Hubris Thy Name is Wendice in Hitchcock’s DIAL ‘M’ FOR MURDER (1954)

Tony Wendice and his wife Margot are the picture of marital bliss. The two make a stunning couple as we see them go through their morning routine in their small but stylish London flat. They have breakfast together every morning. Tony is always dressed to the nines in what one assumes are the best suits money can buy and Margot is a vision with blonde hair perfectly coiffed and outfits out of the pages of Vogue. After a morning kiss the two settle at the breakfast table to attend to their rituals – he opens the mail while she reads the newspaper to catch up with the society and gossip pages. Mr. and Mrs. Wendice have done this many times and ne’er is there a glitch in the routine. But … we get the impression things are slightly off the morning we are introduced to their life when Mrs. Wendice reacts in a rather peculiar way to the news of the arrival of the Queen Mary. Specifically, her reaction of the arrival on the Queen Mary of mystery writer Mark Halliday.

The idyllic picture described above is a ruse. This is Dial ‘M’ for Murder, one of the many Alfred Hitchcock screen gems to make a negative statement about marriage. Oh sure, Tony and Margot do have breakfast together following a kiss every morning, but it’s nothing compared to the hot and bothered embrace she shares frequently with Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings). Don’t rush to judge Margot though because Tony cares about his wife’s affair only so far as he can use it to his advantage. And the advantage Tony has in mind is murder.

Tony Wendice was a ranked tennis player when he and the rich Margot met and married. It was about a year before our story opens when Tony came to the realization that he needed to ensure his own comfort for the rest of his life. His tennis career would soon be over and he’d found out that Margot had an American boyfriend. Tony was trying to drink his troubles away one day when he began to seriously consider killing Margot. The money he’d inherit would ensure he could continue the lifestyle he’d become accustomed to. Yes. Killing Margot was the answer. But how? Several possible scenarios swirled through his head, but Tony is nothing if not patient. He needed to come up with the perfect murder no matter how long that took. Then, as if by a sign from a greater power, the idea came to him when he saw a man he recognized walk into a pub. And what an idea it was! We see it come to fruition, a complicated scenario that involves a year of pretending to be a caring husband, a year of slowly saving money so that the funds are available when blackmail is in order, and a year of following his mark to learn everything there is to know about him. After all, Tony needs to force this man to kill his wife.

The day after the arrival of the Queen Mary Mr. Wendice and Mark Halliday meet when – in a bold move – Margot arranges an evening at the theatre for the three of them. Interestingly, Tony isn’t bothered by Mark at all. In fact Mark Halliday’s arrival in London means it’s time for Tony to put his murder plan into action. The charming Mr. Wendice wishes Margot and Mark a lovely evening and stays home with the pretext of doing some work. At first one wonders why Tony’s so darned cheerful about sending his wife on an evening of fun with her lover, but we soon learn that his cheerfulness is due to just having secured his alibi for the next evening, the evening the murder is to take place.

Tony Wendice has to be among Alfred Hitchcock’s most unlikable villains. Played to perfection by Ray Milland this guy’s slick and sly oozing over the sophisticated veneer sickens. In fact, Tony is so easy to dislike that we root for his cheating wife and her lover. Wendice’s arrogance is off the charts perhaps best illustrated in my favorite scene in Dial ‘M’ for Murder during which he meets with and blackmails Charles Swann (a memorable Anthony Dawson reprising his stage role) into strangling Margot. Tony’s the epitome of cold and calculating, a lesson in killer methodology that makes for a supremely entertaining sequence, which emphasizes the art of the crime.

Prelude to murder aka blackmailing session

Right after Margot and Mark leave for the theatre Tony makes a phone call to inquire about a car he’s interested in buying. He insists that the seller meet him at his flat to iron out the details, but the man – Charles Swann – walks into a trap. Tony had recognized Swann as an old, unlikable schoolmate from Cambridge the day he’d walked into the Knightsbridge Pub. From that day on for over a year Tony followed Swann and investigated every detail of his life. What he learned was that Swann had a history of committing sleazy crimes, all fodder for blackmail. And the plan is set in motion with a reluctant Charles Swann told exactly how and when to execute every minute detail of how to strangle Margot Wendice.

Wendice calls, Margot answers, Swann strangles

I’m guessing everyone has seen the famous strangulation scene in Dial ‘M.’ for Murder. As is the case with all things Hitchcock it’s beautifully orchestrated from sound to image. Although I’ve never seen this movie in 3-D as it was released in some places in 1954, I can tell the scene contains the only gimmicky moves made in the entire movie. Due to that this movie works well in the flat format most of us have seen it in. Dial ‘M’ was the only Alfred Hitchcock movie made in 3-D and hopefully one day I’ll get to see it that way mainly due to Martin Scorsese’s explanation in this Academy piece. In any case, as you probably know Tony’s strangulation plot doesn’t go off as planned when it’s Swann who ends up dead instead of Margot.

Tony’s primary mistake in the orchestration of the murder is underestimating Margot. It seems that even after all of their years together he mistook her for just a cool, beautiful, blonde. It’s funny how the same thing happens in Rear Window with Jeff discounting Lisa as little more than a pretty face and her proving him wrong in the end. Clearly, the message is that no one should ever underestimate Grace Kelly who’s terrific in Dial ‘M,’ by the way, her first movie with Alfred Hitchcock.

Wendice also doesn’t take Mark Halliday into account when he’s planning the murder. Not only is Mark in love with Margot, but he has been writing about murder for years. During an exchange about the perfect murder Mark even mentions how he tries to go into the mind of the murderer he’s writing about. After the failed strangulation Tony tries to get rid of Margot by making her look guilty of murdering Swann. It’s Mark who finds holes in Tony’s story. Wendice should not have attempted the murder with Mark Halliday in London. It’s clear his arrogance gets the better of him in this regard.

Despite his failings, however, I’m compelled to admit that I have a certain degree of admiration for Tony Wendice. His mind is rather miraculous. Imagine having that level of avarice, a level that supersedes every other aspect of your life for over a year, and go about your day as if you’re just a regular society guy. You plan a murder so perfect, so precise that the smallest glitch will lay everything to waste. Then to be able to suppress the disappointment on a dime, a disappointment that has to have wounded your humongous ego. I mean, that takes an inexplicable talent. To so convincingly and without missing a beat twist the evidence so it looks as though your wife willfully murdered the man who tried to murder her on your behalf. BRAVO!! It takes a superior investigator with a talent to discover both the magnificent and the common to be able to bring Tony down.

Hubris thy name is Wendice

Chief Inspector Hubbard, played brilliantly by John Williams, is just the man needed to knock Tony Wendice off his high horse. Mr. Williams reprises the Chief Inspector role he brought to life in the play the movie is based on and nearly steals the movie. It’s no wonder Hitchcock loved to work with him. Williams also appears in The Paradine Case (1947) and To Catch a Thief (1955) as well as 10 episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Mr. Williams played Chief Inspector Hubbard again in 1958 in a TV version of Dial ‘M’ for Murder directed by George Schaefer. This is a terrific role with Inspector Hubbard as doggedly persistent, brilliant and humorous as my own Lt. Columbo. By the way, have you ever noticed how many similarities there are between Dial ‘M’ for Murder and Columbo?  The crime happens at the beginning of the story, there’s an arrogant murderer who offers assistance to the investigator, there’s a tricky GOTCHA! staged by the brilliant Inspector who at one point turns to leave and pauses to say, “oh…one other thing, sir.” It’s thanks to John Williams that the finale of Dial ‘M’ is so much fun to watch. A latch key plays a central role in the unraveling of Tony and I have to admit I get confused by the Inspector’s switcheroo every time, but in the end my smile is a mile wide.

GOTCHA!

When I first watched Dial ‘M’ for Murder it felt like Hitchcock-lite to me, as if it were icing without the cake. However, Dial ‘M’ has grown on me through the years and now I think it’s brilliant for its simple complexity. Hitchcock viewed this movie as a minor work. Based on the hit stage play by Frederick Knott who also wrote the screen play, Hitchcock shot the movie primarily in one room and I marvel at how beautiful it is, how intricately the story is relayed. Sir Hitchcock may have been simply passing the time while directing this movie as Grace Kelly mentioned he kept talking excitedly about his next effort, Rear Window while making Dial ‘M,’ yet he still managed a technical triumph. Shot in just 36 days Dial ‘M’ for Murder is straightforward, detailed storytelling as only this director could do. For Alfred Hitchcock is takes one room wherein hubris becomes Wendice to manage a superior thriller.

This is my second submission to the ‘Till Death Us Do Part Blogathon on Monday, July 24th hosted by CineMaven’s Essays from the Couch. I can’t seem to stay away from spouse on spouse murder and you shouldn’t either. Be sure to visit the blogathon entries.

My first submission – The Guilt and Innocence of Jack Forrester in Richard Marquand’s Jagged Edge (1985)

 

The Hitchcock signature in Dial ‘M’ for Murder

When I dedicated a post to The Hitchcock Signature a few years ago I didn’t include Dial ‘M’ For Murder, but there is a lot of enjoyable pieces of Hitchcock in the movie. As a way to continue that conversation I thought I’d make note a few of the Hitchcock signature notables strewn about with great care.

  • The silent sequence – Hitchcock often went back to his roots and included silent sequences in his movies whereby he demonstrates his mastery of the visual. The opening sequence in Rear Window is my favorite example, but Dial ‘M’ for Murder doesn’t fall far behind. In a few moments we learn all there is to know about the Wendice marriage. As the movie opens we see the idyllic couple as they have breakfast. He kisses her good morning and sits across the table. She is reading the paper and notices something of interest. Because she looks up to make sure her husband isn’t looking we know she has a secret and when the camera closes in on a name we know what that secret is. The next thing we see is the wife passionately kissing another man, the one whose name was in the paper. Brilliant! Another silent sequence occurs later as we see Tony methodically cleaning up after the crime.
  • Enough extreme close-ups and odd angles to warm your sinister heart. As is always the case Hitchcock shows us exactly what we should see and when to see it. My favorite here is the shot of the knife going deeper into Swann’s back when he falls on it.
  • Gorgeous, intentional use of color is seen throughout this movie as is the case with the other notable Hitchcock films in the 1950s. The importance of color is also evident in the clothing used throughout with emphasis on the Margot character. Her clothes get darker as the drama unfolds. It’s a simple example, but my favorite is the contrast between the white Margot is wearing in the idyllic opening scene I described above as compared to the hot red she wears when she is with her lover just a moment later. You can compare this to perhaps the most obvious example in a Hitchcock movie, which is the white vs. black bras worn by Marion Crane in Psycho (1960) to signify the before and after she makes the decision to commit a crime.
  • Fantastic score – I absolutely adore the music in Dial ‘M’ for Murder and how it switches seamlessly from romance to thriller to emphasis on the key moments as important in all Hitchcock films. This is thanks to the genius of Dimitri Tiomkin.
  • Confined space – Already noted in the fact that the action in this production takes place primarily in one London flat. Alfred Hitchcock seemed to enjoy the limitations in confined spaces as settings for his thrillers. A few obvious examples would be Rear Window, Rope, The Lady Vanishes and Dial ‘M’ for Murder. 
  • The wrong man theme – or in this case, the wrong woman who is accused of a crime she didn’t commit.
  • The methodical explanation either done by way of images or words. Hitchcock ensures we are kept abreast of every detail and does so brilliantly in two key scenes – the one where Tony is giving Swann step-by-step instructions and at the end when the Inspector is recounting the steps of the crime and coverup. This heightens our expectations and thrill, similar to the concert scene in The Man Who Knew Too Much.
  • Sympathy for the criminal – similar to when we root for Norman’s car to go under in Psycho, we root for Swann to leave the damn flat before he gets caught. You might remember that Tony Dials ‘M’ later than planned because his watch stopped. It makes for  a terrific suspense sequence.
Hitchcock’s hilarious cameo in a Cambridge reunion picture

11 thoughts

  1. Dial ‘M’ one of the very first Hitchcock films I saw growing up. It was interesting to learn the film’s lack of appreciation by Hitchcockians (can I phrase them thus?) through the years. I’ve always valued it as an engaging thriller that used its “Englishness” to twirl its straightforward story, amid his American/Brit cast, in the most entertaining fashion (3-D use or not). Which was another facet of this director — to never bore his audience. Loved it then, as I do now. Fine look at this, Aurora. 🙂

  2. Great review. Ray Milland is a great villain. I thought Robert Cummings was a bit weak as the writer. John Williams, great, as he was also in To Catch a Thief.

  3. Crikey!! That damn Hitchcock. I contend this man definitely wants us to against our own common sense, logic, ethics, what’s psychologically sound and what is right. You point this out…We want Swann to get out but we want Tony to dial the number. Question: Does Wendice’s watch really stop or is he trying to establish an alibi with his upper crust cronies?

    Again I love how you lay it all out and I’m liking your Hitchcock bullet points. John Williams is a dream. How tenderly he talks to Grace when he’s HAPPY she doesn’t know about the key. I love him saying “…but my back was up!” ( Do I have that right? ) I also wait for his detective to dramatically say: “He’s remembered.” His combing his mustache at the end gives me chills.in his understated way of being pleased with himself for solving this crime.

    You were so ambitious to write TWO ~ count ’em two ~ posts for my macabre blogathon. They were both great reads. ThanxXx Citizen Screen.

    1. Wendice’s watch really stops. He looks fairly panicked that he missed the time when he was supposed to call Swann. No doubt there. The alibi is set by him being surrounded by the cronies.

      Writing two was probably a bit much in retrospect, but I had fun doing it. Thanks for your comments and for hosting this deathly event. I’m looking forward to the big reveal on Monday.

      Aurora

  4. Excellent post! This film really messes with us, as a small part of us wants Wendice to succeed because of the effort he’s put into his plan! The scene where she answers the phone and doesn’t notice Swann behind her is chilling. Good performances throughout. Classic Hitchcock.

    I’m hosting a Hitchcock blogathon in early August, if you would like to join you would be very welcome. Maddy

  5. I enjoyed revisiting this film through your post. The list of Hitch “signatures” is thorough and well done.
    Don’t know if you already saw this, but I also wrote about the movie last year. 😀https://fforfilms.net/2016/01/22/blind-spot-2016-dial-m-for-murder/
    Enjoyed your post!

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