Alfred Hitchcock once confided to Peter Bogdanovich that when all creativity seems to fail, the best any director can hope for is a pre-sold stage hit he can easily transform into a presumably equally popular film. However, Hitchcock also advised Bogdanovich that the worst thing any director could do was ‘open up’ a stage work for the infinitely larger cinematic canvas. Instead, Hitchcock explained, great care must be taken to preserve the play’s original construction. After all, it’s what made the story such a success in the first place. For the most part, Hitchcock took his own advice to heart on Dial M for Murder (1954), a magnificent exercise in confinement and claustrophobia based on the celebrated play by Frederick Knott. At the director’s behest, Knott also wrote the screenplay.
Hitchcock also joked that if he ever decided to make Cinderella his audience would be intensely waiting for a body to fall from the coach. In Dial M for Murder Hitch’ was introduced to Grace Kelly – undeniably a princess in every way – and their great friendship that blossomed throughout the shoot assured that Kelly would make at least two more appearances for the director in the mid-fifties: in Rear Window and To Catch A Thief. In retrospect Kelly is the iconic Hitchcock blonde; aloof and exceptionally beautiful, but with a hint of larceny smoldering beneath her cool exterior. The actress’ work in Dial M for Murder is arguably her best; emanating a conflicted toxicity of fragileness and more worldly betrayal that is about to turn her modestly perfect world on end.
Our story concerns one Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) a former tennis pro who regrets giving up his racket for the quiet married life to glamorous socialite Margot (Grace Kelly). Theirs was a love affair made tepid by financial circumstances. Although not starving, the couple live in a rather cramped - perhaps cozy - London flat (we only get to see two rooms; the living and the bedroom), and this close proximity seems to have worn down their resolve to stay together.
Tony’s quiet distemper is fueled by the discovery that his wife has been having an affair with the younger/more successful writer, Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings) who is recently arrived via the Queen Mary on a book tour. Mark and Margot make a dashing couple. Moreover they belong to the same class. But above all else, they're deeply in love. Or perhaps that's misrepresenting the facts. Mark's lust for Margot has only grown in their absence from one another, almost as exponentially as Margot's guilt has over the affair. In fact, Margot has all but decided to remain with Tony and work things out by the time Mark arrives in London for his visit. Tony invites Mark to a stag party at his social club, thereby leaving Margot quietly at home alone to get murdered.
You see, Tony has already decided to do away with his unfaithful spouse, not so much because of the infidelity, but because her insurance policy would very nicely pad his wallet and resolve some current strains on his finances created by some recent bad investments. To this diabolical end, Tony has called upon an old college roommate, Charles Swann (Anthony Dawson) - a reprobate who cons middle-aged women out of their late husbands' fortunes.
Tony blackmails Swann with knowledge about his other victims and his possible involvement in the recent mysterious death of a very wealthy dowager. To forget all that he knows, Tony proposes that Swann kill Margot for a few thousand pounds. As there is no relationship between Swann and Margot or Swann and Tony for that matter, the police will never suspect either of the crime, leaving both free to pursue other interests. Caught between the proverbial rock and hard place, Swann reluctantly agrees to murder Margot.
But Tony’s plan goes horribly awry when Margot accidentally kills her attacker in self-defense. Through a series of plot twists, Tony concocts a scenario that makes it appear as though Swann was trying to blackmail Margot about her affair with Mark, thereby making her killing of him appear as a desperate act of revenge rather than self-defense. At first, this alternate theory gains the attention of Police Inspector Hubbard (John Williams). Margot is arrested and put on trial for murder. However, as Mark grows ever more suspicious of the facts, Tony begins to plot anew, hoping to incriminate Mark as an accomplice and exact his sweetest revenge on the lovers.
Dial M for Murder is an intriguing suspense thriller with uniformly solid performances. In retrospect it owes much to the British tradition of the 'drawing room' melodrama. Hitchcock once insisted that he hated ‘talking pictures’ – by that, he meant movies in which the entire premise is explained through dialogue alone. Dial M for Murder is arguably one of those ‘talking pictures’. But Hitchcock salvages the film from becoming just a wordy regurgitation of the stage play. He shoots most of the action in tight mid-shots, exaggerating the claustrophobia inside the Wendice’s apartment. As per the studio’s request, Hitchcock was forced to shoot Dial M for Murder in the gimmicky process of 3D, then a new fad that promised to lure audiences away from their televisions and back into theaters.
Personally, I have never cared for 3D movies – then or now - for the simple reason that their entire excuse for being is predicated on having characters and things fly into the camera to exemplify the natural depth of field. As such, plot and character development are usually secondary to the gimmick. I like a good story. If I want to have the sensation of objects coming toward me I'll get in my car and go for a drive. Also, the eye strain created from the polarizing effect of those pesky glasses often leaves me disorientated and with a colossal headache afterward.
But Dial M for Murder in 3D has always held a special place of admiration in my heart, chiefly because Hitchcock forgoes the gimmick to give his audience a genuinely immersive experience. He uses 3D to establish a distinct foreground, middle ground and background, placing the audience somewhere in between these latter two plains and maneuvering his camera in and out ever so slightly to draw us closer to the characters inhabiting this tight little space. One gets a very uncomfortable ‘you are there’ sensation, 'being in the room' as Tony and Swann plot Margo's demise. As such we all become accomplices 'during the fact' - a rather disturbing position that elevates the dramatic tension.
Only twice does Hitchcock resort to the 'gimmick' of 3D, and even then, it is cleverly exploited. In the first instance, Margo's hand reaches into the audience as she desperately fumbles for the scissors to stab Swann in the back during her attempted murder. In the second instance, Det. Hubbard approaches us with Tony's hidden house key, having discovered it tucked under a runner in the hall.
3D heightens our frenzied terror during Margo's strangulation. It's as though we are going through this awful experience with her. As the audience, we jump from our seats but only partly because Margo's hand is dangling somewhere in mid-space between the screen and us. Hitchcock has primed us with a brilliant set up of Margo going to answer the phone in the dead of night without turning on the lights and Swann skulking around behind her with scarf tightly wound around his gloved fists. The hand bursting forth from the screen is 3D’s bravado moment to be sure, but it’s Hitchcock's genius that diffuses its gimmicky aspect. It's part of the story.
The same can be said for the 'key' sequence. As Hubbard approaches and the camera zeros in on his hand with Tony's house key prominently displayed and coming ever closer to the audience's foreground field of vision. Our understanding of this prop's importance in exonerating Margo from the crime of murder becomes pointedly clear. 3D elevates our overall satisfaction in knowing that an innocent person will not go to prison for a crime she did not commit.
Of course, the real genius of Dial M for Murder is that it can easily be appreciated without 3D. The story works, the acting remains superb and the staging of the aforementioned pivotal sequences never seems out of place when projected flat. Perhaps Hitchcock had the foresight to realize that 3D would not to last. Indeed, by the time Dial M for Murder made it to theaters the fad had already worn out its welcome. Although Dial M was one of a handful of movies to receive a national 3D release, most of the paying public only ever saw it in the more traditional ‘flat’ projection where it continued to draw in large audiences.
Warner Home Video’s newly remastered Blu-ray, in its original 1:78.1 aspect ratio, features both 3D and 2D versions of the film. The WarnerColor process was not as forgiving as Technicolor, and Dial M has always looked somewhat gritty on home video, owing to the advanced grain structure inherent in the original film elements. In remastering the film in 1080p, Warner Home Video has achieved a minor miracle. The image, while hardly as refined as one might expect, nevertheless replicates as close as possible the original grainy look and feel of the theatrical experience. I have yet to convert my home theater to 3D, but rushed to a neighbor’s to view the film in all its spatial glory. I then re-watched Dial M in the comfort of my own home in 2D and have to say that the experience in either format most definitely did not disappoint.
Warner’s new hi-def transfer resurrects the intense and ravishing colors. Flesh tones seem more natural than before. Contrast is beautifully realized and fine detail is quite astounding. The image is ‘thick’ with a heavy patina of grain but this, again, is to be expected – so, no complaints. The opening shots of the Queen Mary docking, as well as very brief inserts of the exterior of the Wendice's flat still look murky by comparison, but again, this is an inherent flaw in the WarnerColor system and not the Blu-ray mastering. The audio is DTS mono. Extras include a 21 minute featurette on the making of the film and, on the 3D version, an all too brief history of the 3D process. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)