Dial M for Murder (1954)
Dial M for Murder is a claustrophobic murder mystery directed by Alfred Hitchcock starring his favorite blonde, Grace Kelly. Dial M was their first project together; they would make two more films, Rear Window (1954) and To Catch a Thief (1955) before Miss Kelly became Princess Grace of Monaco and retired from the screen in 1956.
Besides being the start of a beautiful working relationship, this film is also notable as the first and only time that Hitchcock made a movie in 3-D. We are not living in the first era of 3-D movies; in fact, the early 1950s are considered the “golden age” of 3-D filmmaking. There have been subsequent 3-D crazes in the 1980s, the 1990s, and the late 2000s, a trend which continues today.
After the success of 3-D films like Bwana Devil (1952) and House of Wax (1953), studios scrambled to supply 3-D movies. Warner Bros. purchased the movie rights to Frederick Knott’s 1952 play “Dial M for Murder,” and decided it would be one of their 3-D projects.
Visit 3-D Film Archive if you’d like to know more about 3-D films in the 1950s, and for a tiny taste of the 3-D and widescreen mania, check out this page from the April 1953 issue of International Projectionist.
It notes various studios’ upcoming 3-D and widescreen projects. Dial M for Murder is mentioned in the second blurb.
Fun fact: although Dial M was filmed in the summer of 1953, it wasn’t released until May 1954 due to a contractual agreement. When Warner Bros. bought the movie rights to the play, the studio agreed to wait to release the movie version until all the live, staged versions had closed, which didn’t happen until 1954. This meant that instead of premiering at the height of the 3-D craze, Dial M opened at its end.
The fantastic projections and wild hopes for the technology failed to pan out, and Dial M was actually shown mostly “flat” instead of in 3-D. In David Bordwell’s excellent article on the film, he notes that in April 1954, one month before Dial M was released, Variety published a story with the dire headline “3-D Looks Dead in United States.” And Hitchcock recalled that 3-D was a “nine day wonder” and “I came in on the ninth day.” For a great look at why 3-D didn’t last in the 1950s, visit 3-D Film Archive’s article on the subject.
But back to the movie! Hitchcock was hired to produce and direct, and MGM loaned Warner Bros. Grace Kelly for the lead role. Ray Milland and Robert Cummings rounded out the cast, and Knott wrote the screenplay. Fun fact: in 1966, Knott’s play “Wait Until Dark” premiered on Broadway and was quickly adapted for the screen. It was released in 1967 and starred Audrey Hepburn.
You can watch the opening credits here. We meet Tony and Margot Wendice (Milland and Kelly) as they enjoy a morning kiss and repast. Sidenote: I think Ray Milland looks an awful lot like Jimmy Stewart in this film!
All seems peachy in this British flat, though Margot seems awfully interested in the Queen Mary’s arrival list, which we see in a helpful, highlighted insert. Who is this Mark Halliday?Before we know it, we see Mrs. Wendice in another kiss, but with a different man! Horrors! I’ve juxtaposed both kisses here. It’s cleverly done and rather shocking. Margot seemed like such a nice lady at breakfast in her pale pink robe!
But now she is in fiery-red lace for a private meeting with her lover, Mark (Robert Cummings). It always surprises me to see Cummings in a drama because he mainly played comedies, but he’s excellent in this. Fun fact: Dial M was his second Hitchcock film after 1942’s Saboteur.
Margot and Mark (adorably complementary names; “Max” was the character’s name in the play) enjoy a passionate kiss, but as they chat we sense some tension. Margot seems disturbed by their affair, but not really for the reason you might suspect.
We learn that they fell in love a while ago but ended things about a year prior to this meeting because Margot didn’t want to carry on the adulterous liaison. She burned all of Mark’s letters except for one, which she kept in her purse. We don’t learn exactly why she kept that specific letter, nor why she was so determined to keep it close at all times, but use your imagination.
Several months ago, her purse was stolen at Victoria Station, and though the handbag turned up about a month later, the letter was gone. Blackmail requests soon arrived asking Margot to pay for the return of the dangerous letter, and she did, but she never got the letter back. You can’t trust blackmailers! Margot tells Mark this sordid tale as they guzzle cocktails. You can watch the scene here.
Here are Hitchcock, Kelly, and Cummings on set:
Let’s talk costumes for a minute. To say that Hitchcock was a perfectionist is putting it mildly; he controlled every aspect of his films, including costumes. Hitchcock would forge an excellent, famous working relationship with Paramount’s costume designer Edith Head, with his next films, including To Catch a Thief. (Head designed the costumes for Notorious a decade previously, too). But Kelly’s wardrobe in this film was designed by Warner Bros.’ costume designer Moss Mabry. As usual, Hitchcock was highly involved in the process.
This red strapless gown with matching lace bolero is the most glamorous and exciting of Kelly’s costumes in the film, which is a bit unusual.
In her other Hitchcock films, each costume outdoes the last to create a fashion show of magnificence.
But in those films Kelly plays a fashion insider (Rear Window) and glamorous socialite (To Catch a Thief), whereas in this movie she is an ordinary middle class woman.
But beyond the character suitability, Hitchcock had a very specific strategy with Kelly’s costumes: “We did an interesting color experiment with Grace Kelly’s clothing. I dressed her in very gay and bright colors at the beginning of the picture, and as the plot thickened, her clothes became gradually more somber.”
Back to the film: Things get awkward when Tony arrives. Margot watches her husband and her lover shake hands, and everyone pretends that everything it utterly fine!
Then Tony apologetically announces that he can’t go out with them because he has unexpected, urgent work to attend to. But as soon as Mark and Margot leave, Tony gets a dark, crafty look on his face. What is going on? We were feeling a little sorry for this cuckolded husband, but now we’re not sure what to think!
Tony makes a charming, friendly phone call to a man about buying a car. He asks the man to come to his flat as he has twisted his knee rather badly. But we know that’s a lie. This movie is especially fun because we know very early on that something nasty is afoot, and that Tony is involved. We watch to find out just what his scheme is.
The car-selling gentleman arrives, and what a small world it is! The man, Swann (Anthony Dawson), is one of Tony’s old college pals! Coincidentally, Tony has a photograph from a reunion hanging on the living room wall, and there is Swann with the cigar next to Tony. Fun fact: the man in the left corner of the foreground is none other than Alfred Hitchcock in his customary cameo. Another fun fact: Dawson played the Swann character in the play before reprising his role in the film.
Swann is confused by all the coincidences and odd happenings. But Tony just keeps talking, controlling the conversation with malevolent ease.
Fun fact: this movie is full of foregrounded objects, particularly lamps. This technique helps add depth and takes advantage of the 3-D format. Warning! Here come spoilers, so stop reading if you don’t want to know anything else!
We learn that Tony was once a top tennis player and that Margot is independently wealthy, but more importantly, we learn that Tony found out about the affair a year ago when he followed Margot to an assignation with Mark. Gasp!
We learn that Tony has a strong evil streak and began planning his wife’s murder the night he found out about her adultery. Divorce is out of the question, as he has grown used to a certain lifestyle and needs his wife’s money, and her life insurance settlement, to continue it.
We learn that Tony is the one who stole Mark’s letter, staging the whole Victoria Station purse robbery to cover his tracks. He was also the blackmailer, as he wanted to see if Margot would come clean about the affair when pressed.
And then things get even crazier. He stealthily gets Swann’s fingerprints on the letter, and begins to insinuate and then outright state his impressive knowledge of his school chum’s criminal activities. He’s been following Swann for months to amass enough blackmail-worthy material, and boy, did he succeed!
Swann is a very dishonest fellow with many nefarious activities and a possible murder in his past. Tony seems to know everything, and before Swann realizes what is happening, Tony has him neatly boxed in. And he did it in such a friendly, charming manner!
Now that Tony has Swann in his pocket, he gets to the point. Tony tells Swann that unless Swann murders Margot, Tony will ensure that Swann faces charges for all of his misdeeds, including blackmailing Margot now that Swann’s fingerprints are on the letter. And if Swann tries to tell the police about Tony’s plot, he will never be believed, plus he will most likely be arrested for some of his outstanding crimes.
But if he does murder Margot, Tony will pay him one thousand pounds. He’s been withdrawing small amounts of money for a year, surreptitiously stockpiling cash for just this reason. Swann is incredulous, but Tony is so clever and has sprung such a neatly devised trap that Swann is caught before he even knows what is happening. Tony explains the murder to Swann, walking him through the plan step by step. You can watch the murder rehearsal here.
Hitchcock uses a high angle to film Tony walking through the plan, which gives us a great look at the flat. The vast majority of the film takes place in the apartment, with only a few minutes spent outside at a hotel, the Queen Mary docks, or on the street, with most of the street scenes shot through one of the flat’s windows! Hitchcock wanted to maintain the play’s tiny setting, and it makes for a creepily claustrophobic thriller with evil sprouting in the most ordinary places.
Here’s a plan of the apartment, though we become so familiar with the space that you can probably recreate it from memory after watching the movie. The bedroom is on the far right, the living room opens onto a back terrace on the left, and the door to the flat opens to a common hallway with a staircase. The street door is at the top right corner.
Tony has planned Margot’s murder down to the last detail. Tomorrow night, he and Mark will be at a party and Margot will stay at home, as she always does on Saturday evenings to listen to her favorite radio program. Tony will plant a key to the front door under the carpet on the stairs outside the flat, and Swann will use it to get inside when Margot is sleeping. Then Swann will hide behind the curtains by the desk. Tony will call Margot from the party at 11PM, and when she gets up to answer the phone on the desk, Swann will do the dirty deed, replace the key, and get out of Dodge. It can’t fail.
When Tony asks to borrow Margot’s key because he can’t find his (when really he needs to put one of their two keys in the hiding place for Swann), Margot says that she needs her key since she wants to see a movie instead of staying home. That’s a nasty shock for Tony, but he guilts her into staying home to work on his tennis scrapbooks. As she is carting over the clippings and her scissors to the desk, he steals the key from her handbag and places it under the carpet on the stairs. Mission accomplished. You can watch the scene here.
This is such an odd movie because we partially sympathize with Tony and his brilliant plan. We get nervous when little bumps like Margot’s desire to see a movie threaten to derail the murder, but at the same time we don’t want Margot to die!
Mark and Tony leave, and the plan is set in motion. Just before 11PM, Swann’s silhouette appears at the street door as Margot sleeps soundly. He finds the key, enters the flat, and hides behind the curtain.
Then it’s up to Tony. He excuses himself from the party and finds a phone booth. (I couldn’t help thinking as I watched this how it wouldn’t work today with cell phones! The plan depends on Margot being in a certain place at a certain time to answer the only phone in the apartment. Plus, the whole “Dial M for Murder” thing isn’t as impressive on non-rotary phones.)
We are in a state of tense suspense as Tony dials.
Fun fact: the close-up on the dial is a “fake” because the 3-D camera couldn’t get a crisp extreme close-up like that on an actual phone. So Hitchcock commissioned a giant prop phone and used that for the close-up, instead. He also used a huge fake finger for the actual dialing. The fake finger must have been immense, because look at how big the phone is! The same prop phone was used for the opening title sequence, too.
Hitchcock did something similar in Spellbound (1945) when he couldn’t get clean focus on the gun and on Ingrid Bergman in the same frame. So he used a giant gun and a huge fake hand to get the effect that he wanted.
You can see the prop hand in these images from my review of Spellbound.
The necessity for a prop telephone and finger are just two examples of the occasional struggles the crew faced while shooting this movie with the very new 3-D camera and its unique limitations and bugs. One major issue was the size of the camera; it was huge and difficult to position and fit in tight spaces. Kelly remembered the struggle, noting that shooting in 3-D was “like going into the boxing ring with your hands tied behind your back.” But she says that she never saw Hitchcock get too frustrated: “I never saw him lose patience — he never became angry… when the technicians said, ‘Oh, no, with the camera we can’t do this and we can’t do that.'”
Back to Dial M for Murder, which is actually happening at that very moment in the movie. Sleepy Margot rouses herself from bed and stumbles through the dark living room to the desk. She answers the phone and says, “Hello?” repeatedly, but Tony stays silent. It’s terrifying. We know that Swann is lurking just a few feet away, but Margot has no idea.
And then he strikes:
Tony listens as Margot puts up a valiant fight. Swann and Margot twist and flail and Margot is pushed onto the desk. She reaches wildly for something and finds the scissors she’d been using on the tennis scrapbooks. (Ironic, right? She’d been doing something nice for her husband which is why the scissors were on the desk, not in her mending basket across the room where they are usually kept. Her wifely scrapbooking is what saves her from her husband’s murder plot!)
Imagine Tony’s surprise when he hears his wife’s terrified voice on the phone and learns that Swann is dead! He tells Margot that he’ll be there soon, and to wait for him before calling the police. It’s quite a grisly, disturbing scene. You can watch it here.
Fun fact: Hitchcock spent a full week out of the thirty-six day shooting schedule filming the murder scene to get it exactly how he wanted. He was hampered by the enormous 3-D camera that made certain setups and angles impossible, but he made it all work. After one (of many, many takes), he reportedly said, “This is nicely done but there wasn’t enough gleam to the scissors, and a murder without gleaming scissors is like asparagus without the hollandaise sauce – tasteless.”
Hitchcock gets a nice shiny gleam on the scissors, alright, so my only problem with the scene is how long Margot stays on the phone repeating “Hello?” She says “Hello?” seven times over a thirty second period before starting to hang up the phone. I know it ratchets up suspense, but it’s not very realistic. I give three, maybe four “Hello’s” before hanging up if I don’t get an answer, but she’s like a sleepy parrot glued to that crucial spot until Swann emerges.
Costume appreciation break. Kelly’s pale blue and white lace nightgown wasn’t Hitchcock’s original choice for the murder scene. In fact, Hitchcock envisioned something more formal and substantial.
Kelly recalled that Hitchcock wanted her to wear a “fancy velvet robe” because “he wanted the effect of light and shadow on velvet for the murder scene at the desk.”
But Kelly disagreed with this vision. She remembered, “I was very unhappy about it, and I told him I didn’t think it was right for the part. He said he wanted a particular effect, but I said, “I don’t think that this woman is going to put on this great fancy robe if she is getting up in the middle of the night to answer a ringing phone and there’s nobody in the apartment.” And he said, “Well, what would you do? What would you put on to answer the phone?” I said I wouldn’t put on anything at all, that I’d just get up and go to the phone in my nightgown. And he admitted that was better, and that’s the way it was done.”
And I must agree with Kelly. The filmy, feminine nightgown makes her a much more visually vulnerable victim than a heavy robe would have, and it does seem more realistic. Plus, the light colors of the nightgown seem to glow amidst all the dark shadows and Swann’s grey coat.
When Tony returns home, he finds a traumatized Margot and a very dead Swann. He calls the police, tells Margot to go to bed, and then has a few minutes to arrange things to his satisfaction.
When he starts manipulating the crime scene, we think he is just covering his tracks so that Swann can’t be traced back to him. He returns the key in Swann’s pocket to Margot’s handbag, and puts the blackmail letter in Swann’s coat, for example. But then he does some other odd things, like burning the scarf that Swann used to strangle Margot. What is he up to? You can watch his machinations here.
The police arrive, and we watch them work in a high angle shot that rhymes with the murder planning shots of Swann and Tony. It’s nice to shoot the murder preparation and the murder investigation the same way, right? And it’s fun to see the apartment from different angles since we are there for so much of the movie. Clever Hitchcock.
The next morning, Margot is pale in her buttoned up, collared grey dress with a pleated skirt. She still seems dazed from the night before, and unfortunately, this day is just going to get worse. First, Tony asks her to lie and say that she thought he was going to call the police from the hotel instead of the truth, which is that he told her not to talk to anyone.
Then Chief Inspector Hubbard (John Williams) arrives and asks Margot some questions. He seems skeptical about her story, and Margot doesn’t understand why. She doesn’t know that her dear husband arranged the crime scene to cast doubts on her version of events. His murder plan may have fallen through, but he has adjusted his scheme. The new plan is to have Margot convicted and executed for Swann’s murder.
Fun fact: like Anthony Dawson, Williams is reprising his role as Inspector Hubbard from the play. This was his film debut, and you may recognize him as the insurance man who works with Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief. Williams is so fantastically British, tut-tut, cheerio and all that. But his Inspector Hubbard is also very smart, so Tony treads carefully.
There is a great moment when Hubbard asks Margot why she didn’t call the police, and she glances at Tony lurking behind the Inspector, before answering with the agreed-upon lie. She doesn’t realize that it makes her look bad.
Then Mark arrives, and the Inspector sends Tony on a small errand in the garden. He wants to talk to Mark and Margot about the letter found in Swann’s pocket, and to see if Tony knew about their affair.
It begins to dawn on Margot that she might be in trouble. All the evidence suggests that she killed Swann not in self-defense but because he was blackmailing her about the affair. Tony is a devious, wicked guy, but it’s very entertaining to watch him work!
Margot goes to the police station with Hubbard to “answer a few questions,” but we know it is more than that. You can watch the scene here.
One last example of the costume design: Margot’s grey dress and shapeless brown coat are about as different from the red lace dress as you can get. Plus, the grey dress looks like a prison uniform, so she’s already dressing the part.
Rather than show the police interviews, Margot’s arrest, and the full trial and sentencing, Hitchcock gives us all we need to know in a quick, nightmarish sequence. He filmed silent Kelly against a changing background of lights and colors while a grim voiceover charges, tries, and convicts her. A shot of a judge announcing sentence of death is the only non-Margot shot in the sequence.
It’s brilliant and fast and perfect. We didn’t need to sit through a long trial or hear all the evidence against Margot. Thanks to our alignment with Tony, we know the prosecution’s case.
And watching Margot’s changing expressions against the morphing backdrop as the stern voiceover pronounces sentence is an extremely effective way of showing the wrongful conviction. Plus, staying on and with Margot for the trial makes you really feel for her and no longer sympathize with Tony. You can watch it here.
Hitchcock later said that he shot the court sequence that way for a few reasons; mainly, he wanted to stay inside the apartment for as much of the movie as he could. As David Bordwell notes, only about five minutes of the movie take place outside the flat. Hitchcock definitely didn’t want to break up the claustrophobic atmosphere and psychological intensity he had created by suddenly moving to a courtroom and dealing with all the attending characters and activity of a murder trial.
Also, he didn’t want to spend a lot of time on the trial. As he told Truffaut in a famous interview, “People would have started to cough restlessly, thinking, ‘Now they’re starting a second picture.’” We don’t need to sit through a trial, and we don’t really want to. We want to get back to treacherous Tony and see how it is all going to end up.
It’s several months later, and Margot is to be executed the next day. Tony arrives at the flat with a valise, which he hides when Mark unexpectedly stops by. Mark is a detective story writer for TV, and he thinks he has hit on a fake story that Tony can tell the police to save Margot’s life.
He outlines the plot, and it’s amusingly close to the truth. He wants Tony to go to the police and “lie” about how he hired Swann to kill Margot for her money. Mark even supplies a story for how Swann got into the apartment–Tony left a key outside in the hallway for him! This was a sticking point in Margot’s case, as there was no evidence of a break-in but no key was found on the body, so everyone believed that Margot let Swann in.
It’s a very funny scene because Mark has accidentally stumbled on the truth, though he has no idea! But the humor is tempered by the fact that Mark is desperately trying to save Margot from imminent execution.
Then Hubbard shows up to ask Tony some questions about stolen money. Mark hides in the bedroom and finds the valise, which is full of about five hundred one-pound notes. The money was intended as Swann’s payment, but since he died, Tony retrieved it and has been living off of it since Margot went to prison. The money makes Mark very suspicious, and he realizes that his “fictional” version of the murder may in fact be the truth. He calls Hubbard into the bedroom.
Here they are on set. Note the framed photograph of tennis star Tony on the dresser behind Cummings:
Tony explains the money to the Inspector’s satisfaction, or so we think. Hubbard and Mark leave, and Tony hurries out with the case. But while inside the flat, the Inspector switched his latchkey for Tony’s, and he lets himself back in once Tony is gone. He is suspicious of Tony, too! Mark shows up, too, so they are both at the flat when Margot is brought from prison.
The Inspector wanted Margot to come home for a specific experiment. He was concerned that no key was found on Swann, so he checked the key in Margot’s handbag. It didn’t work on the Wendice door, but it opened Swann’s former apartment! Just as Mark did, Hubbard deduced that a key was left somewhere in the hallway for Swann to use. He thinks that Tony searched the body before the police came and assumed that the key in Swann’s pocket was Margot’s. So he replaced it in her purse, but actually it was Swann’s key!
Swann must have opened the Wendice door and replaced the key in its hiding place before he ever entered the flat. The Inspector finds the key under the stair carpet, and now he wants to see if Margot knows of its existence. When she can’t open the door with the key in her purse, she runs back outside to get help from the policeman who brought her home. She didn’t use the hidden key because she doesn’t know it is there!
The Inspector explains Tony’s plot to Mark and Margot, and shows them the crucial key.
He further explains that he intends to test Tony the same way, as it is the only proof left of his dastardly plot. The Inspector sends Margot’s handbag back to the station, as Tony was planning to stop by to get her effects that evening. And since the Inspector took Tony’s latchkey, he will have to use the key in Margot’s purse. When that doesn’t work, will he look under the carpet and use the hidden key, thus admitting his guilt? We wait to find out.
Poor Margot is completely overwhelmed:
When Tony returns home, the key from Margot’s purse doesn’t work, as we expected. Tony turns to leave. But he pauses just outside. The Inspector watches from the window as Tony slowly works out the case of the keys.
Tony remains charming until the end, handling his defeat with British fortitude and dry humor. My main question is this: does no one use keychains or label their keys? Everybody has the exact same silver latchkey! Of course, the story wouldn’t work otherwise, but still.
So, thanks to the tireless efforts of the Inspector, Margot is saved. Hopefully she and Mark live the rest of their lives in a happy, non-murderous relationship.
This thriller murder-mystery is unusual because there is so little “action.” It’s mainly people hanging out in the apartment talking to each other, but boy, is it exciting and suspenseful!
Some critics thought that Hitchcock didn’t do enough to adapt the stage play into a film. (That’s an easy charge to level at this deceptively simple movie shot almost completely in one room, but if you look closely it is absolutely stuffed with gorgeous, unusual shots, interesting rhymes, and cinematic flourishes.) But Hitchcock said that he wanted to keep the “theatrical” elements and the tight intensity of the play.
It would have been easy for Hitchcock to “open up the play,” and take it to many different locations and times. He could have gone back in time and shown Mark and Margot embracing in an apartment while furious Tony watched from the street, for instance, and, as David Bordwell notes, the theft of Margot’s purse at Victoria Station or Tony’s exhaustive stalking of Swann were ripe for filming.
But Hitchcock made the conscious decision to stay in the present and to “tell” rather than “show.” So Margot and Mark discuss their affair, she tells him about her purse theft, and Tony talks poor Swann into submission without ever “showing” anything. It’s not boring, in fact, Bordwell writes that “we can gain an extra layer of interest when action is recounted rather than dramatized: we get both past events and present attitudes toward them.” (I highly recommend his wonderful post on the film!)
As for the 3-D: when this film was in production, the industry was enthusiastic and very committed to the new 3-D technology. But due mostly to unsatisfactory, inconsistent projection which made 3-D films less than spectacular for audiences, interest faded. Studios recognized that audiences weren’t clamoring for 3-D anymore, and according to 3-D Film Archive.com, the last 3-D film went into production in October 1953. (Recall that Dial M was shot in the summer of that year.)
By 1954, films shot in 3-D had limited bookings in that format and were often released “flat.” That’s what happened to Dial M; lackluster attendance and complaints at early 3-D showings convinced Warner Bros. to scrap its 3-D bookings. As an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer noted, “In exhibitors’ own terms, DIAL M literally died. And after just four performances on Wednesday, some long-distance telephoning to report complaints, the increasing skimpiness of customers–a good many of them making no bones of their dissatisfaction–permission was given to throw away the glasses and hastily switch to the 2-D version. Whereupon business at the Randolph took a turn for the better.” After such early screenings, Warner Bros. released the film flat, though the 3-D version has since had a resurgence, first in 1979 and then in 2011 when Warner Bros. restored the 3-D print. It’s now available on 3-D Blu Ray. You can read about the 3-D voyage of the film here.
Fun fact: this movie was re-made for television in 1981 starring Angie Dickinson and Christopher Plummer, and as A Perfect Murder (1998) with Michael Douglas and Gwyneth Paltrow.
Another fun fact: Kelly would win a Best Actress Oscar for another unglamorous, suffering wife role in The Country Girl, which premiered in December 1954.