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings), which Tony secretly discovered.
Mark visits one afternoon and Margot is forced to introduce him to her husband, as an “acquaintance,” but Tony knows all too well of their history. He’s letting on, you see, and after sending the two lovers out for the night, Tony meets with an old friend from his Cambridge University days, a man known as C. A. Swann (Anthony Dawson). Mr. Swann has become a criminal and Tony has incriminating evidence that can put him away for a seriously scary amount of time. Mr. Swann is left with no other choices, as he sees it, and agrees to Tony’s demands, including payment for his “services.”
What happens after this, and the complex web of lies and deceit that unravels through deft acting and moody lighting, is a masterfully-crafted visual exercise. A total understanding of psychology and focus control, not in the sense of lens distortions, but in the same way we watch a friend on stage or a pet at the park; Hitchcock knows exactly what you’re waiting for, exactly where you’re looking; and with each shot, he leads you along like an unsuspecting pawn. You, the viewer, are given all of the answers, all of the information in chronological order, except the most important part.