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Wondrous and Strange: Dial M for Murder in 3D

I had never seen Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder (1954) before, but I knew its reputation as one of his lesser works.  Dial M is widely reputed to be too close to its theatrical source material to be considered a cinematic masterpiece—people complain that it’s too stagey, and just feels like theatre on film (a complaint also frequently leveled at another overlooked Hitchcock film, Rope [1948]).

In stark contrast, Hitchcock’s other 1954 effort, Rear Window, is widely viewed as one of his best.  It’s an institution in film studies: if you ever take a class in film theory at the university level, the first film you will watch will likely be Rear Window.  The two films even share a star, the luminous Grace Kelly, who also went on to act for Hitchcock in To Catch a Thief  (1955).  However, seeing Dial M in 3D, as it was originally intended, makes me wonder whether the fact that it was mostly projected in 2D upon its release negatively—and unfairly—affected its reputation forever afterwards. 

As film theorist and historian David Bordwell details in an exhaustive blog entry on the 3D re-realease of Dial M, 3D was an already fading fad by the time the film was released theatrically, and the lack of standardization when it came to 3D exhibition technologies meant that many (if not most) theaters opted to just screen the film in 2D and save themselves the trouble.  I could easily imagine, while watching the 3D version, that looking at the rather confining space in which the story unfolds for an hour and forty-five minutes could get pretty boring.

 As a Hitchcock world, the physical environment of Dial M is pretty uninspired; a good 80% of the film happens in two rooms of a wealthy couple’s London apartment, the couple being Ray Milland (The Lost Weekend) and Kelly.  The story revolves around Milland’s plot to have an acquaintance (Anthony Dawson) murder his wife, and the ensuing complications.  However, though it certainly doesn’t display the stunning visual acumen of films like North by Northwest (1959) and Vertigo (1958), there is something complex at work in Dial M, a surprisingly understated yet concentrated mixture of composition and camerawork that not only animates the story but creates an enormous amount of tension and surprise within a very restricted onscreen world.

Often, Hitchcock composes shots in Dial M expressly with his camera focused on something far back in the frame, thus emphasizing out-of-focus images of the mise-en-scene up close to the audience (what J. Hoberman refers to in his Village Voice review as, “a clutter of monumental bric-a-brac”).  This repeated use of out-of-focus props serves to draw the audience into the frame and remind us that we’re involved in a three-dimensional world, not just the flattened milieu of cinema.

Oddly, though, the few exterior shots, most of which involve characters in or getting in/out of cars, are composed very obviously using mattes and studio-shot footage.  It was difficult to miss; the 3D effect amplified the jiggly edges of the matte and the cut-out film, and the discrepancies in lighting between the matte footage and the studio footage were glaring at times.  This—for me at least—created an opposite effect to that I experienced during the interior scenes; the matting served to flatten the exterior sequences and collapse the depth of the world outside of the apartment.  In short, using 3D and careful depth-of-field composition, Hitchcock was able to make the world inside the apartment seem more real, more immediate, and more tangible than anything outside.

To this end, there are only two moments in the film when the 3D effect is used for its own sake: first, when Grace Kelly extends her hand toward the viewer as she’s being attacked (it’s the image on the poster), and second, when another hand reaches out to the audience to show a crucial piece of evidence to us.  Both these moments work well within the narrative and don’t interrupt the audience’s experience too drastically, but both also give off a distinct air of playfulness even in very suspenseful scenes.  They’re such quintessentially Hitchcockian gestures, even down to the symmetry of both moments featuring hands reaching out to the viewer—though they’re very different hands reaching for very different reasons.  Though this was to be Hitchcock’s only 3D feature, it seems that even with an enormous stereoscopic camera to contend with, he still managed to enjoy himself making it.

Dial M is a rich film for Hitchcock aficionados, and a fascinating experience when viewed in 3D.  Warner Bros. is releasing a 3D blu ray on October 9th, along with a (2D) blu ray of Strangers on a Train (1951).  What with all the hysteria over the rise of the DCP and the decline of 35mm projection, this is one restoration that we can all be thankful for.  Bring on the goofy glasses!

By Lita Robinson

 

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About Lita Robinson

Lita Robinson holds a B.A. in Film Studies from Smith College, and an M.A. in Cinema Studies at the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU. She currently works in sales and distribution, and consults as a story editor on the side.

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