Rebecca McCallum continues her Hitchcock’s Women series with a tale of murder, mystery and a woman who fights back…
A tightly wound mystery set in a confined space, in Dial M for Murder Hitchcock takes a traditional whodunnit blueprint and adds his trademark touches of love, murder, and suspense. Set almost exclusively in the Wendice residence, situated in the heart of middle-class London, Margot (Grace Kelly) is a woman trapped in a loveless marriage with husband Tony (Ray Milland) who finds herself in the throes of a passionate love affair with mystery writer Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings).
While Margot believes that she and Mark are doing an expert job of keeping their romance undercover, Tony is aware of their affair and plans to seek revenge in the most extreme way imaginable. An unsavoury and slippery character, he blackmails an old college friend Swan (Anthony Dawson) into murdering Margot while he is out one evening with Mark – who in turn will be the perfect (and most apt) alibi. However, the murder doesn’t quite go as planned as Tony finds that he has underestimated his wife. Surviving the ordeal, Margot is slowly and unsuspectingly framed by Tony who, Iago-like, spins an almost perfect web in an attempt to convict his wife of murder.
Despite being at times, a frothy and enjoyable mystery, Margot’s arc in Dial M for Murder takes on many dark and unsettling notes as she is repeatedly gaslit and silenced. All this takes place while her destiny is placed in the hands of men, extending beyond her husband to the authorities and even – on occasion – to her newfound love, Mark.
Murder marks the first partnership of screen legend Grace Kelly and Hitch. Grace made three films in total with the master of suspense, with Rear Window following fast on the heels of Dial M for Murder in the same year and then the gloriously technicolour To Catch a Thief the following year. It’s fascinating to observe Kelly playing Margot since – although she is always the most captivating person in the room – she has not yet made the full transition to the cool Hitchcock blonde that she would be famed for from Rear Window onwards.
Eschewing the critique that Hitchcock films cannot be feminist, the director here shows how highly he values his female leads in the opening scene where Kelly is given an extensive monologue. This ensures our focus and attention lands fully on Margot and we immediately begin by experiencing the world through her eyes. It is also coupled with frequent and repeated close-up shots of her facial expressions and reactions: in short we are invited to empathise with her from the outset.
It Started with A Kiss
Hitchcock illustrates Margot’s romantic dilemma wonderfully by providing two scenes that show her with her husband and lover respectively. The film opens with a kiss followed by a close-up of Margot’s face, solidifying our connection with her and placing us concretely in her shoes. This kiss (with husband Tony) is fleeting and unfeeling, functioning as a mere formality as they settle down to breakfast. Notably, their interaction beyond this is limited, with Margot even avoiding conversation and eye contact by shielding herself with a newspaper.
Juxtaposed with this is the next scene of Margot with her secret beau, Mark. They too are embraced in a kiss, although this time it’s longer, passionate and more meaningful. While the first kiss is led by Tony (who places his hands conspicuously around his wife’s neck) as she sits passively in the chair, the second kiss is driven by Margot who, in a physical declaration of her affection, wraps her arms around Mark, as though holding on tightly, not wanting to let go. In the preceding scene she is static and formal, remaining at the table: here she moves about without limitation and commands the space, an indication of how free and comfortable she feels in his presence.
She discloses to Mark that she has been blackmailed by an unidentified person who has discovered their affair. In a move that displays her willingness to take control and not be governed by others (most specifically, men) Margot explains that she visited an address given by the blackmailer to provide the requested payment. In response, Mark criticises her for this decision, asking why she did not come to him for help. It would seem that any sign of independence displayed by Margot – or failure to enlist the assistance of men – is frowned upon and thus she battles against the male voices in her life, even that of the man dearest to her.
The Plot Thickens
Believing Mark to be nothing more than a friend (or at least giving this impression on the surface) Tony plays it cool and doesn’t flinch at the writer coming and going from the Wendice apartment. Meanwhile, Margot moves deftly between playing the dutiful wife and the impassioned lover as she masks her true feelings for both men whilst in their company. This speaks to one of the film’s main themes, that of identity and duplicity as we soon discover that Tony is not a mere innocent victim but is himself the blackmailer seeking to extort and torment his own wife.
It’s testimony to Kelly’s performance that audiences of the time did not vilify Margot for her affair. When she leaves for an evening at the theatre with Mark (with Tony using a heavy workload as an excuse to stay behind) we see the true nature of his sadistic and murderous character come to light through his interaction with Swan, an old college friend who he has lured to the apartment to continue his blackmail plot. Tony confesses to Swan that he has been spying on Mark and Margot, confirming he knows about the affair and even admits to harbouring a desire to kill his wife.
In a scene that foreshadows the first meeting of Elster and Scottie in Vertigo (1958) – where the latter is pressured by the former into undertaking an activity with sinister intentions – Tony proceeds to blackmail Swan using information against him to convince him to murder Margot on his behalf. This behaviour demonstrates Tony’s possessiveness and the pleasure he derives from people ‘belonging’ to him. As he reclines in a highbacked chair at the bottom left corner of the shot, Hitchcock winks to us that he is less of a criminal mastermind and more of an armchair detective. Margot may be having an affair, but the way in which Tony first blackmailed, and has now graduated to planning his wife’s murder, means that our empathy (if it ever was in doubt) sits resolutely with Margot.
Romanticised, Imprisoning and Illuminating-The Role of the Controlled Space
Hitchcock’s use of a restricted space echoes his earlier experimental Rope (1948) and forthcoming Rear Window; it is clear he favours closed and controlled locations. Not only does this create an effective bubbling pot where action is contained and condensed but it also enables the potential for unexpected entrances and exits. Coupled with this the director also uses staging and set design to make subtle suggestions and references that masquerade under the surface. When Margot is shown in an embrace with Mark and then later sat on the couch with him whilst pasting cuttings into a scrapbook, we see her surrounded by flowers. This softens our feelings towards her and both romanticises and idealises Margot whilst acting as a literal representation of her feelings for Mark.
Despite the action taking place in one location Hitchcock makes incredible use of the limited space, working this to his advantage to reflect the tone and mood of his characters. For Margot, the apartment resembles a prison which forecasts the time she will later spend in jail whilst also reflecting her being held captive by Tony. As she flits about there is a sense of her being a caged bird, something echoed in the barred windows of the kitchen and the locking of the windows in the living area.
A focal point of the room – and the plot – are the curtains behind the desk where the attempted murder of Margot takes place, which continually open and close, concealing and revealing the truth. The inclusion of lamps is also significant (another detail which links to Rear Window) as these are dotted about across the apartment, symbolic of illuminating truths and directing our attention to specific places at key moments. Finally, as in many Hitchcock films, everyday objects take on heightened and crucial meanings. Here there is the key to the apartment (such as in Notorious, 1946), Margot’s handbag (echoed in the protagonists of The Birds, 1963 and Marnie, 1964) and the love letter (like that of Suspicion, 1941 and Vertigo, 1958). By elevating the importance of everyday items, Hitchcock compels us to apply close focus, assessing when and how the characters interact with them.
A Spectrum of Colour: A Journey Told Through Costume
Margot’s emotional journey is told (courtesy of Moss Mabry) through the changing colour palette and shifting designs of her wardrobe. She begins in soft but muted tones whilst breakfasting with Tony, a signifier of the lack of colour and joy in their relationship. Blending into the whites and pastels of the breakfast table, she almost ceases to exist. By contrast, the red sweetheart style dress she wears with Mark in the following scene arrives like an explosion of colour. Evocative of power, passion, hotness and (the forthcoming) danger, here Margot wants to be noticed: in fact she demands it, rather than seeking to fit in as we see her do with her husband. Replicated in Rear Window, her neck is exposed alluringly, emphasising her beauty. When she turns around however, the back of the dress has a lace that covers her back, echoing themes of secrets and concealment, subtly highlighting that although some things are exposed, not everything is clear for us to see.
This act of concealment is extended further when upon the arrival of Tony, Mark and Margot leave for the theatre without him. Margot quickly puts on a fur around the top half of her body which covers up the revealing part of her dress. This gesture could be read in a number of ways; perhaps Margot does not feel as sexually free in the presence of Tony or does not wish to have his gaze upon her and therefore hides the skin that is on show. Alternatively, she may be attempting to keep the secret of the affair undiscovered by not allowing Tony to see her outfits of choice when around Mark. Either way, the red dress makes a statement and the arrival of the brown fur (chiming in time with the arrival of Tony) becomes symbolic of the dampening and the dulling of Margot’s sentiments, both inwardly and outwardly.
When Tony and Mark prepare to go out for the evening, Margot is seen wearing a wine-coloured dress. Acting as a darker variation on the romantic dress she wore earlier, this speaks to Margot’s continued affection towards Mark. However the neckline of the dress is much higher and underneath she wears another layer. In addition to this, the dress also contains buttons and a belt tie, the former reflecting her growing constriction and the latter a signpost to her impending strangulation. Along with the dress Margot carries a small, red handbag which Tony opens without permission. In Hitchcock’s films a clasped shut purse or handbag often denotes a woman’s unavailability (The Birds, 1963; Marnie 1964). Here Margot puts up a resistance to Tony foraging in her handbag, a clear expression of her not wanting to be open or available to him as well as him overstepping the boundaries of privacy.
The powder blue nightgown she wears on the evening of her attempted murder is undeniably romantic with its satin and lace fabric. The dress also has a low neckline ensuring that the all-important skin is visible when the attempted murder takes place. Although it is a highly feminine garment, Margot’s ability to fight back against Swan and prevent her murder subverts the notion of the helpless female in her negligee. The pale blue colouration also prefigures the ‘icy blonde’ that Hitchcock would seek to build, first with Grace Kelly and later with Tippi Hedren. Furthermore, the steely quality to the gown is also reflective of the cold lifelessness of the Wendice marriage.
After Margot kills Swan in self-defence her colour palette changes dramatically and she will never recover bright, soulful colours again. The investigation begins to unfold and the colour is drained from both her face and her costume as she wears a grey dress. With its high collar and fold across the breast and waistline this creates a simultaneous feeling of being choked (another echo on her strangulation which has gone from literal to metaphorical) and strapped in. The two men – who are also part of this scene – wear grey as well, which means that Margot fades into the background, overlooked and unnoticed, a foreshadowing of her impending mistreatment. Later, when Margot returns from prison near the end of the film, she appears lost in an oversized and shapeless brown coat that swamps her body, unlike the figure hugging garments we have previously seen her in. After her ordeal, the colour of her costume mirrors her state of mind and the numbness which she later confesses to feeling.
Rebecca will return soon for the concluding part of her analysis of Margot in Dial M For Murder. In the meantime you can check out more of her pieces on Hitchcock’s Women here.