Fridays With Hitchcock:
Dial M For Murder (1954)
The medium that would make Hitchcock the most recognized director in history was also the medium that would cause him the most trouble as a film maker: Television. Now that more and more people had small screens at home, there was pressure from the studio to make bigger and bigger films - to create an experience in the cinema the audience could not get at home. Epics became popular - and Hitchcock’s movie were usually intimates. So Warner Bros insisted that Hitchcock make his new film in 3D... a popular gimmick in B horror films.
DIAL M FOR MURDER was an international hit stage play by the master of stage suspense, Frederick Knott (WAIT UNTIL DARK). It was a hit on Broadway, a hit in London, and a hit in several other countries, so it only made sense for Hitchcock to be the one to bring it to the screen. One of the interesting decisions Hitchcock and writer Frederick Knott made was *not* to open up the play - usually a stage play is broken out of the set and scenes are transplanted to streets and parks and rollercoasters and anything else that screams “This Was Never A Stage Play!” But here the story remains in the living room of the Wendice flat in London, with a couple of small trips outside and a scene where two of the characters go to a party. By not transplanting any of the scenes to some crazy exterior location, we get a great feeling of being trapped in the action. When bad things happen, we can not cut away to some safe location - because it has never been established. We have to deal with the problems in that living room.
Nutshell: Tony Wendice (the suave-yet-sinister Ray Milland) is a trophy husband for wealthy, beautiful Margot (Grace Kelly). When he discovers that she is cheating on him with her old friend, mystery novelist Mark Halliday (Bob Cummings) he decides to kill her and inherit all of her money... and hatches the perfect murder (title of the remake). Tony blackmails a down-on-his-luck ex-college acquaintance, Charles Swann (Anthony Dawson) to murder Margot while he and Mark are at a party together (the perfect alibi). Nice story if it ends there, but everything manages to go wrong and it's Swann who is killed... by Margot, in self defense. Tony comes up with a quick patch, making it look like Margot murdered Swann in cold blood... and this works perfectly, except for one little thing. Like a British Columbo, Detective Hubbard (John Williams) thinks that something is wrong with this picture and begins poking around until he discovers the truth.
Experiment: Several, most notably shooting the film in 3D. At the time, this required *two* huge film cameras (one representing each of our eyes). Most 3D films had simple non-moving shots, but Hitchcock used graceful, flowing moving camera - almost like his long takes in ROPE, but without completely jettisoning the concept of editing. Here he cuts when he needs to cut, changes angle when he needs to change angle. But the camera is fluid, and that helps to balance the single location.
In order to shoot 3D, the set was built elevated, so Hitchcock could get low angles. He also had to build some giant props, since the two cameras could not get very close to an object like a telephone - and it’s important to the story that we see that phone.
Unlike the cheesy 3D of the horror films of the time, where things are always jumping out at the audience, Hitch uses 3D to give us depth. There is often foreground, a center area, and a background in each shot. There *are* a couple of moments where the action jumps out at the audience - in the murder struggle an arm reaches out to us, and later a major clue is practically shoved in our faces, but these are the only times we get the gimmick side of 3D.
Then, the film was never released in 3D! By the time the film was finished, the threat of television wasn’t as bad as everyone thought - so they decided to just release the movie in standard “flat” prints (less expensive). Earlier this week a 3D version played at an art house in Canada - this is very rare (I considered flying up to see it!).
Hitch Appearance: Hit the pause button or you’ll miss him! When Tony shows Swann a college reunion photo of them together - Hitch is sitting at the same table.
Great Scenes: Because almost the whole movie takes place at one location, instead of looking at traditional scenes, we’re going to look at a couple of elements in the movie that are great screenwriting lessons. There is a reason why this is a beloved film that was remade decades later with an all star cast (and several times over the years under a variety of titles) - the whole script works like clockwork.
Man With A Plan (part one): One of those frequent development notes that get tossed at you is how there is no one in your script we like. Hey, you *must* have a likeable lead! Well, that’s total BS - what you need is an understandable lead. No film is a better example of the non-likeable lead than DIAL M FOR MURDER.
Our lead in the first half of the film is Tony, a trophy husband who plans to murder his wife. The wife, Margot, is cheating on her husband. The movie opens with Tony and Margot kissing, and a few scenes later we have Margot and Mark playing tonsil hockey. So none of those people are likeable - they’re all kind of scummy. Swann - well, he’s going to murder for money, making him not likeable. The detective doesn’t show up until the last half, but he’s all about his job. So we have not a single likeable person in the first half of this film... and maybe the whole thing, depending upon how you feel about cops. So how can this film possible work? (asks the development stooge.)
We may not like Tony, but we certainly admire him. He is clever, brilliant, and has the most amazing plan for killing his wife. And we understand why he would want to kill her - she’s cheating on him. He’s not the perfect husband by any stretch, but he’s not lip-locking with someone else in broad daylight. But the key to Tony is our admiration - while we blunder through our day to day lives, Tony has this amazing master plan that has been worked down to every last minute detail. He has been setting this up for months - and when he does something clever like “accidentally” drop a love letter from Mark to Margot that was stolen by a blackmailer... actually Tony... on the floor in front of Swann, and Swann picks it up in his ungloved hands and returns it to Tony’s day planner - we see how brilliant this guy is. We wish we were that brilliant! Tony becomes our dark fantasy - a guy who does all of the evil things we might want to do, and has such a brilliant plan we know he will never get caught. He has *everything* under control.
Tony explains to Swann step-by-step how he will murder Margot, and will easily get away with it. The camera goes high overhead, so it becomes like a chess game - we can see all of the moves before they will be made. Everything is planned out. There are only two keys to the flat: Tony will have his, and will take Margot’s from her purse and hide it under the carpet on the stairs. This gets Swann inside the house. At the party, Tony will excuse himself to call his work - but actually call his flat first. When Margot goes to answer the phone, Swann will strangle her, then make it look like a break in - stealing some items while wearing gloves. The perfect murder.
As he describes each step, and we see the back up plans for each potential problem that Swann comes up with, we can not help but admire him. This guy is a million times more clever than we are!
Suspense Triggers: Suspense is the anticipation of an action or event. Now we have an action - the murder of Margot - that we are anticipating, but the problem is, Tony is *so* clever that we know nothing can possibly go wrong. Which means no suspense. We anticipate the action - but we expect the action will happen without incident and even though murder is wrong... well, we’re kind of seeing this through Tony’s eyes at this point, from his POV, he is our lead, so we *want* his plan to work. But that’s not the way to make the film interesting and exciting...
So there is this great little “suspense trigger” - Tony and Mark and Margot are having a conversation about Mark’s work - writing mystery novels - and Tony asks if he’s ever been tempted to try out one of his plots. Mark answers that you can plan what happens in fiction, but in real life something *always* goes wrong. The killers are *always* caught. And suddenly the audience begins to worry that there may be a flaw in the perfect murder plan... and they begin to anticipate all of the problems that might happen. And we have suspense.
Without that “trigger” we would not worry that things might go wrong, because the plan seems so perfect. That line creates the suspense.
Little Problems: Now that we are worried that things might go wrong, they do. When Tony and Mark get ready to go to the party, Margot says she’s decided to go to the movies. Which means she won’t be home to get murdered! Tony has to talk her out of the movies, and suggests she work on her scrap book... setting everything on the desk - including a huge pair of shiny silver scissors. A bit of irony, there.
At the party, Tony’s watch has stopped. He has to ask everyone at the table for the time, which works *for* him because he’s establishing an alibi... but works *against* him because it is later than he thinks. He can’t run to the payphone, that would attract attention, so he walks slowly... only to find there is a man using the phone. Having some sort of long conversation, while time is ticking away.
Meanwhile, Swann has been waiting for the phone to ring for quite some time, worries that something is wrong, and decides to leave. Everything is going wrong!
Tony finally gets the pay phone, calls... and when Margot gets out of bed to answer it, Swann is by the door, not in his position behind the curtains near the phone. He must race to his position... barely hiding behind the curtains in time. Margot crosses to pick up the phone, and...
An aside: in READ WINDOW Grace Kelly had a neglige she modeled for Jimmy Stewart. It was fashionable. Here, Grace Kelly is wearing a neglige that seems more about comfort than fashion... and it’s sheer and clingy and I’ll bet it was very risque in 1954. It’s pretty sexy today.
Margot picks up the phone, right in front of the curtains where Swann is hiding...
Killer Twists: Here is where the whole story does a 180. Though we have wanted Tony’s plan to succeed in theory, do we really want to kill Margot? Sure, she’s sleeping with Mark... but which is the worse crime: adultery or murder? It would be difficult for the audience to continue identifying with Tony if his plan actually works and Margot is strangled by Swann...
So just as Margot is about to die, she grabs those shiny silver scissors and rams them into Swann’s back in self defense.
Tony is listening to all of this on the phone, but doesn’t really know what is happening - just that there is a struggle. He expects Swann to come back on the line, tell him everything went well, then Tony will call his boss to continue his alibi and get away with murder.
Only Swann has these sparking scissors in his back, and - this is delightfully gross - falls onto his back shoving them all the way in. We see this in one shot - and I have no idea how they did it - the scissors seem to really go into his back.
When Tony hears a voice on the phone, it’s not Swann... it’s Margot! She tells him what happened, he says he’s on his way - don’t touch anything or call the police.
Focused Suspense: When Tony gets home we have a great but where he looks at the situation and we see him devise a new plan on the spot. This guy is clever! He searches for the door key he left under the stairway carpet, finds it, and... sees Margot searching through her purse for something! Hopefully not the front door key! Just aspirin. When she goes to get a class of water he puts the key in her purse. She comes back in, and goes *right to the purse*. The purse becomes the object of suspense.
Tony slides the stolen love letter into Swann’s coat pocket, unlocks the window so that it appears that’s how Swann entered, and *burns* the actual murder weapon (a scarf) in the fireplace... replacing it with one of Margot’s nylons as the strangling device. Then places the nylon’s mate under the desk blotter where the police will be sure to find it. All of this frames Margot as the killer of Swann, who was threatening her.
There’s a great bit of suspense where the police on the scene almost* find the other nylon... and finally do. Again, the hidden nylon is the focus object. Will the police find it?
Now we’re halfway through the film and we introduce Inspector Hubbard (John Williams) who, like Columbo, has just one more thing. He notices all of the little problems with the scenario... he’s damned clever and we admire him. And we get a new focus object - because we know that Swann is in the class reunion picture on the wall. How soon until Hubbard discovers this?
Man With A Plan (part two): Hubbard is so clever that he already knows the connection between Swann and Tony... Leaving Tony no choice but to show Hubbard the class reunion photo himself. It’s a great game of car and mouse, and part of how these things work is that the suspect has no choice but to volunteer incriminating information because it makes him look as if he is cooperating and innocent... even though that information may end up being another nail in his coffin. Tony must act innocent, even if that means giving evidence to Detective Hubbard.
Hubbard is our new man with a plan - our new clever character that we wish we could be. He knows for a fact that Swann did not come in through the open window - because it had rained that night and the ground outside the window was muddy - but Swann’s shoes were clean. As Hubbard continues to find problems with the scenario, we admire him more and more... and when he asks Mark to write down his address - Tony knows the reason is to compare the handwriting with the writing in the stolen love letter.
Even though there are some holes in the scenario, the evidence points to Margot...
And Margot is arrested, tried, convicted... and sentenced to death! This all happens in *one shot* of Grace Kelly on the witness stand!
But Detective Hubbard is still a man with a plan, and he knows something is wrong. He comes up with a plan to prove that Margot is innocent and Tony is guilty... based on the key the police later find under the carpet on the stairs. Did Margot put it there? Or Tony? You see, the key Tony found in Swann’s pocket - was *Swann’s* front door key.
Hubbard’s plan is to send each to the door with the bad key, and see if they search for the key hidden on the stairway when that key doesn’t work. Building two suspense scenes - one where Margot tries her key, one where Tony tries Margot’s key. Hubbard is more clever than Tony, so we would rather have Hubbard win this battle of the wits and discover what *Tony’s* plan was, and how it went wrong.
We don’t need to like the characters, we do need to understand them and admire them. Here we get a killer with the perfect murder and the detective who is clever enough to prove that no murder is perfect.
Sound Track: Dimitri Tiomkin, a nice score that really pops during the murder scene.
Again, Hitchcock works with familiar faces - Bob Cummings starred in SABOTAGE and John Williams would be in TO CATCH A THIEF and several other Hitchcock films - he may hold the record for most films with the director. Robert Burkes color and lighting is again amazing - deep, rich shadows and those scissors *sparkle*!
One of the great things about this film is its simplicity. A handful of characters, a couple of locations, and many twists and turns and lots of suspense - often created by small things like hidden keys and pictures on the wall and a shocking glimpse of stocking. Not the greatest Hitchcock movie, but still a lot of fun.
The other Fridays With Hitchcock.
BUY THE DVD AT AMAZON:
TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Casting Your Story In Genre and a few past Oscar nominees.
Yesterday’s Dinner: Tortas on Ventura.