Alfred Hitchcock’s oeuvre is so filled with victimized women that it seems to indicate an almost uncontrollable fetish on the part of the prolific director. Feminists have long had a field day with interpretations of feminine behavior and characterizations within Hitchcock’s work, and it’s little wonder why. Think about some of the most famous montages in Hitchcock’s career: Janet Leigh being hacked to death in the shower by “Mother” in Psycho (1960); Tippi Hedren fleeing a flock of crazed crows in 1962’s The Birds; Ingrid Bergman being slowly poisoned by her Nazi husband in Notorious (1948); Grace Kelly reaching blindly behind her for a pair of scissors as she’s being strangled in 1954’s Dial M for Murder. Each of these films takes a beautiful woman and places her directly in the path of danger and/or murderous intentions, and each woman only narrowly escapes the clutches of her adversaries–generally due solely to the help of a strapping male ally (or two).
In my humble estimation, of all of the films in that list, the final one, Dial M for Murder, most perfectly encapsulates Hitch’s apparent fetish for endangered females on the big screen. Based on the 1952 play of the same name, the film version stars Ray Milland, Robert Cummings, and Hitchcock favorites Grace Kelly and John Williams in a taut thriller about a man who goes to extreme lengths to punish his wife for her adulterous sins and simultaneously preserve the lifestyle to which he has become accustomed.
Milland plays former tennis star Tony Wendice, who lives in a London flat with his wife, Margot (Kelly), a wealthy heiress. When Margot embarks on an affair with an American mystery novelist, Mark Halliday (Cummings), Tony begins to fear that Margot will divorce him, taking her money–and his fancy lifestyle–with her. He devises a plot to have Margot killed so he can inherit her millions, blackmailing a former college comrade, Lesgate (Anthony Dawson) into committing the crime on his behalf while Tony establishes an alibi elsewhere. But the plan goes awry when Margot manages to kill Lesgate during the attack. Tony then alters his plan on the fly, framing Margot for the supposedly premeditated murder of her attacker. It’s up to Mark and a suspicious police inspector (Williams) to reveal the truth and rescue Margot before she is wrongfully executed for murder.
In Grace Kelly, Hitchcock found his ideal female star: the icy cool blonde, her indifferent exterior hiding a fiery, passionate femininity–in short, perfect for the character of Margot. Hitchcock hints at Margot’s inner heat through her wardrobe in the film, exploring both its heights in the initial scenes and its subsequent dampening in the wake of the sobering events that follow. Our first glimpse of Margot and Tony is a seemingly passionate embrace between husband and wife, but we quickly learn that all is not as loving as it appears with the couple. This is underscored by Margot’s outfit, topped with a banal white blouse. On the other hand, the lacy, bright red ensemble she wears when Mark makes his first appearance indicates the heightened level of her passion for the writer. But after Margot tells Mark that she will remain with her husband, her wardrobe becomes more muted–the red tone of her next outfit is more burgundy than scarlet, and much more modest, besides. The nightgown Margot wears during the pivotal strangling scene signals her newfound “innocence”: it is a combination of virginity–its white color, contrasting the darkness of Lesgate’s gloves and overcoat–and refined sexuality, with its plunging neckline and lacy design. And afterward, as Tony’s plan to frame Margot for homicide begins to take shape, Margot’s clothing becomes downright somber, awash in grays and browns and blacks for the remainder of the film (side note: Hitchcock’s use of wardrobe to convey inner aspects of his female characters is not unique to this film–other prime examples include Rear Window–Kelly again–and Vertigo’s Kim Novak).
Because Margot holds the pursestrings in the marriage, she also holds the majority of the power. Margot cheated on Tony (purportedly) because he was away too much while playing on the tennis circuit, and this ultimately causes Tony to retire from a career that seemingly defined him (he supposedly does this to be with Margot, but really only retires to better plot his revenge). The cuckolded Tony seeks to destroy Margot not only because he fears she will leave him destitute, but to regain–at least metaphorically–some of the power he has lost throughout the relationship. In a sense, Margot’s adultery functions to emasculate Tony, and only through inflicting violence upon his wife–even secondhand–can he “replenish” his lost masculinity.
There is an inherent perversion in placing a woman directly and deliberately in the path of danger, and Hitchcock revels in it, doing everything he can to draw the audience into the action and make them implicit in Tony’s plot. This is most evident in the voyeuristic nature of the would-be murder scene, as the camera slowly pans behind Margot to show Lesgate’s approaching hands, and then switches perspective to give the audience a better view of Margot’s imminent strangulation. There is an uneasy comingling of violence and sexuality in Lesgate’s attack on Margot as he covers her body with his own while attempting to kill her (the undertones of rape in this scene are unmistakable and, knowing Hitchcock, wholly deliberate).
But the attack does not go according to plan, and Tony is further emasculated by Margot by proxy … at least symbolically. Margot fights back against Lesgate with the only item available to her–a pair of scissors from her sewing basket. Stabbing the would-be murderer with such a “womanly” symbol thwarts Tony’s plans and underscores the struggle between his futile desire for domination and Margot’s triumphant femininity.
Still, Margot’s ultimate triumph–her salvation, as it were–comes not at her own hands, but through the efforts of Mark and Chief Inspector Hubbard to clear her name mere hours before her scheduled execution. After bravely fighting off her attacker, Margot (somewhat inexplicably) then turns control of her fate over to Tony, blindly following his instructions to the letter and thus sealing her murder conviction. It never occurs to Margot to act upon her own suspicions of Tony’s involvement, which she acknowledges at the end of the film: when Hubbard asks her if she ever suspected Tony, she replies, “No, never. And yet …”
This almost willful ignorance on the character’s part makes it difficult to label Margot a “heroine,” and indeed, the film seems to punish Margot for her blindness. Aside from stabbing Lesgate in self-defense, Margot spends most of the movie being shunted around at the will of the male characters. In this sense, she’s one of the least proactive of Hitchcock’s leading ladies–she ultimately cannot (will not?) save herself, so instead, Hubbard and Mark take on the shared role of savior, with Hubbard serving as a fatherly sort of figure and Mark reassuming the mantle of trusted lover, both men working together to right the wrongs and restore order to Margot’s world.
Dial M for Murder is not generally considered to be one of Hitchcock’s “greatest” films–that designation is (appropriately) saved for movies such as Rear Window (1954), North by Northwest (1957), and Vertigo (1958). But while Murder is far from perfect, some critics tend to seriously underrate the movie’s overall strength and effectiveness, for the film truly is a masterful blending of suspense, subtle perversion, and dark humor. And perhaps more so than any other film in the Hitchcock canon, Dial M demonstrates the perils of being a woman–flaws, faults, femininity and all–in the director’s twisted, sometimes hypermasculine world.
Make sure you check out the other nineteen blogs participating in the Hitch Blogathon! A complete list can be found at the CMBA site.
In addition to its place as a part of the Blogathon, this post is also part of True Classics’ ongoing countdown of Hitchcock’s twenty greatest films. Dial M for Murder is number ten on that list. For other entries in this series, check out our category devoted to “Hitch.”