Thursday Editor’s Pick: Dial M for Murder (1954)

by on June 29, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick, Uncategorized

Playing thru Thurs June 30 at 2:00, 4:30, 7:00, 9:30 at Film Forum [Program & Tix]


Thursday is the last day of Film Forum’s ludicrously popular run of Hitchcock’s suspenser in its original double-system Polaroid 3-D format (FF is the only theater in town with the projection capabilites). “I enjoy it more every time I see it,” remarked François Truffaut, but what say others of Hitch’s dalliance with gimmick photography?


3-D aficionado Dave Kehr:

The film is confined almost entirely to a cramped apartment set—a constricted space that takes on a highly expressive quality in the picture’s original 3-D version…The screenplay tends to constrain rather than liberate Hitchcock’s thematic thrust, but there is much of technical value in his geometric survey of the scene and the elaborate strategies employed to transfer audience sympathy among the four main characters.



J. Hoberman for the Voice:

Launched in late 1952, Hollywood’s comically brief 3-D experiment peaked the following summer. The craze was long over by the time Alfred Hitchcock finished his contribution to the cycle, Dial M for Murder, and the movie was released flat. A pity because, as now can be seen in Film Forum’s stunning rerelease, Dial M for Murder was by far the most visually compelling of studio stereoscopic movies— rivaled only by Jack Arnold’s half-underwater Creature From the Black Lagoon.


Taken from a hit Broadway play (and recently remade as A Perfect Murder), Dial M is a genteel thriller. A reptilian ex tennis champ (Ray Milland) decides to eliminate his wealthy, unfaithful wife (Grace Kelly), and blackmails an old schoolmate to do the job; when Kelly unexpectedly dispatches her attacker with a pair of scissors, Milland shifts gears to have her framed. Perhaps 90 percent of the action is confined to the couple’s cramped, incongruously dowdy living room, but Hitchcock made no attempt to open the piece up. While other 3-D productions assaulted audiences with hurtling tomahawks or Jane Russell’s bosom, Hitchcock positioned his actors behind a fussy clutter of monumentalized bric-a-brac and made visual jokes out of rear-screen projection. The lone use of the proscenium-breaking projectile effect is reserved for the murder sequence.


Dial M for Murder runs out of ideas after the killing (a typically kinky montage of jutting, boxy forms that supposedly took a week to shoot), with the film’s last half mainly sullen crosscutting between the overstuffed living room and the clean diagonals of the outside stairwell, where the proof of Kelly’s innocence is stashed. But even here Hitchcock’s canny restraint allows the stereo image to assert its own uncanny characteristics. The movie suggests that a minimalist like Yasujiro Ozu might have been the greatest 3-D filmmaker of them all.


Rob Humanick for Slant:

Produced at the height of the 1950s 3D craze (only to be distributed primarily in 2D, the novel format’s popularity already waning in the interim), the tightness of the setting offers little in the way of typical physical/visual excitement, but the master of suspense wrings plenty of tension out of the intimate environment, playing with depth and space in ways that play off of both the audience and character’s vantage points. The rhythmic dialogue and comfortable performances let the viewer ease into the film, all the better to focus on the cunning personal exchanges that bookend the attempted crime, as Tony sneakily ensnares his criminal assistant (a delightfully amoral Anthony Dawson) and later attempts to cover his tracks as cracks in his story—and unforeseen complications with evidence—begin to open like chasms…Despite the direness of the subject matter, Dial M for Murder is among the most purely enjoyable features the director ever helmed, so much that one might be forgiven for mistaking it as lightweight.



Michael Kerbel for Film Comment (Nov/Dec 1980):

The apartment appears much more spacious in 3-D than in 2-D, but, paradoxically, this actually emphasizes the sense of enclosure; it’s as if the screen had opened to its fullest depth only to tease the characters, who still have little breathing room. Hitchcock clutters the frame with furniture and bric-a-brac, establishing barriers between characters and cutting off their space. His major strategy is to place objects in the extreme foreground of many shots: bottles, glasses, boxes, teacups, bedsteads, flowers, the phone, and (most frequently) lamps, the glares of which set off the film’s general lack of natural light and its spiritual darkness.


In the 2-D version, the objects appear mainly as decorations in a baroque mise en scène; although they’re certainly distracting, we easily look past or through them to the middleground and background action. In 3-D, they’re so solid and so much closer to us than everything else is-that they attract a large part of our attention. Hitchcock seems to be suggesting the overwhelming dominance of possessions, or just plain junk, over emotions in his characters’ lives; and, since he has set up so many imposing obstacles to our involvement in the drama, we share his detached viewpoint, in which people, with their petty activities and deceptions, seem not much more important than things.


As in other films, Hitchcock often focuses the drama, and embodies meanings, in specific objects. Tony must steal a key from Margo’s purse, which is in front of her. In 2-D, the purse almost blends in with her similarly colored dress. In 3-D, however, it stands out, on a distinctly separate plane. This highlighting contributes significantly to the scene’s suspense, and-since suspense here has to do with our wanting to see the ingenious scheme work-to the film’s considerable moral ambiguity. 3-D was a logical extension of what Hitchcock had done with foreground objects in previous films; the added dimension gave him an even greater opportunity to manipulate the audience’s attention and emotions.


One might have expected Hitchcock to take advantage also of 3-D’s assault capabilities, since he’d attacked the audience many times in 2-D: the water crashing through (a screen, in fact) in Foreign Correspondent; Farley Granger punching us and Robert Walker kicking us in Strangers on a Train; and, in a moment as gratuitous as anything in 3-D cinema, the gun firing into our eyes in Spellbound. But in his only 3-D film, he avoids such assaults. Perhaps, as some have pointed out, the material really didn’t warrant thrusting objects out of the screen, but it may be that Hitchcock restrained himself so that, when the one crucial break through the wall occurred – during the attempted murder-it would have maximum impact.


Sheldon Hall with some background on the 3-D logistics, for the journal Film History (2004):

What of 3-D, then? While the subject matter of Dial M for Murder might have been a matter of ‘coasting’, as Hitchcock put it, handling the large and cumbersome camera equipment was not. Donald Spoto claims that the restrictions the process placed on the director’s choice of camera placement and movement caused him considerable stress and frustration, resulting in a loss of forty pounds in weight during the two months of rehearsal and shooting. The celebrated use of an enlarged telephone dial  behind the opening titles, and a correspondingly outsize wooden finger substituting for Ray Milland’s in a close-up insert when he uses a call box, were the result of the inability of the 3-D lenses to focus clearly on small detail. In any event, Hitchcock found the process unsatisfactory for what he considered his usual narrational methods: he recognised that its principal effect on the spectator was to produce a sense of distance from rather than involvement in the action.



B. Kite, also for The Voice:

Hitchcock’s only excursion into 3-D, Dial M for Murder stars Ray Milland, Grace Kelly, and a bilge green ceramic lamp. Since the film has only rarely been shown “in depth” since its 1954 release (Hitchcock called the process “a nine-day wonder, and I came in on the ninth day”), viewers stumbling across it on TV or renting it in ignorance of its provenance may have wondered at this last performer—the hammy insistence with which the lamp thrusts itself forward in conversations, the sneaky coquettishness with which it maneuvers its shade into the corners of the frame—especially as it plays no role in the plot (if it contains jewels or secret documents, it keeps them to itself).


Film Forum’s revival—an opportunity to see Dial M in its original “NaturalVision” dual-projection process—restores its reputation. No preening prima donna (and wisely not, since it is not an attractive lamp), it is a loyal corps member in the object ballet for keys, stockings, telephone, and corpse that underlies the plot. Nothing if not pliable, it also serves as an anchor in the squalls and eddies of space unleashed by the 3-D process. Sitting squat at center stage, like the director in a party hat, it offers a steady reference point for cutting across the quadrants of the room that houses the bulk of the action (efforts to progress too far outside are blocked by Hitchcock’s notorious rear-projection screens, flatter and more explicitly artificial than ever with lampposts and railings comin’ at ya in the foreground).


The camera snaps to an overhead angle as he runs Dawson through his paces, a relief-map equivalent of the scene-of-the-crime diagrams on ’40s paperbacks. It’s a rehearsal for the viewer as much as for the killer—pay attention to the paths laid out. When it’s time to enact the crime, the lamp is out , and you’re left with Kelly to find your way in an abstract terrain of smeared highlights.It’s a good example of Hitchcock’s use of the 3-D process for small surprises. Many of the most interesting depth effects come from shallow spaces (a door lock, a phone dial) and confusing cues. The big exception is, of course, the murder scene. When the performance goes awry, Milland is left with the challenge of constructing a new murder plot out of the given set of props and circumstances (aside from the pointed cameo for scissors, time now to mention solid supporting work from a blue airmail envelope, a wicker sewing basket, and a can of lighter fluid).


And Kehr again, years later in the wake of the 3-D emergence, this time for Film Comment (Jan/Feb 2010):

The success of The Robe (1953) led the other studios to shelve their  3 -D  projects, just as the process appeared to be reaching a kind of maturity. Alfred Hitchcock’s  Dial M for Murder used only a single (but astonishing) outie effect: when Grace Kelly reaches out to the audience, as if in supplication, during the strangulation scene. With its subtlety and restraint,  Dial M might have provided a paradigm  for  the 3-D stereo film of the future. (Joe Dante, in his fine, mysteriously unreleased 2009  feature The Hole, has sagely followed Hitchcock’s path.)




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