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DIAL M FOR MURDER – Dimitri Tiomkin

January 21, 2020 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Craig Lysy

English playwright Frederick Knott introduced his story “Dial M For Murder” in 1952 as a play for television. Its popularity led to stage productions in London and New York that were also successful. Renowned producer Alexander Korda saw opportunity and purchased the film rights, and after the success of the stage productions sold them to Warner Brothers for a handsome profit. Warner Brothers Studios had Alfred Hitchcock under contract and when his effort to film “The Bramble Bush” failed to get off the ground they directed him to begin production on “Dial M For Murder”. Hitchcock would produce and direct the film with a modest budget of $1.4 million. His first choices for the lead roles did not pan out. Cary Grant would not accept the role of a villain, and Olivia de Havilland demanded too much money for his modest budget. Despite these setbacks he never the less secured a fine cast which included Ray Milland as Tony Wendice, Grace Kelly as Margot Mary Wendice, Robert Cummings as Mark Halliday, John Williams as Chief Inspector Hubbard, and Anthony Dawson as Alexander Swann.

The story offers a sordid tale of infidelity, revenge, blackmail, deception and murder. Englishman Tony Wendice is married to beautiful wealthy socialite Margot and is winding down his career as a professional tennis player. By chance he discovers that Margot has been having an affair with Mark Halliday, an American crime fiction writer and plots to avenge himself by murdering her and securing her enormous fortune. He ruthlessly blackmails his friend Alexander Swann, a small time criminal into murdering Margot, yet there is no perfect murder and when the attempt goes awry Margot is ultimately exonerated and Tony revealed as the architect of the failed murder plot. The film was a commercial success, earning $6 million, more than four times its production cost of $1.4 million. However, despite favorable reviews it was not nominated for any Academy Awards.

Alfred Hitchcock had enjoyed his previous collaborations with Dimitri Tiomkin with Shadow of a Doubt (1944) and I Confess (1951), so much so that they became friends and often socialized together. As such, he was the natural choice to score the film. Tiomkin understood that this was a suspense-thriller film with an amazing intersection of overt and occult emotions including; deception, illicit love, betrayal, blackmail, revenge and greed. To that end he crafted a fine theatrical score, which enhanced Hitchcock’s vision. He composed two primary themes and one motif. The Love Theme supports the romance of Margot and her paramour Mark, not her husband Tony. It offers a lush string born identity with a vintage 1950s sensibility. It emotes as a graceful, free flowing valzer romantico, which just carries us away. Most interesting is how its articulation becomes plaintive and ultimately deconstructed as their illicit affair is exposed. The Wendice Theme speaks to the Wendice house and offers a scherzo by bubbling woodwinds and strings animato, which emote with joie de vivre. To the casual observer, their home seems idyllic, is beautifully adorned and decorated, and luxurious. In many ways, Tiomkin speaks to appearances, not the covert emotional drivers of Margot and Tony. Finally, we have the remarkable Ticking Clock Motif, a tension device which was brilliantly conceived and executed. It was used to support Tony’s diabolical murder plan, and later his subsequent cover up to incriminate Margo. It is amazing how Tiomkin synchronized his orchestra to mimic a ticking clock. Lastly, many scenes of suspense and tension were supported texturally rather than thematically, which revealed a compositional evolution for Tiomkin.

Main Title (Film Version)” opens bombastically as the Warner Brothers Studio logo displays. As the film title displays we see “Dial” linked to a telephone and “M For Murder” linked to a large “red M” on the phone face. Each revelation is supported by a xylophone glissando crowned with a triangle strike – a most unusual and original conception. Flowing harp glissandi usher in the roll of the opening credits. At 0:21 we segue into “Margot And Mark”, which offers a complex multi-scenic cue where Tiomkin demonstrates mastery of his craft. We open and are graced with an extended rendering of the Love Theme, a sublime valzer romantico of uncommon beauty. A note rich soliloquy by solo violin at 0:49 supports the display of Dimitri Tiomkin on the screen. We close with a coda of the Love Theme. At 1:05 we enter the film proper with a view of an idyllic street lined with ornate English block homes carried the bubbling woodwinds of the Wendice Theme, which carries us into the Wendice residence where we see Tony giving Margot a good morning kiss. We shift to the Love Theme at 1:36 as we see a glow in her eyes as she reads in the newspaper that writer Mark Halliday is arriving today aboard the Queen Mary at Southampton. At 1:52 strings animato offer the Love Theme as a happy scherzo, which takes us to the docks of Southampton, where we see Mark disembarking. At 2:11 we return to the Wendice residence atop a lush rendering of the Love Theme where we see Margot and Mark embrace in a passionate kiss. As they begin to talk, we see that Margot is troubled by the affair, which is reflected in the Love Theme, now uncertain, and tinged with sadness. At 4:03 a solo violin doloroso weeps joined by orchestral dissonance as Margot relates that she has burned all his love letters, save one. She goes on to state that her hand bag with the letter in it was stolen and that she is being blackmailed. The Love Theme becomes increasingly beleaguered and despondent as Margot relates, she paid the ransom, but never received the letter as promised. As the embrace and kiss they hear Tony unlocking the door, they separate supported strings animato, which wash away her sadness.

In “Green Curtains and White Gloves” Tony feigns a business deadline and sends Margot and Mark off to the theater and dinner without him. After they depart, we see dark purpose in his eyes as he heads to his study, pulls closed the green curtains and invites old friend Alexander Swann over to discuss the purchase of his car, feigning a twisted knee for the reason he cannot come to him. He removes a pair of white gloves from a paper bag, and places them on the couch. Tiomkin juxtaposes this plotting and subterfuge with the bubbling scherzo of the Wendice Theme, which is apparently indifferent to Tony’s plot. In an unscored scene Tony slowly, but with a diabolical resolve, weaves a web born of Alexander’s life of lies and deceit to ensnare him. Now fully exposed, coercion is effortless and he blackmails Alexander into murdering his wife for £1,000, using a plan meticulously thought out, which would be, the perfect murder.

“Hidden Key” offers a discordant horn stinger as Alexander takes the £100 down payment, thus committing to the murder. At 0:11 we segue into “Swann The Intruder”, which offers a stunning score highlight that reveals Tiomkin’s genius. We see Margot and Mark viewing memorabilia of Tony’s travels as he makes them all Martini’s. Tiomkin scores the scene with a soft valzer gentile with interplay of the Wendice Theme. At 4:13 Tiomkin sows unease with an eerie woodwind descent as he hands Margot her shears for the clippings. A faux romanticism unfolds as he needs to find a way to get her key from her hand bag and does so by feigning a need for taxi money. She objects and tries to grab it as he hides the bag behind him and manages to obtain the key. As Tony departs at 4:53 a solo violin sows fear as he finds Mark waiting outside the door, which prevents him hiding the key under the stair carpet. At 5:09 after walking 10 feet, he turns about supported by Mark and Margot’s Love Theme, and calls to her. She opens the door and at 5:18 a dark chord followed by waves of harp glissandi support his surreptitious hiding of the key under the stair carpet. He advises her of an important call and then at 5:31 kisses her goodbye. An eerie string descent attended by muted horns of doom support the kiss and carry his confident departure as his plan has been successfully set to motion. At 5:44 slithering serpentine strings and muted horns of doom support Swann’s stealth approach and entry into the building. Tiomkin builds suspense with dark textural writing as he reaches the door. At 6:41 high register muted horns sound as he unlocks the door and enters the apartment joined by growling bass sinistre as he moves through the room. The Ticking Clock Motif commences as Swann hides behind the curtain and awaits the phone call. At 7:27 Tony’s realizes his watch has stopped and he is late getting to the phone to make the call. An intensification on the Ticking Clock Motif reflects his growing unease as he walks briskly to the phone booth, which to his dismay he finds occupied. The Ticking Clock Motif is joined by harsh horns of doom on a crescendo of terror, which fails to crest, instead dissipating as Tony at last gains entry to the phone booth and makes the call.

“Dial M For Murder” offers a stunning score highlight. We see Margot answering the phone and Swann moving in behind her ready to strangle her with a noose of cloth. An orchestral ostinato of terror supports Swann’s wait for Margot to put down the phone so he can strangle her. She moves to do so at 0:28 and Swann strikes, supported by terrifying orchestral mayhem as Margot struggles to save herself. He has her pinned on the desk and strings propel a swelling desperation until horrific grotesque horns resound at 0:58 as Margot slams her shears into his back, mortally wounding him. A horrific, tortured descent supports his fall, which at 1:10 drives the shears deeper into his back. Strings of desperation propel a crescendo of horror as Margot grabs the phone and asks the caller to call the police, only to discover Tony’s voice. Margot begs him to come home at once, and he is stunned to hear that she is alive and Swann is dead. The Ticking Clock Motif returns and supports his instructions to not to call anyone or touch anything – as he is incriminated if he does not find a way to take the key from Swann’s body and place it back in Margot’s purse. After she hangs up at 2:11 we see that she is traumatized and Tiomkin supports her with an anguished orchestral torrent as she takes in a breath of cool air on the terrace and then stumbles back to the bedroom. Tony says goodbye to Mark, saying Margot needs him and at 2:43 a fierce orchestral ostinato supports his departure and travel home in a cab.

In “Forensics” the first 24 seconds of the cue were dialed out of the film. Tony arrives home and Margot runs to him and they embrace. We see that he is feigning caring and Tiomkin speaks to this with a faux romanticism of violins and woodwinds. He quickly checks the body, desperate to find the key, yet fails. The music is full of foreboding as he manages to retrieve the key and place it back in her handbag while she is in the bathroom taking some aspirin. He calls the police and reports the ‘killing’ and then dissuades Margot from dressing, saying she should go to sleep and that he would take care of everything. We see in his eyes opportunity to frame Margot for the crime supported by tolling bells. At 2:48 we segue into “The Stocking” atop the Ticking Clock Motif and an eerie harp glissandi as he searches for the stocking used by Swann. Twisted woodwinds join with the Ticking Clock Motif as he finds the stocking. At 4:27 he douses it with lighter fluid and tosses it into the fireplace, with swirling strings supporting the flames consuming it. With diabolical design he retrieves two others from her sowing basket, one which he drops on the terrace and one which he places under his desk pad. He then places the incriminating love letter in Swann’s pocket and sits relieved, waiting for the police to arrive. Tiomkin supports his treachery with unsettling textural writing, the Ticking Clock Motif, and a mocking saxophone, closing on an eerie diminuendo on harp glissandi. At 6:30 we segue into “Intermission Card – Version II”, a bravado statement by horns bravura and proud strings.

“Lighter Fluid” reveals Tony coming upon the can of lighter fluid he used to burn the evidence. An oblique variant of the Wendice Theme is joined by a quote of the Love Theme and the Ticking Clock Motif as Tony silently relishes his setup of Margot. In “Meet Inspector Hubbard” the inspector arrives with questions. As Margot exits to retrieve Tony from the bedroom. Tiomkin weaves a tapestry of unease as we see him examine the apartment. The music warms at 0:40 when Tony and Margot return and the inspector visits the bedroom, bathroom and kitchen. Yet woven in the notes is mystery and a subtle unease. “Interrogation” reveals Mark’s arrival and a series questions from inspector Hubbard. Hubbard uses a ruse to get Tony to leave and open the back gate, which allows him time alone with Mark. Discordant trumpets squeal when he asks Mark if Tony knows about him and Margot. The discordance worsens when he relates to Mark that his letter was found on Swann’s body. As Margot returns a solo oboe doloroso voices the Love Theme, that is now uncertain. Its transfer to a solo violin supports her forced acknowledgement of the letter to inspector Hubbard. The theme is full of discomfort as their affair will soon be revealed to Tony. At 0:41 grim repeating orchestral tolling descents support Mark providing the inspector with the two blackmail notes. Hubbard has caught Margot in a lie, and her unease is palpable. The Love Theme struggles to give voice, yet never coalesces, instead overcome by the grim return of the Ticking Clock Motif at 1:23, which supports Tony’s return. Hubbard now asserts that the only way that Swann could have got in was for Margot to let him in. Tiomkin supports the tightening noose by sowing unease with interplay of the Ticking Clock Motif and a now deconstructed Love Theme.

At 4:05 we segue into “Trial” atop dire horns, which portend doom as we see Margot charged with murder. The filming of the scene was interesting in that the background was not a courthouse, but instead cloth with shift auras. At her trial damning facts are provided and Tiomkin sows a swelling tension, now fortified with the Ticking Clock Motif as Tony’s revenge comes to fruition. At 4:54 we crescendo, replete with tolling bells as the guilty verdict is read, and Margot is sentenced to death as the orchestra dissipates in its lowest register. At 5:09 we segue into “Margot’s Last Chance” atop racing strings as we see Mark arriving at the Wendice residence as Tony is entering. As Mark rings the doorbell, Tiomkin sows a misterioso as Tony hides a brief case under his bathrobe in the bedroom. Mark pleads with Tony to save Margot using a story he conceived, which implicates Tony as the architect of the murder. He unnerves Tony by detailing the actual steps he took to implicate Margot. Tiomkin sustains the auras of unease, with struggling phrases of the Love Theme and the dire Ticking Clock Motif. The confluence of film narrative and music for this scene is spot on.

In “Confession” the inspector returns and Mark hides in the bedroom. He is inquiring about Tony’s brief case and how he came into so much cash. This elicits Mark to pry it open and discover it is stuffed with cash. Mark exposes the find to the inspector, and tries to implicate Tony in the murder, but Tony successfully counters with all the right answers. Mark departs, and the inspector uses a ruse to switch his and Tony’s trench coats before also departing. Throughout the encounter Tiomkin alludes to the Love Theme as Mark desperately tries to save her life to no avail. After the two men have departed at 2:22, a screeching saxophone signals Tony’s relief and as he pours himself a drink the Ticking Clock Motif resounds to celebrate his triumph. We conclude on strings animato dissipating on a diminuendo as he retrieves his cash and departs the apartment. At 3:17 we segue into “Margot Returns” where we see the inspector return, descending the stairs with an orchestral descent, and then opening the door using Tony’s key. At 3:34 confident strings and woodwinds animato unfold as he calls the station and asks that Margot be brought to him. Mark then arrives and joins the inspector, who orders him to shut up if he wants to save Margot. At 4:57 a plaintive statement of the Love Theme supports Margot’s arrival and inability to open the door with her key. She comes around and enters the apartment from the garden terrace to find inspector Hubbard and Mark waiting for her.

At 6:16 we segue into “The Truth”, with textural suspense writing as the inspector asks Margot questions to which she cannot answer. At 7:11 strings animato carry the inspector into the bedroom to retrieve Tony’s empty brief case, which she also cannot explain. He sends his man with the Swann’s key and her purse to the station for safe keeping. As Margot and Mark converse their Love Theme, now more warm and hopeful supports, interrupted by the inspector who announces grim news – that he strongly believes Tony hired Swann to kill her. His proof is that Margot’s key in her purse did not open the door and was found to be Swann’s key. The inspector found her key under the stair carpet outside the door, which means Tony mistakenly thought the key in Swann’s pocket was her key when he placed it back in her purse. When Tony returns, he realizes his coat is the inspector’s and has no key to enter, so he departs to the police station. We end darkly as the inspector sets a trap, waiting for Tony to return. When Margot’s key fails to open the door, if he retrieves the key under the carpet he will be exposed.

In “The Key” Tony returns and Margot’s key does not open the door. He is perplexed but finally realizes that it may be Swann’s key. He retrieves her key under the stair carpet and opens the door. The music enters darkly and dramatically with three strikes – the first when Tony sees Margot and Mark, the second when he sees the inspector, the third when he opens the door to flee and sees another inspector. He immediately realizes that he is exposed and nonchalantly pours himself a drink, and then offers Margot and Mark one also. Tiomkin supports him with a comedic syncopated line that perfectly aligns with his nonchalance. We close with a final refrain of the Love Theme and a grim string sustain as the inspector calls the Ministry of Justice to exonerate Margot. “Hubbard’s Theory” was dialed out of the film and intended an extended confession by Tony. It opens with a plaintive statement of the Love Theme that transitions on strings animato and woodwinds to emote the Wendice Theme, darkening at 1:03 on strings grave and the Ticking Clock Motif to support what must have been his confession. Slowly we begin a grotesque crescendo on the motif draped with dissonance. At 2:37 the music brightens on a warm string prelude from which arises a resplendent statement of the Love Theme, which ends in a flourish. At 3:21 we segue into “End Title” upon a coda of the Love Theme, which ends in a flourish. Lastly, the bonus cue “Dial M for Me” offers an extended rendering of the Love Theme. Orchestrator Herbert W. Taylor arranged the music to be expressed in a sumptuous big band manner for promotional purposes.

Please allow me to thank Douglass Fake, Intrada Records and the team of William and Anna Stromberg for this long-sought rerecording of Tiomkin’s masterpiece, “Dial M For Murder”. The score’s reconstruction by William and Anna Stromberg was extraordinary, the recording and mixing by Simon Rhodes peerless and the performance under Stromberg’s baton, flawless. The album audio is pristine and offers a wonderful listening experience. Alfred Hitchcock’s films were usually enhanced by exceptional music, and this score by Tiomkin is no exception. This was a dialogue driven narrative, filled with suspense, deception, misdirection and diabolical treachery. In scene after scene we hear the music enhancing and illuminating Hitchcock’s narrative. The sumptuous love theme offered one of his finest, but for me it was the Ticking Clock Motif, which expressed Tony’s diabolical plot, which ultimately empowered the film. Also noteworthy is Tiomkin’s non-thematic textural writing, which masterfully sowed tension and suspense. This score is a testament to Tiomkin’s mastery of his craft. I consider it a masterpiece of conception and execution, a gem of the Golden Age. I highly recommend purchase of the superb album for your collection. Lastly, I offer praise to William and Anna Stromberg for their deeply appreciated efforts to reconstruct and rerecord lost treasures of the Golden Age. Thank you for all that you do.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a YouTube link to an eight minute suite arranged by John Mauceri; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VV077-kF77s

Buy the Dial M for Murder soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (Film Version)/Margot and Mark (Love Theme) (6:49)
  • Green Curtains and White Gloves (2:06)
  • Hidden Key/Swann the Intruder (9:08)
  • Dial M For Murder (3:02)
  • Forensics/The Stocking/Intermission Card – Version II (6:48)
  • Lighter Fluid (1:15)
  • Meet Inspector Hubbard (1:33)
  • Interrogation/Trial/Margot’s Last Chance (7:16)
  • Confession/Margot Returns/The Truth (8:50)
  • The Key (2:02)
  • Hubbard’s Theory and End Title (3:39)
  • Suite from Strangers on a Train (8:17) BONUS
  • Main Title (Original Version) (1:09) BONUS
  • Intermission Card – Version I (0:17) BONUS
  • Dial M for Me (2:20) BONUS

Running Time: 65 minutes 01 seconds

Intrada INT-7157 (1954/2019)

Music composed by Dimitri Tiomkin. Conducted by William Stromberg. Performed by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Original orchestrations by George Parrish, Manuel Emanuel and Herbert W. Spencer. Recorded and mixed by Simon Rhodes. Score produced by Dimitri Tiomkin. Album produced by William Stromberg, Anna Bonn Stromberg and Douglass Fake.

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