Volume 1, Issue 29: The Judge, or Making A Video Essay IV

Over the last few months in this newsletter, I have published a series of posts as part of my ongoing “Making a Video Essay” series, in which I detail, as the title suggests, the process of working on one of my current video essay projects, tentatively entitled, “Princes [GRACE] Kelly.” You can find past entries here: PART I ; PART II; PART III. This week’s post is a direct follow-up to Part III.

What follows is an essay not directly related to the project, but one that was born out of the process of researching and creating the video essay. I must note that this is very much a draft of an essay I would like to someday revise, expand and publish for real! Please let me know what you think!

Death by Law: The Judge in Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial ‘M’ for Murder

Alfred Hitchcock didn’t think much of Dial ‘M’ for Murder. In Hitchcock, the book-length conversation between Hitchcock and Francois Truffaut, the two directors have the following exchange:

F.T. Now, we come to 1953, the year in which you made Dial ‘M’ for Murder.

A.H. There isn’t very much we can say about that one, is there?

F.T. I’m not so sure about that.

While I have not encountered any Hitchcock fan who does not think highly of Dial ‘M’ for Murder, it is more often than not forgotten by those who assemble lists of the director’s best works. After all, just a few months after the premiere of Dial ‘M’ for Murder, Hitchcock released Rear Window, which is among the group of his films widely considered masterpieces. Hitchcock even tells Truffaut that during the shooting of Dial ‘M’ for Murder, he was already in the process of planning for Rear Window. It’s no wonder that it is often forgotten, and that Hitchcock thought there wasn’t much to discuss. But Dial ‘M’ for Murder is among my favorites of Hitchcock’s works and, for my money, is an incredibly rich film in both style and content. Whenever I watch the film, I wait for one moment, for one shot in particular, a shot is both funny and scary, one that captures the thematic essence of Dial ‘M’ for Murder, and thus of Hitchcock’s oeuvre: The judge.

The plot of Dial ‘M’ for Murder is well known. Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) discovers that his wife Margot has had an affair with Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings), a crime-fiction writer. Rather than confront Margot, Tony decides to kill her so that he can have his revenge and also inherit her small fortune. He spends months meticulously planning the perfect murder and hires his former Cambridge classmate, a professional crook named Swann (Anthony Dawson), to strangle Margot one night while she is home alone. Swann enters the apartment while Margot is asleep and hides behind the living room curtains. Tony, who is out at a party with Mark, an unknowing alibi, calls the phone in the living room of the flat to get Margot out of bed. When she picks up the phone, Swann, in one of the most violent moments in all of Hitchcock’s films, begins to choke Margot with a scarf. She falls down on a nearby desk and reaches for a pair of scissors, which she uses to stab Swann in the back. Swann falls to floor and, in another hard-to-watch moment, lands on the scissors, which plunge into his body, killing him. Tony then returns to the flat, comforts Margot and encourages her to go to bed. He will deal with the police, he says. Before they arrive, Tony manipulates and destroy evidence, and frames Margot for murder. She is later arrested and tried and convicted. The judge, who is played by Forbes Murray, decides Margot will be executed for her crimes.

Before I go any further, I must note that Dial ‘M’ for Murder is one of Hitchcock’s four “limited setting films,” along with Rope, Lifeboat, and Rear Window. Most all of the film takes place in the Wendices’ London flat. The film is an adaptation of the successful stage play of the same name by Frederick Knott, who also wrote the film’s screenplay. The challenge for Hitchcock, he tells Truffaut, was to adapt the work in a way that did not merely “open up” the play. Hitchcock describes the way in which film directors, in adapting plays for the screen, would often simply add banal touches before and after the dramatic action, which, like a stage, takes place mostly in a single room or two. For example, Hitchcock says, “In the film, they will show the arrival of the cab, the person getting out and paying the driver, coming up the stairs, knocking at the door, and then coming into the room, and this serves to introduce the long scene that takes place in the room.” In other words, there is very little that is cinematic about many adaptations. Hitchcock instead does his best to avoid leaving the flat and finds ways to build dramatic tension within the limited setting. Hitchcock preserves the drama of theatre by way of the camera, finding innovate ways to capture the dynamics between his characters in a way that adds a layer of narrative complexity to both the image and the dialogue. For example, Hitchcock often places the camera seemingly in the floor of the apartment to get a low angle shot of Tony when he is seated, simultaneously capturing Tony’s sense of ease and control over the moment. Hitchcock also places the camera in the ceiling of the flat, following Tony around the apartment as he describes to Swann precisely how he will murder Margot. By taking us around the flat, we become familiar with the space and thus will feel even more violated and horrified when Swann enters and kills Margot.

A notable exception to Hitchcock’s rule is when the camera leaves the flat for Margot’s trial. Hitchcock does not show the courtroom, the jury, or any of the things one would typically associate with the trial process. Instead, as Truffaut noted, Hitchcock opts to portray the trial “simply through a series of close-ups on Grace Kelly’s face against a natural background and with color lights revolving behind her.” This, Hitchcock says, was so that the “unity of emotion was maintained.” To bring the view to the courtroom would also, he notes, mark the beginning of a “second picture,” or, a courtroom drama. Dial ‘M’ for Murder is a film about the domestic, not just because the film takes places almost entirely within the Wendice flat, but because thematically it is also about the horrors that can take place within one own’s home, in a place of comfort, similar to, for example Shadow of a Doubt. In Dial ‘M’, Margot is safe in bed, a cozy fire burning in the living room, when Swann tries to kill her. In a sense, the attempted murder of Margot Wendice is a precursor to the actual murder of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) in Psycho. The horror of Marion’s murder comes from the fact that it is completely unexpected (and at the time nearly unprecedented in Hollywood cinema) and that it takes place in the warm shower, a place often associated with comfort and a sense of security.  Margot survives Swann’s attack, but her fate is arguably more terrifying than Mother’s knife: she is wrongly convicted and (nearly) murdered by the state, a byproduct of a dubious trial overseen by a judge. Among the horrors of Dial ‘M’ for Murder is the image of the puritanical judge, dressed in foreboding garb and contrasted by the bright red background, who can kill you with the power of the law. And not only can he end your life, but he can be manipulated; he can be wrong.

The trial scene lasts less than one minute. Margot does not speak. The fear comes through her eyes as sound of the lawyers’ cross examination and the jury’s verdict plays offscreen. The only other face shown is the judge’s, who also does not speak on camera — his voice is heard only when the camera is on Margot. “The sentence of this court is that you be taken to the place from whence you came, from thence to a place of lawful execution,” the judge says, as the image fades to black. The disjunction between the audio and the image places an emphasis on the latter.

In the spring of 2019, I was lucky enough to spend a few days at the Margaret Herrick Library in Los Angeles, California, which is home to the Alfred Hitchcock Papers and Archive. Among the files are documents from the production of Dial ‘M’ for Murder. I happened to find a series of memos from the production of the film that illustrate not only Hitchcock’s meticulous attention to detail, but the special attention he paid to this one shot of the judge in particular. For example, in a memo, Rudi Fehr, the film’s editor, requested on behalf of “Mr. Hitchcock” a photograph of a judge from Old Bailey, a criminal courthouse in London. The memo suggests that he had previously been sent a photo of the Lord Chief Justice, who heads the Judiciary of England and Wales, which “would not be right.” In another memo addressed to Steve Trilling, an executive at Warner Brothers, a man name Jerry discusses the wig worn by judges in great detail. He informs Mr. Trilling that he has sent along a ‘Bench Wig’, but that Trilling may be surprised by what he finds because it is “not the curly full-bottomed wig usually associated with judges.” He goes on to describe that the full-bottomed wig one is accustomed to seeing in “popular conception” are worn only on ceremonial occasions, and that judges actually wear “little half wig[s]” while presiding over a murder trial. In another memo, Jerry, in great detail, describes the process of placing a black cap on the judge’s head after he pronounces a death sentence, a process that is reproduced in the above shot in Dial ‘M’ for Murder. Hitchcock and his team were so determined to get this one shot right, that, according to the memo, they hired a model to “pose in authentic robes” because they could not find a color photograph of a judge wearing the proper robes. “Believe it or not,” the memo reads, “I could not obtain [a photograph] anywhere in London.”

Why does this matter?

The pageantry and ritual of the judge’s verdict are a visual metaphor for the legal system itself, one that operates on precedents and traditions aimed to deliver justice. We know that Margot is innocent, so the surprise and/or the horror of the scene is not that Swann was killed or that she has been arrested, but that she was found guilty; that she will be the one to pay, with her life, for Tony’s crimes. The judge’s clothing, his wig, and the black cap mask a broken system, one that abides by rules that sometimes enable horror and crime rather than stop it. The villain in Dial ‘M’ for Murder, of course, is Tony, but it is also the system that he, for most of the film, is able to game. The rule of law is an illusion, as real as the judge’s wig.

A distrust of the legal system famously runs throughout Hitchcock’s work. Perhaps the most well-known Hitchcockian-plot is the one in which a man is wrongly accused of a crime and must evade the police until he can prove his innocence. Police are often the but of the joke, overly-confident, and proven wrong. In Rear Window, the protagonist, L.B. Jeffries (Jimmy Stewart) tries to convince a police officer that his neighbor murdered his wife, but his officer-friend refuses to believe him. The officer’s arrogance almost costs L.B. his life. When Hitchcock was four or five years old, he misbehaved and his father sent him to the police station, where the chief of police locked him in a cell. Thus began Hitchcock’s distrust — and fear of — police.

Notably, Dial ‘M’ for Murder begins with a shot of a policeman, presumably stationed on a street near the Wendice home. The policeman glances around the street, on the lookout for potential crime, presumably ready to step in if necessary. The irony is that a crime is about to occur right under his nose and there is nothing he can do about it. Why? Because it takes place in the domestic, in that comfortable setting that sits just outside the public eye. The policeman then is ineffective and not to be trusted because he cannot protect us from that horror. There are three significant law enforcement figures in Dial ‘M’ for Murder: the policeman, the judge, and Chief Inspector Hubbard (John Williams). Hubbard questions Margot and Tony soon after Swann’s death. Months after her conviction, and just days before her execution, Hubbard returns to their household and questions Tony. It becomes clear that he does not trust the outcome of the trial; he suspects Tony and is there to question him. He swaps coats with Tony to get the flat’s key, which he then uses to reenter the apartment and search for clues after Tony leaves. It is later revealed that he also searched Margot’s handbag, took her key, and tried to enter the flat. The key did not work, and that’s when Hubbard realized not all the facts were known. His tactics are questionable at best, illegal at worst, but, as he says, “My blood was boiling up!” Indeed.

Hubbard goes on, of course, to piece all the facts together and prove that Tony was the one who orchestrated the murder. How was he able to do it? How was he able to ensure that justice was indeed served? By circumventing the law and entering the space of the domestic; by looking for crime in the places one would least expect. He is the antithesis of the judge, who embodies tradition, rules, and the system that failed to deliver justice. By solving the case and saving Margot’s life, Hubbard shows that the system is broken, and that the real horror is not what might happen in the domestic space, but the possibility that what happens there may never be known, or, even worse, we may get wrong accused and sent to hang in the gallows by a judge with a funny wig. 

Episode 22. The 2020 Sight & Sound Poll + Kevin B. Lee

The most recent episode of The Video Essay Podcast is (in part) dedicated to the 2020 Sight & Sound poll of the year's best video essays. Will is joined by the co-curators of the poll, Cydnii Wilde Harris, Grace Lee, and Ariel Avissar to discuss what it was like putting the poll together in the year of quarantine. The episode also features commentary from Oswald Iten, Kevin B. Lee, Shannon Strucci, Thomas Flight, and Scout Tafoya, who provide short audio reflections that expand upon their own selections in the year's poll. Finally, Will talks with Kevin B. Lee about an innovate new master's program he is starting at Merz Akademie in Stuttgart, Germany. Kevin talks about his plans for the program and the future of video essays. The conversation also exists in an extended, video form, below.

Video Essays, Desktop Cinema and Artistic Research: the Masters Program at Merz Akademie

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