Emily L. Stephens’ previous work for The Toast can be found here. Most recently, Alternative Valentine’s Day Movies.
Superficially, Dial M for Murder (1954) looks unambitious, a simple stage-to-set recreation of Frederick Knott’s hit play. Even Hitchcock, perhaps disingenuously, described it as a phoned-in effort1 knocked off between the location shooting of I, Confess and the elaborate staging of Rear Window. But the tightly-staged thriller bristles with symbols of objectification and possession, reducing Margot Wendice to a property passed from hand to hand, from man to man, as readily as the key around which the plot revolves. Their treatment of Margot, and her docile detachment, echos that objectification.
Dial M for Murder is a knotty plot inside a simple story which Hitchcock sets up with equal simplicity. In the wordless opening scenes, a pretty young housewife kisses her husband over their breakfast table. Moments later, it’s evening in the same handsome apartment, and the same woman, now radiant in red lace and taffeta, passionately kisses her lover. That’s the crux of the story: a husband, a wife, and a lover, all in the same room. Everything else is embellishment.
You probably know the story. [This article discusses the plot of Dial M for Murder in detail. Expect pervasive SPOILERS.] Margot Wendice (an unflappable Grace Kelly) meets with her former lover, crime writer Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings.) Unknown to her, Margot’s husband Tony (Ray Milland) knows all about her affair.
Tony Wendice, a former tennis champion, is a fierce competitor who doesn’t take defeat easily… or kindly. Fearing Margot will leave him – taking her small fortune with her – he blackmails a disreputable old school chum into a murder plot that should leave Tony with a dead wife, a perfect alibi, a comfortable apartment, and £90,000. When Margot kills her attacker in self-defense, Tony concocts a new plan on the fly, framing his wife for premeditated murder.
Even if you don’t know the story, you know the striking image: Margot struggling under her assailant, her hand reaching out toward the audience, imploring us for help, before landing upon that fateful pair of scissors. But that iconic picture isn’t the heart of the tale. The most important images in Dial M for Murder lurk in the background of every scene, silently evoking themes of property and possession.
The action of Dial M for Murder takes place almost entirely within the Wendice’s well-appointed London flat, and Hitchcock made every inch of that set work for him. The repeated placement of objects between the audience and the action is an artifact of the film’s original 3D release, but it’s just as effective in standard projection. The intrusion of furniture and bric-a-brac in the foreground suspends us between worlds, managing both to distance and to implicate the audience, and the modestly handsome apartment, so comfortable at the film’s opening, gradually begins to feel cluttered, even claustrophobic.
“Cluttered, even claustrophobic” sums up Margot Wendice’s love life as well. Take a close look at Margot and Mark’s passionate kiss, which opens the first act. Margot pulls free, steps back, and brushes past Mark to cross the room. When the lovers sit, the flowers before and behind them – wood inlays of blossoms on the cabinet behind Mark, a bright spray of daffodils in the foreground – seem to mock their distance and diffidence.
As Margot tells Mark of the anonymous blackmailer threatening to expose her adultery, a painting of poppies hangs boldly in the background, a brazen splash of red between them as they fret and pace. Margot clings to Mark – as passionately as she clung during their kiss – and begs him not to tell Tony of their affair.
Flowers typically symbolize love or affection, but there’s very little love on display in this film, only the rank remorse that love can lead to. Margot and Mark show little tenderness. She’s by turns ardent and distant, turning her back and deflecting his bland assurances of love. He’s smarmy and blithely dismissive, never more so than when she tells him she won’t be leaving her husband for him – a dismissal all the more stinging when you realize Tony and Mark have never even met. Mark waves off her insistence that Tony is “a completely different person” than the man she cuckolded a year prior, that he’s become “wonderful” to live with. Mark is determined to break up her marriage despite her vehemence, and only capitulates tentatively to her pleas.
In tennis, “love” means nothing. Tony Wendice, the former tennis star, has no use for love and little use for flowers. He’s a self-assured gamesman who can plot cold-blooded murder with an urbane smile. He traded on his fame and charm to win a wealthy wife, and he now plans to parlay that into life as a rich widower. As Tony lays out his plan crisply and confidently for C. J. Swann (Anthony Dawson), the disgraced former classmate selected to murder his wife, the camera angle emphasizes the mantle gleaming with loving cups, souvenirs of his lifetime of victories. Even Tony’s wing chair reinforces the imagery. When Mark sat in the same chair earlier, the angle, lighting, and his pose conspired to obscure those curves, but when Tony sits there, the viewpoint highlights the bellows and curves of the arms and wings, echoing the shape of the trophies behind him.
As tensions rise, the two men occupy opposite ends of the room – Swann standing stiffly near the French windows, Wendice easy among his trophies – and the camera cuts between them, back and forth, as a spectator’s eyes cut back and forth between two players in a tennis match.
Amidst all this tennis imagery, Hitchcock briefly revisits the floral motif, reinforcing their incongruously unromantic significance. Having laid a tidy trap of mixed persuasion and extortion, Tony Wendice delivers the coup de grace to his opponent. Swann is criminally culpable for the death of his secret lover, and only Tony Wendice knows it. Tony murmurs with sinister tact about “poor Miss Wallace,” and squarely in the screen’s center between their intent faces hangs the painting of poppies, directly above the stiff bouquet of daffodils. Swann is just as trapped by his blackmailer as Margot was by hers, and the same flowers are witness to it.
As Tony lays out the murderous details, the camera shows the action from above, mimicking the aerial view of a tennis match. Wendice strides about like a champion, dominating the court and delivering his strokes as surely as he did at Wimbledon.
Hitchcock includes a final wordless stroke to show how thoroughly Tony Wendice reduces marriage – and murder – to a game. Tony delivers the lump sum of £100 to Swann, a down-payment on murder, like a tournament-ending shot. He pulls it from the desk drawer, draws back his hand to serve, and the bundle of cash arcs across the court of that handsome living room to land tidily in the trophy-shaped wing chair. Swann watches in silent defeat, Tony’s trophies assembled behind him. Tony Wendice, defending champion, has triumphed again… for the moment.
But Tony’s plan is fatally flawed, hinging upon his wife’s passivity and predictability: she mustn’t leave the flat, or she’ll miss the key he’s hidden for her murderer; she must stay home, listen to the radio, and be in bed on time for Swann to enter unseen and hide himself; she must stand in precisely the right spot to answer the phone. Most unbelievably, she must not fight back against her attacker.
But Margot Wendice is a woman, not a trophy, and she confounds all his expectations. Meticulous, insightful Tony fails to see the central truth of his marriage, which her affair should have made clear: he can’t predict his wife’s actions at all. Tony doesn’t even know his own mind as well as he thinks. His detailed instructions to Swann completely elide the method of her murder and leave both men unprepared for her resistance. Tony has objectified his wife so thoroughly that Margot’s single moment of unalloyed activity – striking back against brutal assault – entirely upends his plan.
Tony’s reliance on Margot’s passivity is unrealistic but consistent with the world of Dial M for Murder. All the men surrounding Margot Wendice treat her as an object, not an agent. Her husband expects docility bordering on the inert. Her lover plows over her desires and objections with blasé insistence. On the night that Margot fatally stabs an intruder, even the police barely bother to question her.
The morning after the attack, Margot opens the door to Inspector Hubbard (John Williams), who speaks to her as he might address a child: “I’m a police officer, may I come in?” To Tony, he introduces himself by name, rank, and position, and the the two men arrange matters tidily between them. He explicitly asks Tony, not Margot, for permission to examine their home. Margot stands silently by, out of frame, as Tony guides Hubbard through the flat, until the inspector finally sits down to get her first-hand account. Even then, his attention is fragmented and he answers her direct questions with a distracted “Hmm?”
To her husband, Margot is a trophy, a prize won through his talent and luck, something he could sacrifice to win still more but never surrender for someone else’s pleasure. To her lover, Margot is a sweet bloom plucked at its prime, passively awaiting his admiration and enjoyment. To the police inspector, she’s the key that unlocks a mystery.
The sly twist of Dial M for Murder turns on a simple latch key. Tony Wendice pockets his wife’s key and hides it in the hallway for his hired killer. Before the police arrive, Tony slips the key from Swann’s pocket into Margot’s handbag, making it appear Margot admitted Swann for a meeting – or a murder. The moment Margot pulls the key from her handbag, Inspector Hubbard’s avuncular courtesy grows flinty, and he soon takes her into custody. Only in the last act do the characters learn that the incriminating key is Swann’s own latch key; Margot’s is still hidden where her attacker left it, and whoever knows that will hang for murder. The key to the flat is the key to the case.
When Inspector Hubbard lays claim to the key, he lays claim to Margot. Like Margot, that key sits for long days and weeks in police custody until the inspector puts his own plan in motion. The day before Margot’s execution, Hubbard smuggles both Margot and the key in question to the Wendices’ apartment, where he’s laid a simple trap: whichever Wendice avails themselves of the hidden key will hang.
Throughout this last scene, Margot’s affect and remarks emphasize her unfeeling, senseless state. Asked how she got there, she answers blankly “I don’t know.” She asks “What’s wrong with me, Mark? I don’t seem able to feel anything.” Of course she can’t feel. Objects are felt and acted upon; they don’t feel. When Inspector Hubbard explains his legerdemain with the key, Margot’s immediately retort – “Why did you bring me here?” – parallels the key’s presence with her own.
In the last seconds of the film, the tables turn on Tony Wendice: the trophies that have always graced his scenes now manifest for Mark and Margot, though in a shabbier form. Tony’s single bed has cluttered the living room for this last act, and at the moment the lovers see Tony prove his guilt, the headboard’s paired trophy shapes stand in their foreground as a pathetic prize. The confident champion has been defeated, but in this sad mess, no one truly triumphs.
But maybe there is a small triumph for Margot Wendice, who no longer need be reduced to a symbol. She is not a flower, not a trophy, not a key. Perhaps tellingly, Hitchcock assigned no clear symbols signifying Margot’s goals and ambitions: there are no symbols meaningful to her, only symbols standing for her. She is a woman capable of action and agency, capable of fighting back against violence and fighting free from expectations, and now she is free: freed from prison, freed from her marriage, and freed from the symbols that have hemmed her in.
“I think that’s the job of any craftsman, setting the camera up and photographing people acting. That’s what I call most films today: photographs of people talking. It’s no effort to me to make a film like Dial M for Murder because there’s nothing there to do.” Hitchcock in 1963 interview “Hitchcock” by Ian Cameron and V. F. Perkins in Alfred Hitchcock Interviews, ed. Sidney Gottlieb (University Press of Mississippi, 2003), p. 51.
Peter Bogdanovich quoting Alfred Hitchcock: “‘If you have a hit play, just shoot it. Don’t open it up, don’t try to make it cinematic.’ […] Well, when Hitchcock says ‘Just shoot it,’ what he means is just shoot it the way he would.” Hitchcock and Dial M, dir. Laurent Bouzereau, 2004.
Emily L. Stephens is a freelance writer, archaeology student, and caterer from Portland, Maine. She writes for The A.V. Club, blogs at macbebekin, tweets as @emilyorelse, and is a founding contributor to The VideoReport.