Rebecca McCallum concludes her analysis of Grace Kelly’s performance in Dial M For Murder…
The Murdered Becomes the Murderer
If we map out Margot’s journey, it reveals nothing but mistreatment time and again. To begin with she is stalked and blackmailed by her husband Tony, who we hear admitting has thoughts of ‘killing her’. What makes this doubly disturbing is that he directs all his vengeance towards Margot and not her lover Mark, evidencing a deep misogyny. In a complete failure to acknowledge his criminality and cruelty, Tony will also later express relief that he did not commit the (attempted) murder of his wife but that he employed Swan to undertake the deed.
Unbeknown to Margot, her husband is aware of every aspect of her affair down to the most minute detail, including the love letters she and Mark send to one another and how she transfers these between handbags. He then proceeds to bribe her whilst continuing to stalk, watch and engage in an operation of the utmost manipulation. When in conspiratorial conversation with Swan, Tony makes an early comment that highlights his ultimate mission to silence Margot when he remarks ‘she isn’t going to say anything, is she?’ before arranging her ultimate silencing by plotting to end her life.
Still under no suspicion that she is being manipulated by her husband, we watch as Margot is gaslit by him when she expresses a wish to see a movie while he and Mark enjoy an evening at the club. If she were to leave the apartment this would disrupt Tony’s carefully honed plans and he therefore sets to work on breaking down her resolve. Although this is all done with a specific design in mind, it’s not hard to imagine such instances having occurred before between the couple, especially given that Tony is so adept at controlling her.
Margot’s declaration that she will go out to see a movie are stone-walled and in response she tells him ‘I hate to do nothing’. Not content with staying indoors and being the perfect wife, Margot seeks outside stimulation and society but is kept from experiencing this at the hands of Tony. When she refuses to back down, Tony tries a different tactic and announces that all three of them will stay home, putting a burden of guilt on Margot’s shoulders. This approach on Tony’s part is successful as she agrees to stay indoors and work on her scrapbook, the pasting of various cuttings being representative of all the parts of the mystery being assembled together. While Tony may assume that he has hoodwinked his wife, as he says ‘goodbye’ to her at the doorway she denotes a difference in his farewell and the way he kisses her (in Tony’s mind, this is their last interaction) which produces a confused expression on her face.
Alone in bed after dark, Tony ensures that Margot is attacked at her most vulnerable moment. As Swan slips into the apartment, the telephone rings soon after (this is Tony calling from the club – though his watch has stopped, resulting in a call later than planned). With Swan concealed behind the curtains, Margot emerges from the bedroom and answers the phone. Before she realises what’s happening, he attempts to strangle her. Draped over the desk and fighting for her life, Margot reaches a stretched-out hand (echoed six years later by Janet Leigh as Marion Crane in Psycho, 1960) but it also seems that she is reaching into the audience for help too, a gesture no doubt amplified in the 3D format in which the film was originally released.
Under attack, Margot stabs Swan with a pair of scissors and tragically believes that her husband – who is still on the other end of the line – is being helpful rather than betraying her. With Swan’s lifeless body strewn before her she runs outside, keen to feel the crisp welcome of the night air. We too are granted a brief relief from the stifling claustrophobia of the room as her dress blows softly in the wind and we absorb her survival. Instead of being the murdered, Tony’s grandiose and macabre plans have turned his wife into a murderer. After battling with Swan, Margot is left evidently traumatised and retreats to the bedroom, unable to look upon the act she has committed.
Mistreatment of Margot
When Tony arrives home Margot turns to him for support. However he deceives her again when he telephones the police and insinuates that Swan has been murdered in cold blood, rather than self-defence. Trying to piece everything together while recovering from shock, Tony makes certain to cut off any inquiring questions from Margot that place suspicion upon him, such as why he called home from the club. Before she can get to the truth she’s ordered to retire to her room as he assures her the police ‘won’t speak to you’, an echo of his earlier comment to Swan about Margot ‘not saying anything’. As he tampers with Swan’s body, Margot sits traumatised on the bed, uncomforted, confined to her room and denied a voice. Soon after, Tony bullies her a second time into supporting his lies by telling her the police will want to know why she didn’t call them (despite him telling her at the time not to) and she is manipulated into looking guilty by not raising the alert right away. While Margot believes she is being protected, she is in fact being sabotaged; her version of events is totally disregarded.
When the Chief Inspector (John Williams) arrives he only spends a few moments talking to Margot thanks to Tony silencing his wife once more, advising she is suffering from considerable shock and therefore painting her out of the narrative. Margot cannot be kept from the inquisitive Chief Inspector indefinitely however and he begins to question her directly, albeit with Tony trying to explain her meanings rather than allowing her to speak for herself. In an affecting scene, Margot is then forced to relive her trauma when the inspector asks her to re-enact the events of the night. However here she is subjected to scepticism and disbelief: not by Tony but by the Inspector who continues to interrupt her and question her memory: ‘are you sure?’ he asks, critiquing her choices such as walking around the opposite side of the desk to answer the phone. Even the law does not allow Margot the courtesy of being innocent before conviction, adding to the mistreatment she has already suffered.
Caught between the two men who are simultaneously setting her up and assuming her guilt, Margot finds herself backed into a corner. She is told that without a witness, there is no way of confirming her account – a familiar mirroring of the experiences of many women. Hitchcock depicts Margot’s entrapment in the clearest of visuals with a shot directly fixed on her face as the two men stand before her. Although they are unable to see one another’s facial expressions, we are shown them both along with her reaction to the stifling combination of interrogation (Chief Inspector) and emotional bullying (Tony). This shot also serves as a sombre reminder that not only is Margot quite alone as a woman in this moment, but within the entirety of the film itself: there are no other female characters, a choice so rare for Hitchcock that it feels indisputably purposeful.
Questioned about the letter found on Swan’s body (planted by Tony) Margot lies to the police on two occasions. It is clear however that her reason for withholding information is because she is frightened of Tony but here it is Mark’s turn to deny her a voice as he takes over the interaction with the Chief Inspector to confirm they are having an affair, revealing too that Margot knew about the letters. Despite being the moral thing to do, this takes the narrative and control away from Margot and results in the Chief Inspector’s suspicions being raised even further as he issues her with a threatening warning that if she tries to conceal anything more she will be placing herself in danger. Furthermore, and perhaps most disturbingly of all, it is insinuated that she caused the bruises on her own body and the attack was a fabrication.
With even Tony now looking to doubt her, Margot’s reality is not what she thought; the truth and her mind are now manipulated to the fullest extent. The culmination of these circumstances result in Margot being arrested and charged with murder and – when found guilty by the judge – she remains poignantly silent, for there are no words that can rescue her from the horror of this situation. Facing execution for protecting herself from her husband’s contrived murder plan Margot remains powerless inside the prison walls – an extension of her continued enforced silence – whilst the men outside construct their own narrative without facing any challenge. In the final moments of this act a drawing room whodunnit spirals down into an all too familiar story about a woman who is not believed.
One Final Test
As the Inspector drills down the truth, Margot is released from prison, escaping near death a second time. Returning to the apartment, she finds herself mistrusted until the final moment as she is exposed to one more test to confirm her credibility. When she tries to enter, Mark and the Inspector wait to see if she is aware of the key that formed part of Tony’s earlier plan, which he placed under the stair carpet. Her key does not fit the lock, which adds to her confusion but solidifies her innocence. Notably in shock and disbelief, a fragment of her former self, she appears drained and lifeless like a walking corpse. In response to their questions she responds with ‘I don’t know’ on multiple occasions, a symptom of her uncertainty after her truth and reality has been toyed with on so many occasions. When told that Tony plotted to end her life, this seems to take her into even deeper shock, affirming that she never suspected it.
Trying to process her emotions, she describes not being able to ‘feel anything.’ Clearly in a state of numbness after all the trauma she has lived through, her lover Mark quips unhelpfully ‘in a few days you’ll have the most wonderful breakdown’, a comment that might be designed to inject humour into a tense atmosphere but that simultaneously trivialises her experiences.
After hearing that her husband had plans to murder her, Margot then must then face him. As Tony comes through the door she looks totally broken – the criminal may be captured, but the victim has a lot of healing to do.
Rebecca will return soon with her next instalment of Hitchcock’s Women.