Dial M For Murder came out in 1954; A Perfect Murder was released in 1998. I had seen A Perfect Murder many times before; I hadn’t seen Dial M For Murder until last night. After reading that they were based on the same play by Frederick Knott, I watched them one after the other — Hitchcock’s first; the 1998 adaptation after that.
I was born long after 1954. My parents would have been still in high school at the time. Although I’ve read a lot about that period, I can’t really say that I know what it was like back then. I say that because the representation of the lead female character in the two movies were poles apart although both films were spawned by the same play.
The common plot
A once successful and wealthy husband is on the brink of financial ruin. The independently wealthy (much, much wealthier) wife has a boyfriend on the side. The husband knows what’s going on, does not let the wife know and, instead of simply ending an unhappy marriage, the husband sees a way out of both an unhappy marriage and his financial difficulties. He blackmails someone to kill the wife so he can inherit her money. The planned murder goes awry. Instead of the hired killer murdering the wife, the wife kills the killer in self-defense.
Dial M For Murder is set in London. The husband (Ray Milland) is a former tennis star, the wife, Margot (Grace Kelly), is a housewife, the boyfriend (Robert Cummings) is a writer. The blackmailed killer is a former schoolmate of the husband.
A Perfect Murder takes place in New York. The husband (Michael Douglas) is a Wall Street investor and speculator, the wife, Emily (Gwyneth Paltrow), is a multilingual translator with the United Nations, the boyfriend (Viggo Mortensen) is a painter. It is the boyfriend, an ex-convict who preys on rich women, that the husband blackmails to commit the murder.
The cheating wife
The most interesting difference for me is the portrayal of the wife. Remember that there is a 44-year interval between the two films.
In Dial M For Murder, after the wife kills the would-be murderer in self-defense, she simply did as her husband said. He told her not to call the police until he returned home, he instructed her to lie and she just did so. She was convicted and was already in death row when the police investigator originally in charge of the case decided to re-check some details that didn’t make sense.
In other words, the wife’s eventual freedom was courtesy of the brilliant mind and perseverance of a male character. I noted too that despite being in love with another man, nothing was said about the wife entertaining ideas about leaving the husband.
In A Perfect Murder, the wife was getting ready to end her marriage. It was also she who figured out the truth about the botched murder. As soon as she smelled something fishy, she did her own sleuthing. She pulled strings to discover the extent of her husband’s financial troubles to determine whether they were serious enough to drive him to have her killed to get his hands on her hundred-or-so-million-dollar trust fund.
Forty-four years is a long time. In 1954, rich women may have finished college but working wives were not the norm. By 1998, women had professions. And although Emily had what many would consider a glamor job, it was a job that required real skills. But what really stood out like a sore thumb was the level of obedience, dependency and helplessness of the wife.
In the 1954 film, Margot simply did as she was told to the point that she committed perjury. She was a helpless victim. Whether the helplessness is a product of her generation’s culture or her own weakness, well, anyone can argue in either direction. In the 1998 film, Emily was her own woman. Again, whether her strength and independence is the product of her generation’s culture or her own inner grit can be argued both ways.
The difference, of course, is due to what transpired after 1954 and long before 1998. Feminism happened. And how feminism got its way into film goes over and beyond Dial M For Murder and A Perfect Murder. It is even felt in animated movies meant for children. The pre-feminism heroines like Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty were content to leave it to Prince Charming to do the rescuing. Girls born in the 1990s and after have better role models with the likes of Mulan and Esmeralda. The girls in the animation-watching age today have Merida.
The polarity in the characterization of girls and women in film reminds me of a meme that circulated on the web a few months back, the one that compares Hermione of the Harry Potter films to Bella of the Twilight series. Apparently, the idea of a strong female character is not for everyone, feminism notwithstanding. Some still prefer the swooning heroine who simply must have a man to lean on to. You know, like Bella Swan.