Dial M for Murder (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954)

“Mind you, even I didn’t guess that at once… extraordinary.”

Introduction

Rarely does 3D demand your attention. Avatar broke the mould; Life of Pi brought heart and beauty to 3D; Dial M for Murder is a master filmmaker ahead of his time. When Alfred Hitchcock directed Dial M for Murder almost 60 years ago, 3D existed. In fact, 3D existed under the guise of stereoscopic as far back as the late 1890’s as experiments in filmmaking determined the future of the medium. 1922 introduced the first 3D feature-film in The Power of Love, but it was 1952 that became the ‘Golden Era’ of 3D in cinema. Hitchcock plays with perspective and toys with the foreground and background so that in 2013, when re-mastered and re-issued at cinemas in a limited release, you are expected to attend. Hitchcock has been temporarily re-born to take part in the 3D craze that has dominated blockbuster cinema – and what an incredible film it truly is.
The Theatre

A small-scale story on a par with Rope and Lifeboat, this is a small cast with murder on their minds. Opening on a couple enjoying breakfast, Mrs Wendice (Grace Kelly) spies an article highlighting the arrival of a boat – cut to a smart gentleman (Robert Cummings) stepping off boat; immediate cut back to the house whereby a gentleman and Mrs Wendice are in a heated embrace. Within a minute, we know the set-up: A woman is having an affair and they are deeply in love – and her husband is unaware. This fast and functional start implies that Grace Kelly and Robert Cummings are to lead the thriller but it is only after they highlight their fear, anxieties and conflicted ideas about how to move forward do we meet Tony Wendice (Ray Milliand), her husband – and the man we hold mixed emotions towards throughout Dial M for Murder. He is a victim to their infidelities but his murderous plan is, shall we say, a little unreasonable as a reaction.

Set almost exclusively within a single flat in Madia Vale, the story plays out over three acts. Tony Wendice explains in exquisite detail the plan to kill his wife and his unwilling accomplice Swann (Anthony Dawson) is slowly drawn into his role to play. This intelligent writing and perfectly placed actions and manouvres exemplify the very best elements of theatre as Mr Wendice wipes down each item within the room and lays white gloves carefully on the side – noting to Swann that, if he does pick up anything, to use the gloves. To make matters more fascinating, Robert Cummings plays Mark Halliday – crime journalist and writer. His insights into what could – or could not – be a perfect murder means that we assume he may work out the plan himself. Instead, Hitchcock paces the film gently so that we are intently listening and trying to work out where the story will go. Wendice has planned it out so well – how will it go wrong? If indeed it does. The genius of Dial M for Murder is how we don’t particularly trust the storyteller himself – as all the characters are despicable to some extent it is not out of the question that everything goes to plan. Hitch knows us better than that.

Do we benefit from 3D?

Depth of composition and perspective is something that, for Alfred Hitchcock, is not new. Dial M for Murder is unqiue as Hitchcock knew the possibilities of 3D filmmaking and rather than interesting shots taking place at different points, Hitchcock guarantees that every single sequence and shot utilises the 3D feature. The DVD release highlighted many elements of the film that purposefully acknowledged the 3D medium, but David Bordwell on his site Observations on Film Art manages to breakdown almost every single style of 3D Hitchcock uses.
As a adaptation of Frederick Knott’s play, Dial M for Murder often situates our perspective from beneath – akin to the experience when looking up to actors on stage. But there is so much more as lamps and chandeliers obscure the shot and create deep persepctive as characters converse; even the characters themselves utilise the perspective. In one sequence, Hitchcock regular John Williams plays the Chief Inspector and as he questions the victim, behind him another character awaits the change in statement the victim is making. Two specific shots are incredible in 3D, and though I won’t spoil both – the theatrcial poster whereby the hand reaches out of the screen is a pleasure to watch in three dimensions.

Now is the time … 

The re-release has been incredibly popular in Toronto and New York – and with screenings at the Curzon, Barbican and BFI, there is no reason it cannot continue to attract audiences. Watching the film on DVD prior to this cinematic release, the story alone was so intrieguing and tense, it was frustrating that films like Dial M for Murder are no more. Indeed, the small-scale, careful plotting and theatricality of the actors is a rare occurence. But it doesn’t need to be – those who limit their film-viewing to new releases and post-1977 cinema will benefit hugely from Dial M for Murder. This is a master ahead of his time and one can only hope that many viewers may watch Dial M for Murder as their introduction to Alfred Hitchcock – and if not, watching Dial M for Murder in the way it was intended is fascinating to see too. Viewing at the BFI, families viewed the film together and what an incredible, eye-opening experience that would be.

Originally published for Flickering Myth on 27th July 2013

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