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 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.
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