Talking Film Costume: Grace Kelly in “Dial M for Murder”

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A Hitchcock film always provides all the style, in costumes and sets, colour symbolism and great camera play that one can crave for. Dial M for Murder (1954) was Grace Kelly’s first Hitchcock film. She gives one of her best performances in this film, and, in fact, all the actors, not big stars at the time, are superb in it. The story is very simple: Tony Wendice (Ray Milland), a tennis player with no money of his own, wants to murder his wife, Margot (Grace Kelly), who has a love interest in a novelist, Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings), for the money, and blackmails someone with a criminal record (Anthony Dawson) to do it. But the plan doesn’t exactly go as expected. The movie, a straightforward adaptation of a stage play, takes place in a confined area, mainly a living room, but it’s so well crafted, that you don’t feel the need to leave the space for a change of scenery. Which was in fact Hitchcock’s intention. “ I did my best to avoid going outside. […] I even had the floor made of real tiles so as to get the sound of the footsteps. In other words, what I did was to emphasize the theatrical aspects,” Hitchcock told François Truffaut in their interviews.
 
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Alfred Hitchcock uses all the tricks he’s mastered over the years to get the public’s undivided attention, starting with the striking use of colour (this was only his third colour movie). In an interview with Claude Chabrol, from 1954, Hitchcock noted the film’s use of colour for dramatic rather than pictorial ends. And he does use colour in an interesting way in terms of costumes: you see Grace in a skirt and cardigan in the palest shade of pink, almost white, in the first scene, having breakfast with her husband, but she’s wearing bright red a few seconds later, in the company of her lover, Mark (Robert Cummings), and the contrast of those two moments, with the two men in her life, is very strong, even for an untrained eye. With the opening shot, in just a few seconds, Hitchcock succeeds to throw his audience into the core of the story.
 
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Grace Kelly’s costumes were designed by Moss Mabry (Hitchcock had not yet begun his collaboration with Edith Head), who did a marvelous job at attaining that particular aesthetic that Edith Head would later develop in the director’s films. The elegance of the 1950s can not be surpassed, and it lay not only in the style of the clothes, but in a polished look altogether, manners and grace included. And Grace was the perfect example for that. In Dial M for Murder, she lights up the screen in head-to-toe red, from lipstick to the lace dress (in the most pure ’50s style) and the satin pumps. Hitchcock’s message is very clear indeed.
 
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The finishing touch: the mink wrap.

 

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A burgundy mid-calf, belted dress, matching lipstick and bag.

 

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Another one of Hitchcock’s tricks in Dial M for Murder was the very subversive casting: a very charming villain, Ray Milland, in one of his best performances, so that he makes you want to identify with him, and a much less likeable good guy, Robert Cummings. And there’s John Williams, who plays the detective, one of the most likeable police investigators I’ve seen in movies: he’s delectable in his role and provides the comic relief that is always present in Hitchcock’s works.
 
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The decor is just as stylish, meticulously done and interesting to observe as the costumes in Hitchcock’s films.

 
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Margot’s outfits go from bright to somber as her innocence starts to be questioned. As opposed to the colour palette of her previous clothes, which brought out her blue eyes, the faded grey of the pleated dress is intelligently used to make her eyes look grey, too, in tune with the grey days coming. “We did an interesting colour experiment with Grace Kelly’s clothing. I dressed her in very gay and bright colours at the beginning of the picture, and as the plot thickened, her clothes became gradually more somber,” Hitchcock revealed to Truffaut. Hitch always knew how to guide his audience through the story, and the dialogue was only one of the means he used.
 
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Editorial sources: Alfred Hitchcock: The Complete Films, by Paul Duncan / Hitchcock Truffaut, by François Truffaut / The special features on the “Dial M for Murder” DVD released by Warner Brothers

Photos: screen stills from the film, Classiq Journal. Credit: Warner Brothers

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