Hitch and Grace In Three Acts: Dial M For Murder (1954): Hitch Finds His Muse

Much ink has been spilled over Alfred Hitchcock’s complicated relationships with his leading ladies.  But it’s a topic of endless fascination, so let’s spill a little more, shall we?

There is speculation about the exact nature of the sex in Hitch’s long marriage to his wife Alma, but we can only say with certainty that theirs was not a passionate love.  Hitch was a lonely man, isolated by his intense desire for requited love and his inability to find someone to provide it.  (It’s doubtful he could have accepted it if anyone had ever offered it; alas, it seems no one ever did.)  

He loved Ingrid Bergman first, and through deft skill and an uncommon tenderness, she managed to reject his amorous overtures and shaped his schoolboy crush into a lifelong friendship.  In the case of Tippi Hedren, he developed a dangerous obsession that crossed a red line and marred his legacy.

Sandwiched between Ingrid and Tippi was Grace Kelly, the cool blonde that allowed Hitchcock to mold her into his image of the perfect woman.

Twenty-four year old Grace Kelly had made only three films when fifty-four year old Hitchcock saw her in Mogambo, John Ford’s film set in Africa that featured a love triangle between Clark Gable, Ava Gardner, and Kelly.  She hadn’t yet made much of an impression on audiences or critics (though after she caught Hitch’s eye she was a surprise nominee for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her work in Mogambo), but Hitch was convinced she could be the star he’d been searching for ever since Ingrid Bergman left him in 1949 to make films in Italy with Roberto Rossellini.

Hitch felt Grace Kelly had a mix of elegance and sexuality that he could exploit with his camera.  While Marilyn Monroe embodied the blonde bombshell who put her sexuality right out there for anyone to see, Hitch called Grace Kelly a “snow-covered volcano,” a woman who kept such tight reign on herself that men went mad imagining what was beneath the white gloves, prim hats, and perfect dresses.

Hitch nurtured this image of Kelly through the three films they made together.  Though she occupied a singular place in his heart, there were never any romantic interludes between them.  Hitch satisfied his desires by taking extreme interest in the clothing she wore in his films, dressing her like a doll, and being infinitely patient with her on set, which was not his usual way with his actors.

After seeing her in Mogamo, he convinced MGM to loan her to Warner Brothers to star in his picture Dial M For Murder, based on the stage play of the same name.

The plot for the film starts off rather simply and then becomes increasingly complicated in the second half.  Grace Kelly plays Margo Wendice, a woman having an affair with American writer Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings).  Unbeknownst to her, her husband Tony (Ray Milland) has discovered the affair.  Worried that she will leave him (and take the money that he lives the high life on), Tony blackmails an old schoolmate to murder her.

I first saw this film nearly twenty years ago in college, and I remembered nearly every moment of the grisly attempted murder scence, still shocking despite the lack of gory effects that would be employed today.  The rest of the film I had utterly forgotten.

After watching it again, I am convinced that in twenty more years I will still remember the attempted murder scene, while having again forgotten the rest.

Swann (the killer) has entered the apartment while Margo (Kelly) is sleeping in her bedroom.  He hides behind the thick curtains just behind the desk.  When the telephone rings (her husband calling to lure his wife to her death), Margo staggers into the room half asleep in nothing but her nightgown.  As her husband listens on the other end of the line, Swann wraps a scarf around Margo’s neck and attempts to strangle her.

But Margo (who is often quite passive in the rest of the film) puts up unexpected resistance and fights Swann.  In the struggle, Swann throws her over the desk and bends over her as she moans and he pulls the scarf tighter.

The scene is quite clearly choreographed to mimic a rape, and we see shots of Kelly’s bare legs as she struggles.

In a moment of inspiration, Margo reaches behind her head, remembering the scissors from her mending basket she’d left on the desk.  She finds them and plunges them into the killer’s back.  He falls, taking her with him as the scarf is still wrapped around her neck, and as he hits the floor the scissor blades imbed themselves fatally into his back.

I challenge you to watch the scene without flinching.

After realizing she has killed her attacker, the gasping Margo staggers onto the back patio, drawing in large breaths of air and pulling the scarf from her neck.

The scene took over a week to shoot, and years later Grace Kelly spoke of the difficulties and awkwardness of doing take after take that left her exhausted and bruised at the end of each day.  But she wanted to please Hitchcock (and that desire alone pleased him immensely) and eventually the scene was shot to Hitchock’s satisfaction.

Watching the film today, it is noticeable how Kelly reaches behind her head for the scissors.  She lets her hand flail around for a long time, which strikes a bit of a wrong note as she should be rummaging on the surface of the desk for the scissors.  Before she takes the killing blow, she holds the scissors up for a moment so the audience can get a good look at them.

But Hitch, of course, had his reasons.  Dial M for Murder was shot in 3-D, a new special effect the movie industry was testing out to compete with television.  To audiences in 3-D glasses, it would appear that Kelly was reaching out of the screen to them, and that the deadly scissors were inches from their face.

Hitch hated the idea of 3-D, which he correctly predicted would be a short-lived gimmick, but Warner Brothers insisted he use the technology.  The 3-D cameras were large, slowed down filming, and prevented Hitch from doing certain shots.

In fact, the release of Dial M for Murder was delayed for nearly a year until the run of the play completed, and by the time audiences saw it the 3-D craze had already passed.  Most people saw it the way we do today, in two dimensions.

After the attempted murder, the film gets a little bogged down in plot.  Since his wife has survived, the husband shifts his plan to convincing the police that she deliberately killed the man because he was blackmailing her over her affair.  It nearly works, until her lover and a clever detective save her from death row with sleuthing that would make Sherlock Holmes—and Columbo—proud.

For Hitch, who was never all that interested in the storyline of Dial M and who hated the 3-D filming process, the main joy of the film was working with Kelly.  Throughout the process he had his mind on his next film, one that would rightly be regarded as a masterpiece by film scholars and audiences alike.

It was the story of the ultimate voyeur who has a beautiful woman do his bidding.

It was the story of movie making itself, spiced up with murder.

Kelly would star in it, of course, no matter what he had to do to once again pry her away from MGM.

Now all he needed was the right leading man.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.

7 thoughts on “Hitch and Grace In Three Acts: Dial M For Murder (1954): Hitch Finds His Muse

  1. I’m not sure that Hitchcock’s methods would pass muster in the meetoo era, and that is a problem. Some great films, yes, but can we enjoy if we dislike the working methods behind them? Where do we draw the line?

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    • It’s a good question, especially in the case of Hitchcock, who really did some terrible things to his leading ladies. My general point of view (Robert Taylor aside, haha) is to separate the art from the artist. And I have a very forgiving nature of these old films for portraying things that would not fly today under the banner of “it was a different time.”

      But some of Hitch’s worst behavior was not okay in any time, and people in his time knew it was wrong and should have intervened. His treatment of Tippi Hedren is pure assault, and does make me see The Birds and Marnie differently.

      I love Hitchcock’s films too much to have them wiped from the record. But neither should his behavior be papered over. I think for me the line is drawn when something can be done. In Hitch’s case, all involved are dead and gone (or in Hedren’s case, she is alive but got to have her say and is believed.) Nothing can be done to change it – we can study it, and learn from it. And it’s no sin to enjoy the films made.

      If Hitch were making films today, of course he should be stopped, no matter if was cranking out masterpieces or not. That’s the line for me.

      Would love to know your thoughts.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Grew up on these films, and equally keen not to consign them to the dustbin of history. It’s not possible to check out the bahaviour of every member of a film crew, so I’ve generally decided not to let personal information corrupt one’s opinion of a film. That said, there’s a streak of male empowerment at the expense of women that makes me uncomfortable in his later films, and I generally feel that if you’re viewing material you don’t like, you have a responsibility to call it out. So Hitchcock, like all other film-makers, is due a re-assessment; what do we think of this now?
        Rather than google it, I should ask; what did Robert Taylor do?

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      • Don’t cancel poor Robert Taylor….all he did was cheat on my beloved Barbara Stanwyck, which I will never forgive him for. But I really was just joking, he is not problematic in the least. As for Hitch, you’re right. Some of his films are downright sadistic. But man the good ones are some of the best…he is a clear case of the adage “never meet your heroes.”. But the story of his life through film is also an interesting and in some ways sympathetic one…this lonely man who is disgusted by his weight and wants these women he can never have. Their (perceived) abandonment in the case of Bergman and Kelly ( who were actually quite loyal and generous to him) turned him into a monster in the end. In a way, his life itself was the ultimate Hitchcock thriller. What I find myself reexamining is my feelings that I admire how Bergman and Kelly in particular were able to rebuff him but still make him happy.

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      • When really, they should not have had to do so. Though they always spoke highly of Hitch, it is true that Bergman fled for Italy after 3 films with him and Kelly fled for Monaco after the same. They never said it had anything to do with working with Hitch but I have to wonder….

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      • I’d say that story is a movie right there, but the movies made about Hitchcock didn’t float my boat. There’s other directors whose work is tainted by misogyny, De Palma for one, but I feel that it would be ridicolous to judge by the standards of forty years after the film was made. Audiences can self-select in the streaming age, so it’s all just a matter of taste. I’m not juding films by how clearly the reflect my own beliefs, although I’d admit that it can help…

        Phew, relieved it’s just the fictional Robert taylor that’s causing problems, you never know….

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  2. Pingback: Golden Age of Hollywood Reference List | Melanie Novak

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