The Hitchcock Conversations is an ongoing project between me and James W. Powell, in which we study Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography in chronological order. I’ll be publishing one conversation per week.
(By necessity, spoilers ahead!)
Synopsis: Ex-tennis pro Tony Wendice decides to murder his wife for her money and because she had an affair the year before. He blackmails an old college associate to strangle her, but when things go wrong he sees a way to turn events to his advantage.
Jason: It took me a while to warm to the style of Dial M for Murder. It’s another talky film—which I never really expect from Hitchcock. At least, this time, there’s a pretty good amount of suspense built into the words. I ended up enjoying the film, in a modest way, but it’s not a favorite.
James: I like Dial M for Murder, but I don’t love it. It’s never truly riveting. Of course, this was my second or third viewing, so it’s possible that the multiple viewings have watered it down. It certainly is a talky film, and it never really strays too far from its source material, the Frederick Knott play of the same name. (In fact, Knott wrote the screenplay.) This film feels like a play. I don’t mean that in a bad way, but it does lack the spark of some of the other films’ outward action. All the suspense and drama are inherent in the copious dialog concerning a man trying to kill his wife. Will she die? Will he get away with it?
Jason: Yeah, Dial M for Murder is an interesting choice for Hitch. I gather it’s one of his “run for cover” films, one of a few movies he did following more experimental work that maybe didn’t connect with audiences the way he hoped. Whereas I Confess was a risky venture, this film feels more like a throwback to his more common themes and situations. In particular, I noticed a lot of Rope in Dial M for Murder. Both films are rather claustrophobic adaptations of stage plays, and both films deal with the notion of the “perfect murder.” Both have a literary connotation—Rope with its collegiate, book-collecting subplot, and Dial M for Murder with its central crime-fiction writer. Both films take place in a single apartment setting.
James: Yes, a lot of this movie recalls other Hitch movies.
Jason: Another film that comes to mind is Strangers on a Train. You’ve got the idea of a character securing an alibi while putting the actual murder in someone else’s hands. And you’ve got the whole background of tennis. In this case, another Hitch theme—blackmail—is involved in the mix. So, again, Hitch is reaching back into his bag of tricks in hopes of a more surefire hit.
James: The connections to the other films are readily apparent. If they jump out at you as they did here, they’re a little too obvious. But remember that this is a pretty straightforward adaptation of someone else’s play. I don’t know much about the source material, but it sounds like Hitch stayed pretty true to Knott’s play. Maybe that’s unfortunate. I would’ve liked some more creative energy.
Jason: I do like the confident way Hitch introduces us to his characters and the situation. In silence, we meet Margot Wendice (Grace Kelly, in her first Hitch film), and we see her chastely kissing her husband, Tony (Ray Milland). Cut to a newspaper article Margot is reading: American crime writer Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings) is coming to London, and suddenly we see Margot all dressed in sexy red and giving Mark a much more passionate kiss than the one she just gave her husband. What a great, quick setup! We have the specter of infidelity within the first few minutes. That being said, I’m not sure the rest of the film ever lives up to this sequence.
James: I definitely liked how the infidelity is introduced. We understand all the characters in a matter of minutes. Very well done. But you’re right, after that, it seems like the narrative energy of their infidelity just goes away. It would’ve been nice to later see the two lovers still conflicted, or see that they would give in to their lust if given the chance. An additional scene or two might’ve helped that aspect of the story. Perhaps we’d have more sympathy for Margot if she ended up saying no and trying to stay true to her husband.
Jason: Perhaps, but maybe that’s really just a MacGuffin and soon forgotten. Because we quickly learn that Tony has an elaborate plan to murder Margot. I really enjoyed the conversation that Tony has with Mark at one point, about the way Mark writes his crime fiction. They talk about the idea of the “perfect murder” and how it’s never possible in real life: “In stories, things usually turn out how the author wants them to, and in real life, they don’t.” That line totally captures the essence of the film.
Jason: As a side note, in the same conversation, they joke about Mark writing a detective novel about tennis—which pretty much describes Strangers on a Train.
James: One thing I really like is how audience sympathy jumps from one character to another. I never really cared for Margot or Mark. I didn’t like that they were committing adultery. So I found myself pulling for Tony, despite the fact that he’s planning Margot’s murder. Part of me felt that he was justified in his desire to kill his wife. And when it came time to execute the plan, I found myself wanting things to go right for him! For example, in the restaurant, when Tony is scheduled to call home to put his plan in action, there’s an old man already on the payphone and Tony has to wait. I was rooting for Tony to get in there and make that call on time. But after everything goes down and the police become involved, I found myself siding with Margot and Mark, because it became somehow more evil to frame Margot than it was to try to kill her.
Jason: I totally agree about Tony being a sympathetic character. I’m always fascinated when a film makes a villain the most sympathetic character, and I find it completely intriguing the way audiences are so easily swayed, just by narrative techniques, into siding with the antagonist. I guess it’s because we’ve disconnected from any kind of reality and have lost ourselves in the entertainment of the character’s fate. But that brings up another point: There really isn’t a likeable character in this film, and that’s really Dial M for Murder’s major flaw.
James: Yeah, I didn’t care for any of these characters. Heck, the most sympathetic character is the actual killer, Charles Swann (Anthony Dawson), simply because of the way Tony blackmails him and ropes him into the murder scheme. Of course, he’s a bad guy, so it falls to the cop—Chief Inspector Hubbard (John Williams)—to be the most likable character. I hadn’t considered the lack of likeable characters to be a flaw of the film, though. However, now that I think about it, it’s true. It’s hard to really like a movie if you have no one to relate to or root for.
Jason: Let’s talk about the characters one at a time: Right away, we see that Margot is a two-timer. That’s really all we know about her. Are we supposed to get behind her solely because of her beauty? How is this woman likeable? I think it’s fascinating that she comes off as the blameless victim in this whole thing, and ends up getting exactly what she wants: her husband out of the picture so that she can get it on with her playboy writer dude. Has Hitch relied completely on her beauty—actually, Grace Kelly’s beauty—to capture audience sympathy? Does he know full well what he’s doing in this regard? “I’ll make her despicable, but the audience will love her because she’s gorgeous and high-society . . .”
James: I know that I really wanted to like Margot, but I never did. I don’t know about Hitch’s intent, but part of me wanted her to suffer in prison, and I liked that she sort of gets what she deserves in that sequence. You’re right, though, in the end, both she and the writer get what they want. Then again, all the characters are evil to some degree, as we said. Maybe Hitch is trying to say something with that.
Jason: Now that you mention it, I guess Margot does suffer in this film. After all, she goes through the anguish of a court trial and is found guilty of blackmail and murder. (Another instance of the “wrong man” theme.) Perhaps that’s sufficient punishment for her infidelity. In the end, though, she’s vindicated. Hmmm, it’s a tough call. Does she suffer enough?
James: I don’t know. That first scene sets her up as a conniving little bitch. I didn’t like her one bit. I would’ve been just as happy had she died in prison.
Jason: There seems to be a similar thing happening with the Tony character. He’s suave and sophisticated, has a sly sense of humor, and yet his actions are utterly evil. But we sorta like him! This seems to be something Hitch is really good at. He thrives on audience manipulation.
James: I don’t know if I’d say I really like Tony, but he’s easily the most likable of the main characters. Maybe that’s simply because we dislike Margot and Mark right off the bat, and we feel for Tony. Plus, Tony is just so damn nice. He’s thorough, polite, interesting. He’s the perfect Hitch bad guy.
Jason: Okay, how about Mark Halliday, the writer? Did you recognize Robert Cummings right away from Saboteur? It took me a little while. You know, I like this actor. He seems to have that sly Hitch humor, that smirky delivery. But this is a boring character, with no real personality. I do like the scenes in the middle of the film, when Mark re-enacts what he thinks has happened—and he gets it mostly right, thanks to his crime-writing expertise. But still, he could have been more interesting or could have left more of an impression. That scene had a lot of potential, but the film doesn’t live up to it somehow.
James: I didn’t like the Halliday character very much. Cummings is a great actor, and I recognized him immediately. But I never liked Mark much. He never had a chance to shine. Maybe it’s because we’re immediately sympathetic to Tony? Regardless, there’s never really time for Mark to show that humor or become likeable. Hell, why is he even invited to the Wendices’ apartment in the first place? Did Margot tell Tony that she and Mark were old friends?
Jason: Yeah, I think it’s just accepted that they’ve been friends for a while. They’re just closer friends than Tony has realized . . . until he finds a certain letter. Speaking of the blackmail letter, what did you think of the long scene in which Tony blackmails Charles Swann into murdering Margot? It’s all dialog, and yet I found this sequence pretty suspenseful. Not great, but well done. I especially enjoyed the shots from above, in which Tony walks Swann through the murder he will commit. This sets up the suspense of all that follows, and we know that something will ultimately go wrong with this perfect plan. (Not to mention the bird imagery of the name Swann.)
James: I didn’t notice the use of the bird imagery. Good catch. But I really liked that scene, although I’m not sure I’d call it suspenseful until the second half. It was well done, that’s for sure. I liked the way it started with us wondering what Tony was up to, then little by little we figure it out. Very nice.
Jason: Yeah, that’s a great aspect of this sequence—wondering just what the hell Tony is doing, wiping fingerprints while talking so assuredly to Swann about his plan. So, do you think the film’s primary MacGuffin is this stolen-letter blackmail? A lot of time is spent during this initial conversation with Swann, talking about this juicy love letter from Margot to Mark, in which the whole affair is laid out. Seems like that’s the motivation for the plot, and a key factor in how Margot is eventually implicated for killing Swann, but it fades in significance next to the real plot of Tony getting his comeuppance. I like the shot of Tony handing Swann the letter from his little black book, not touching it, and we know that he’s handing it to him that way just to get Swann’s fingerprints on it.
James: You might have a point about the MacGuffin. And, yeah, that letter is completely juicy. When Mark asks which letter Margot saved, she says, “You know the one,” and he just chuckles. It’s a perfect sequence that tells everything without telling anything. I actually meant to bring that up earlier.
Jason: Did you catch the symbol of the stairwell? Right in plain sight, it’s where Tony hides the key with which Swann will enter the apartment and murder Margot. Speaking of the key, maybe a little echo of Notorious, in which so much narrative weight is attached to a tiny key?
James: Hmmm, the stairwell. Interesting. I didn’t catch that either. And nice connection to Notorious. I like how the whole thing plays out and how Tony pockets the wrong key. I meant to go back and see if we actually see Swann put the key back under the stair mat.
Jason: How about the murder scene itself? I think it’s a very effective and shocking sequence, mostly because of all the suspense that has built up to it. Swann is waiting in the apartment for Tony’s call, which will wake Margot and put her in position for strangling her with the stocking. But the tables are quickly turned, and she stabs him with the scissors. He falls and, horribly, when he hits the ground, the scissors are driven deeper into his back, killing him. Man, I squirmed at that.
James: I love the fact that Swann falls on the scissors, even if the death is overacted a bit. But yes, I’m surprised Hitch was allowed to show the fall onto the scissors. The best part of this scene, by the way, is Swann hesitating behind Margot each time she almost puts the phone down.
Jason: Oh yeah, the shots of Swann backing off then moving in for the kill are fun. You can really feel Hitch pulling our strings.
James: That was nicely done.
Jason: Did the murder sequence remind you of the murder scene in Blackmail? I’m thinking of the scene in which Alice (Anny Ondra) goes to the artist’s house, and things get frisky, and he makes a move, and she ends up killing him with a knife that’s laying around. She’s in lingerie and all flustered, wondering what’s just happened.
James: I guess they are similar, but I didn’t make the connection.
Jason: What did you think of that impressionistic sequence in which Margot is found guilty of blackmail and murder, and sent to jail? It’s yet another throwback to Hitch’s German roots, but this time, I didn’t find the technique as effective as in other films. There’s a very similar sequence at the end of Spellbound that I liked a lot more. Remember that one? This one seems a pale imitation of that one.
James: I didn’t like the sequence much at all. Wasn’t there a similar sequence in The Paradine Case? I don’t think that’s right, but I think there have been three such instances in the films so far. Anyway, maybe this one didn’t work as well because of the fact that we don’t like her character? Or we don’t know her as well?
Jason: I don’t recall an impressionistic sequence in The Paradine Case. I do recall one in Murder!, I believe. Yes, a lot of it has to do with our sympathies for Margot. I guess I didn’t really care what happened to her. Or maybe it’s because the sequence isn’t believable. It almost feels as if Hitch is getting past an unlikely scenario by just skipping through it quickly.
Jason: One of the things I find interesting about this movie is that Tony’s manipulation of Margot is like that of a spoiled child. When he learns that Margot plans to go out for the evening, thereby potentially spoiling his elaborate murder plan, he gets all petulant and infantile. Margot is really in a psychologically abusive relationship, bullied and oppressed.
James: I thought it was funny the way Tony gets Margot to stay in that night. What a whiny bastard. But it’s hard to say that they have an abusive relationship, based on that remark. She does say earlier that he’s changed since he gave up tennis. (Does Tony look like a tennis player to you?)
Jason: But I think you can take a lot from one dialog exchange in a film. I got the distinct impression that their relationship is a lot like that. He’s very whiny and manipulative there, and I think you can project that quality onto him as a person. (That’s funny, Tony doesn’t look at all like a tennis player. I remember thinking that he would probably lumber around the court like a bear.) Do you think this film is really about Margot’s liberation from Tony?
James: That doesn’t work for me. Perhaps one of the reasons the liberation idea doesn’t work is because she really doesn’t do anything. If she’s the hero of the story, or if she deserves our sympathy, she needs to be proactive. Instead, everything happens to her.
Jason: Good point. I have a feeling her liberation is an aspect of the story that’s just not very well developed. The seed of it is here, but Hitch doesn’t explore it to full effect. I could see really liking this element of the film, had it been more powerful.
James: I can see that.
Jason: Another interesting tidbit is that Hitch consciously had Margot’s wardrobe go from bright and lively to more darker colors and grays.
James: I noticed the wardrobe changes, too. That was interesting. First, she’s in white, then bright red, then later some amber/burgundy colors, then I think she was wearing a brown blanket at the end.
Jason: Want to talk a little about Grace Kelly? I mean, this is her first Hitch role, and she would become—through the next couple films, in fact—the quintessential Hitchcock babe. I was surprised to read that she was a naughty little actress. She had affairs with Knott (the writer), Dawson (Swann), and Milland (this one was especially torrid). And yet, onscreen, her image is pure and perfect, unattainable.
James: Kelly was a tramp? That’s surprising, for some reason. She seems to be a classy lady. And hot. You know what I think it is? She acts like the girl next door. She seems like she could be your friend. She seems nice. But she’s flamin’ too.
Jason: She’s got this high-society vibe going on, too. So maybe it’s the combination of cute approachability and high-maintenance star power. But, oh, she’s somethin’.
James: Yes indeed. I particularly noticed this when she’s dressed down at the end. She’s fabulous, and yet she looks like she has no makeup on and hasn’t slept for days. She’s the type of girl you could bring to mom, and they’d instantly be friends.
Jason: I have to say I really liked the character of Chief Inspector Hubbard. Hitch has given us another smart cop! Really liked his final scene, when he finally foils Tony with the forgotten key. “If he opens that door, he’s the killer!”
James: The film needed Hubbard badly. Although I wouldn’t call his character comedic, I’d definitely say it was more lighthearted than the rest. And we needed that kind of tone after I Confess, which was a tense, somewhat downer film.
Jason: Yes, that’s a good point. Hitch probably needed to change gears after such an introspective, humorless outing, in a way that’s similar to his gear-changing from Sabotage to Young and Innocent.
James: Even the first half of Dial M for Murder doesn’t have much humor. Not really. So Hubbard brings some much-needed levity to the later part of the film.
Jason: I liked the subtlety of Hitch’s cameo, in that reunion photograph that Tony shows Swann. You don’t see Hitch at first, over there on the left, but then you see that he’s right there, and you laugh.
James: That was a great cameo.
Jason: Interesting, the way Hitch continues to bring the specter of crime fiction into his movies, this time with the character of Mark Halliday, the crime writer. You can tell Hitch was an avid reader and followed true-life crime himself, just by the many characters in his films that are fascinated by crime.
James: I’m actually growing a little tired of every film featuring characters talking about crime. Sure, it works great as a plot device, but come on, how many films does he have to inject that into?
Jason: Perhaps the device is getting a bit tired.
James: I wish we had a chance to see this in 3D. I’d really like to see firsthand how the foreground placement of things like lamps and liquor bottles affected the feel of certain scenes. I wonder if it helped audiences feel like they were in that apartment.
Jason: I did get to see this film in 3D when it was re-released in 1980. I was only 12 then, but I do remember how the 3D effects in this film were different from some of the other “gimmicky” effects of other 3D movies released in the early ’80s, like Parasite and Comin’ at Ya! These effects are subtle and give you more of a sense of space than anything else. Hitch was very unconventional with these effects. They really give depth to the image, rather than just rely on shock effects. In his single experiment with the format, Hitch ended up using it to its full advantage and really going somewhere no one else was going. I really admire the careful use of 3D in this film.
James: 1980? Damn, you’re old.
Jason: Thanks! One thing I found very interesting, related to the 3D process, was the presence of an intermission. Apparently, the intermission was there only because of projection concerns: Back then, movie theaters projected films using two projectors, switching between them as each one reached the end of a reel. But the 3D process required two projectors running at once. Therefore, the theaters needed an intermission just to switch reels.
James: I wondered about that intermission. Fascinating.
Jason: Did you catch the huge prop finger used in the shot where Tony is dialing the phone (and the letter M)? It struck me as an effect that Hitch is used to (as in Spellbound, with the huge hand and gun), but this time, he used it because of the two-camera 3D setup, which wouldn’t let him get close enough to the phone for that severe of a close-up.
James: I didn’t mind the big prop finger this time. I didn’t find it intrusive. And if you imagine the audience wearing 3D glasses, it probably wasn’t noticeable at all.
Jason: The whole idea of 3D as a gimmick to compete with the rise of television is interesting in itself. And even more interesting is that soon, Hitch would find himself wholly immersed in that competing medium.
James: I am interested in seeing some of those Alfred Hitchcock Presents shows. I wonder if he embraced the TV medium with the same creative energy he devoted to film.
Jason: I think he put a lot of effort into it.
James: Do you know how Dial M for Murder did at the box office? Seems that the whole 3D thing was passé by the time it hit theaters. Did audiences ignore it because of that? Also interesting is the fact that some theaters could show it as a non-3D show. While I think it worked as a typically shot film, I think Hitch intended for it to be 3D and that’s the way it should’ve been viewed.
Jason: Not sure about box-office performance. But I read somewhere that one of the reasons Hitch shot the 3D effects subtly was because he foresaw that exhibitors would mostly show it 2D.
James: He was right.
Jason: One more thing about the “look” of Dial M for Murder: I was a bit disappointed to see the obviously fake process shots of the Queen Mary and other outdoor shots, especially after the great on-location realism of I Confess.
James: I wasn’t impressed at all with the outdoor shots. They looked like crap. But then again, that’s Hitch. He certainly liked the safety of his sets.
Jason: How about Dimitri Tiomkin’s score?
James: This is actually the first time in this project that I thought the music was intrusive. Several times, I thought it was too jovial, or too loud. I don’t think that’s exactly right, but sometimes it felt off. Almost as if something more subdued or maybe even completely silent would’ve worked better.
Jason: Yes, there were a couple moments when it sounded too brassy, and other moments when it sounded too light-hearted. Tiomkin worked on a few Hitch films, including Shadow of a Doubt, Strangers on a Train, and I Confess. This does seem to be one of his weaker efforts, as if he just dashed it off. That being said, I’ve felt the intrusion of music on a couple other Hitch flicks, most notably Rebecca.
James: I remember Rebecca having a heavy-handed score, but I didn’t have a problem with that one because the whole film seemed so big. So epic. That film needed a big score. Does that make sense?
Jason: You’re right about Rebecca. But there have been other intrusive scores.
James: There’s an interesting mistake in this film. When Mark stuffs the blackmail letter in his jacket pocket and says he’s going to tell Tony about their affair, Margot says, “Bob, you mustn’t.” It’s a very long take, but I’m still surprised Hitch didn’t catch it. Or maybe he let it slide because it was the best take? Who knows?
Jason: Hmmm, I didn’t even catch that goof.
James: You know, for me, there’s not much to talk about with Dial M for Murder. It’s just not a weighty film.
Jason: I like Hitchcock’s joke/pun about the making of Dial M for Murder. He said, “I could’ve phoned this one in.” That tells me, again, that he was coasting a bit with this film.
James: Too bad no one caught the ironic nature of that comment. I’m not entirely certain he was coasting here. But I do think he wasn’t too willing to change the source play all that much. I think it’s just one of those rare instances that Hitchcock stuck pretty much to the source material.