The Endangered Female in Dial M for Murder

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.”

14 thoughts on “The Endangered Female in Dial M for Murder

  1. Dial M for Murder, is one of my favorite Hitchcock films. Lots of twist and turns with a great ending. I enjoyed my stay on your beautiful blog.

  2. That was a very good write-up. It’s an interesting film. I know quite a few casual movie watchers (relatives and friends of my parents) who consider this one a great favorite of thiers, moreso than other established classics. I’ve always liked it, and think its one of Ray Milland’s most underrated performances. I wish he had done more work with Hitchcock.

  3. Dial M for Murder used to be one of my favorites, but in recent viewings I noticed it takes too much time to take off, too much blah blah. Anyway, I think it’s very good, even when Grace Kelly’s character was kind of weird, you know, inviting her lover to her home to chat with her husband and everything. Interesting review, it seems that Hitchcock liked to torment women in the films and in real life, Tippi Hedren knows a lot about that.

  4. I have seen “Dial M” many times and think it’s very well done (as w/most Hitchcock) and enjoyable. The attempted strangulation scene is superb…and I particularly like Milland as the smooth (oily!) schemer. As for Hitchcock’s own motivations…they have been sliced and diced for a long time. You are absolutely right, there are motifs and images that recur and recur and recur in his work. Like all true Hitchcock fans, I find this fascinating. Thanks for a very thoughtful and well written post.

  5. This is a very well-done assessment of DIAL M. I agree that it’s underrated–I watched it last year and rather enjoyed it. It has enough differences to stand apart from the other Hitchcock “endangered female films” (love your term). For one, Margot is not totally likable–in fact, it’s a good thing she’s played by Grace Kelly. The bottom line is that she does cheat on her husband and her excuse is a weak one (he was gone a lot). Apparently, Tony is not a good person–hey, he hires someone to kill his wife–but the script could do a better job if “justifying” why Margot sought out an affair. Secondly, I find it intriguing that Tony is so much more interesting than the bland Mark (casting may be partially to blame as I don’t think it’s a role suited to Cummings). Thanks for a great review–your analysis of Margot’s clothes was an eye-opener.

  6. A very interesting review, one which makes me in even more of a hurry to see this film. I agree with your assessment of Hitchcock commonly placing women in dangerous positions, at least in some facet. For example, while Doris Day does not face any inherently physical dangers in THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, she is tormented emotionally.
    You made some very profound observations, thanks!

  7. It was only recently that I saw this film. About five minutes in I realized that “A Perfect Murder” was a remake in which I also enjoyed. Admittedly I prefer Grace Kelly’s character in “To Catch a Thief” and “Rear Window”. However that doesn’t take away from how much I enjoyed this movie and I feel fortunate to have added it to my Hitchcock viewing experience.
    A great review!
    Page at My Love Of Old Hollywood

  8. Great write-up on a Hitch flick that I have to confess isn’t one of my particular favorites; while I don’t have a problem with Robert Cummings in Saboteur he sort of sets my teeth on edge in Dial M. And while several commenters have expressed their fondness for Grace Kelly in this movie I’ve always had difficulty warming up to her character…primarily because, as Rick pointed out, she has been stepping out on her husband. The cardinal sin of Murder, in my opinion, is that it’s a little too slow-moving for my tastes.

    The film does benefit from Milland’s presence–I think I may be the only classic movie buff who prefers Ray’s villainy to his heroics; he could be a real rotter in some vehicles–and the contributions of John Williams, who couldn’t turn in a bad performance if he had a gun to his head. Williams is also one of the saving graces of To Catch a Thief, another Hitchcock outing that has its fans (but I’m not one of them).

  9. Excellent review, particularly in your in-depth analysis of the role of Margo’s clothing and her personality — sometimes insipid, sometimes brave (as in killing the strangler), most of the time very passive. It’s a strange role, not very flattering to women, but I have to admit I’ve seen such characteristics in a lot of us females. I’ve always thought the ending was so very “British”! Tony has tried to have her killed horribly, then he asks her to make him a drink, and she says “Of course” most politely. That always tickled me.

    Wonderful write-up. Isnt’ this Blogathon fun?

  10. Great analysis! Yet another Hitchcock flick I haven’t seen. Kelly is my favorite Hitchcock Blonde (well, unless, does Ingrid Bergman count?) so I’ll have to put it on my list.

  11. Excellent write-up. Your analysis is thoughtful. I must admit that while I like this movie, I’m not a huge fan of it, mainly because I don’t like the source material. You have pointed out its shortcomings. So the joy in watching this film is seeing how Hitchcock almost makes it work, because I’m not sure any other directors could have come close working with the same script. Great job!

  12. Like you, I think DIAL M is an underrated work. It may not be in the same class as REAR WINDOW, VIRTIGO and some others but Hitchcock does a fine job of building tension through his use of camera placement and pacing. I pointed out in my own review a few weeks ago that the strangest thing I found hard to understand is why Kelly’s character preferred Bob Cummings character over Ray Millands. Cummings role come across as a bit of a weasel. Well done review.

  13. A very articulate post with an incisive examination of Hitchcock’s implicit view of gender roles and his use of these, as well as the imperiled female theme, to manipulate the viewer’s responses. Like other commenters here, I especially liked the observation of the way Hitchcock used wardrobe “to convey inner aspects of his female characters,” and I couldn’t help thinking of (quite a few) other movies than the ones you named. This is another example of the way there are no random details in Hitchcock’s films. When you mentioned that the movie was based on a play, it reminded me that, for a director known for his cinematic tricks, Hitchcock used plays for his source material more often than one might expect. The choice of photos to illustrate your points was exemplary and the color quality fantastic.

  14. Can anyone explain to me why the guy Tony had to risk stealing his wife’s key? He could gave his own key to Swan instead without risking stealing the key and returning it back? It was the mistake of returning the wrong key that reveal his virtually perfect murder. I keep asking myself why Tony let the detail in relation to the key complicated his plot even further and subsquently ruined his plan. He could simply give the key to his “unwilling accomplice” and had him return it to the place he took it. Tony would then come home, took the key back, opened the door and arranged things to deal with the investigator later then.

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