Saturday, November 11, 2017

Grace Kelly in Dial M for Murder

Many people when they hear the phrase "Hitchcock blonde" think of Grace Kelly. There is a very good reason for this. She made three films with Alfred Hitchcock. What is more they number among the most notable movies the director ever made. Rear Window (1954) and To Catch a Thief (1955) may be better remembered, but Grace Kelly's first film with Hitchcock,  Dial M for Murder (1954), remains remarkable for several reasons.

Dial M for Murder originated as a play by playwright Frederick Knott. The play would be remarkable in that it would not make its debut on stage, but instead on television. It was on March 23 1952 that popular British TV programme BBC Sunday-Night Theatre aired Dial M for Murder. The original television production of Dial M for Murder featured Elizabeth Sellars as Sheila Wendice, Basil Appleby as Max Halliday, and Emrys Jones as Tony Wendice. It was on June 19 1952 that Dial M for Murder would make its stage debut on the West End, where it proved to have a long run. Success on the West End would lead to the play's debut on Broadway not long afterwards. Dial M for Murder made its Broadway debut on October 29 1952 at the Plymouth Theatre. As Tony Wendice it featured Maurice Evans, now best known as Samantha's father Maurice on Bewitched. Gusti Huber, who would later play Anne Frank's mother in both the play and the feature film The Diary of Anne Frank, played Margot Wendice. The play proved success on Broadway as well.

Given the success of Dial M for Murder on both London's West End and on Broadway, it was perhaps no surprise when Warner Bros. bought the rights to the play. At the time Alfred Hitchcock was working on an adaptation of David Duncan's novel The Bramble Bush. As it turned out, Hitchcock had run into difficulties on the project. Warner Bros. was not particularly enthusiastic about The Bramble Bush, and at the time wanted Alfred Hitchcock to direct a film in 3-D, the technology being particularly popular at the time. Hitchcock gladly abandoned The Bramble Bush and decided to direct Dial M for Murder.

For those unfamiliar with Dial M for Murder, both the film and the play centre on the wealthy Margot Wendice. When she begins a relationship with another man (Max Halliday in the play, renamed Mark Halliday in the film), her husband, playboy Tony Wendice, decides to murder her. As might be expected, things do not go exactly to Tony's plans.

Given the importance of the role of Margot Wendice in the play, it would take a very special actress to play her. At the time Grace Kelly had already made three films: Fourteen Hours (1951), High Noon (1952), and Mogambo (1953). She had made a screen test for the role of Mary in the film Taxi (1953), a role that would ultimately go to Constance Smith. As it would turn out, her screen test for Taxi would lead to better things. After seeing the screen test John Ford cast her in Mogambo. As for Alfred Hitchcock, after seeing the screen test, he thought Miss Kelly might be perfect for the role of Margot in Dial M for Murder.

Grace Kelly and Alfred Hitchcock met in Burbank in June 1953. As it turned out, the two of them discussed topics from travel to food to fashion, everything except for the role of Margot in Dial M for Murder. It perhaps did not matter, as it was enough for Hitchcock to know that he was right in thinking she would be perfect for the role. Of course, for Miss Kelly to appear in Dial M for Murder, MGM had to loan her to Warner Bros. Fortunately, MGM agreed to do so.

Ray Milland, who had made a name for himself years earlier with his Oscar winning performance in The Lost Weekend (1945), was cast as Tony Wendice. Robert Cummings, who had already worked with Hitchcock on the film Saboteur (1942), was cast as mystery writer Mark Halliday. Two important actors from the Broadway production of Dial M for Murder were cast in the film. John Williams reprised his role as Inspector Hubbard in the movie. Anthony Dawson, who had played the role of Captain Lesgate in the Broadway production, was cast as Charles Swann.

Alfred Hitchcock and Grace Kelly got along very well on the set of Dial M for Murder, but the young actress was not afraid to speak her mind from time to time. For a scene in which Margot gets out of bed to answer the phone, Hitchcock wanted the costume department to make a velvet robe for Miss Kelly to wear. She would even have a fitting for it. Regardless, Grace Kelly did not think that it would be particularly realistic for Margot to put on a robe if she was all alone in her apartment. When she brought this up to Hitchcock, he asked her what she would put on to answer the phone. Miss Kelly told him she would put on nothing at all--she would simply get up and answer the phone in her nightgown. Alfred Hitchcock had to agree with her and as a result the scene was shot with Margot answering the phone wearing only her nightgown.

Grace Kelly would have a bigger disagreement with a makeup man on the film. The makeup man continually wanted to put more and more rouge on Grace Kelly, even in scenes where she realistically would not have had access to makeup. When she objected, the makeup man told her that studio head Jack Warner liked a lot of rouge on her actresses. Miss Kelly then said she would call Mr. Warner. When the makeup man informed her that Mr. Warner was in the south of France, she replied, "Well, you tell Mr. Warner that I refuse to wear all this rouge, and if he's angry with you, tell him I threw a fit and wouldn't wear it!" The makeup department told Hitchock about what had happened. Hitchcock once more agreed with Grace Kelly.

While Grace Kelly and Alfred Hitchcock got along very well on the set of Dial M for Murder, that did not mean that things always went smoothly for her. The famous attempted murder scene in the film took an entire week to shoot. Extra special attention had to be paid to each shot in the scene, something that was made all the more difficult because of the 3-D technology used to make the film. After about there or four days of this Miss Kelly often found herself leaving the set with bruises.

Despite this Dial M for Murder would be a pleasant experience for Grace Kelly over all. She and Hitchcock spent a good deal of time talking about his next project, which would be the film Rear Window. Other than working with Grace Kelly for the first time, Dial M for Murder would not be quite as enjoyable for Alfred Hitchcock. He was not particularly enthusiastic about the film itself, nor was he particularly thrilled about having to shoot it in 3-D. Quite simply, he felt 3-D was a fad and that it was already coming to an end just as Dial M for Murder had went into production.

Regardless, Dial M for Murder would be the first of three films that Alfred Hitchcock and Grace Kelly made together. It would also mark the beginning of a long friendship between the two that would last until Hitchcock's death. Along with Ingrid Bergman, she would be the only leading lady to make three films with Alfred Hitchcock.

Dial M for Murder would prove to pivotal beyond being her first collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock. Indeed, it was the first film on which she was the leading lady (Katy Jurado was billed above her in High Noon and Ava Gardner was billed above her in Mogambo). What is more, in Dial M for Murder there is no doubt that it is Grace Kelly who is the star of the film. While both Ray Milland and Robert Cummings give solid performances, it is Grace Kelly to whom the audience is drawn. Indeed, it was with Dial M for Murder that she and Miss Kelly would create the screen image we most associate with her, that of a woman who is cool and restrained, and yet at the same time classy, vulnerable, and ultimately sexy. It would be an image that would be further refined with Rear Window, but it all began with Dial M for Murder.


Virginie Pronovost said...

I love how realistic she was (in connection to all that make-up and costumes stuff!) :) I loved your article Terence! You gave excellent reasons why this film was of a high importance in Grace's career. I always tought it was one of her best performances.
Thanks so much for your participation in the blogathon!

Unknown said...

Grace knew exactly whale what she was talking about when it came to the entire bedroom scene, she looked exactly as a woman should while waking up to a phone call in the middle of the night.Superb sequence!