DIAL M FOR MURDER (1954) was originally shot by Hitchcock in 3D. It was shown only in some cinemas for a limited time in this format. With some revivals since and a recent Blu-ray release that restored the 3D image, the film has never looked better or even been more timely – historic 3D being perhaps more interesting from years ago than it often is (and used without any real interest or experimentation in the format) in the present day.
The 3D thirst is probably fading in popularity now but is regularly revived in blockbusters that know how to use the format in a breathtaking way, from OZ:THE GREAT AND POWERFUL and AVATAR to, most recently – GRAVITY with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney tumbling around in outer space in spectacular 3D as light-headed a sensation as Hitchcock's own VERTIGO induced; 3D perhaps as it was born to be used.
The BFI showed DIAL M on a big screen with wonderfully sturdy glasses (more like goggles the Gyro Captain in Mad Max would wear) and the picture was crisp, clear and enhanced by the 3D format. Hitchcock himself probably wasn’t all that keen on 3D (and some reports indicate he wasn’t even all that wowed by the movie he was taking on under fulfilment of a contract to Warner Bros) but there’s little doubt that it’s one of the director’s most cat and mousy, applause-worthy (by the final shut of the trap) films with a single wonderful flourish of violence and sublime performances all round.
The script is adapted from the play by Frederick Knott. As such, most of the action takes place in one room; the luxurious apartment of Tony Wendice and his wife, Margot. Actually, Margot is the one with the money and probably owns the flat as well. Husband Tony is a faded tennis star content to lounge around at the tennis courts until the day he discovers his wife is having an affair. After she leaves her bag on the Victoria Station concourse, Tony snatches the love letter inside from family friend Mark Halliday, written to his wife, to use to blackmail her and snatches the bag himself to incriminate anyone but himself (some time later) in that blackmail.
Tony gets in touch with old university pal Swann, a notoriously dodgy upper class gent and blackmails him into taking part in the perfect (supposedly) murder. Margot’s time looks well and truly up even before she and her lover get the chance to tell Tony directly about their love affair and imminent plans to run away together. Tony, of course, knows that he inherits everything upon Margot’s death. And death is the only option. Come on – of course it is. This is an Alfred Hitchcock movie!
The plotting of the murder seems perfect. Timed to every last detail. Or so Tony thinks. Later, his wife’s lover tells him (and he should know, being a crime writer for the TV!) that there is no such thing as a ‘perfect murder’ and there’s always some last detail overlooked. And Tony has overlooked enough to send an audience to the edge of their seat and into the lap of the person sitting below (and not just because of the sometimes disorientating effect of the 3D).
The famous scene in DIAL M FOR MURDER is the moment Margot answers the phone, her husband calling from his club and the murderer steps out from behind the curtain. A strangulation and a death by scissors follow; as the body falls to the floor, the scissors slide in further. An outstretched hand almost begging you to help and blades glinting through the dark – 3D, even in a limited dose as it is used here, has never worked better.
Hitchcock raises blood pressure by focusing on Tony (played by an excellently slimy, sweating Ray Milland who at times you almost feel sorry for) and his slowly getting deeper and deeper into trouble. Wife Margot (just delicious Grace Kelly) is sublime - initially flirty in a revealing red dress, her clothing darkens as danger approaches and when she returns unexpectedly in an unsettling sequence that outclasses everything else in the movie, I don’t think there’s ever been such an accurate, supreme performance of utter couldn’t care less-ness and deliberate distancing between us and the leading actor ever filmed. It’s frightening to witness – as if Grace Kelly herself really doesn’t want to be there – called back by Hitchcock in the middle of the night; no fee, no warning, no playing. Of course, this is acting of a high class, and almost upsetting enough to make you wonder what’s wrong, even though you already know what’s wrong – but why? Why can’t this be the same warm, flirty Margot from the start of the movie in that dress that – especially in 3D – leaves very little to the imagination?
Robert Cummings as the dashing lover, Mark Halliday, is a figure you really quite want to hate but can't quite. As devious as Tony himself, he’s always ready with a protective arm over Margot’s shoulder or a smart comment.
Later in the movie, figuring out the motive behind Tony’s scheme, we realise Mark is only guessing about a scenario without even realising he has guessed right. In his cleverness, he’s still tragically stupid.
Swann, the film’s true victim, is part believable as a chap you’d like to trust and have a drink with and part clownish villain. The interplay between Swann and Tony is pure crackling gold of tooth and lush of language – pure fencing of the mind and motive.
The film though perhaps belongs to a droll and devious (as devious as the murder itself) John Williams as Chief Inspector Hubbard. Rather like a prototype Columbo, this man never once leaves you in any doubt that he will solve the crime, even when there is doubt and a decided certainty that he won’t. The climatic scenes when the film’s ending could go either way upon the turn of a footstep, is almost too much to bear.
Hitchcock appears in a perfect, unexpected cameo that raised laughter among the audience and the BFI screened the film with the original ‘INTERMISSION’ logo that really did break up the action and give the audience a much-needed chance to down a stiff drink in the original screenings. The film was shot at low angles to enhance the depth of the 3D. A lamp or vase in soft focus in front of cast talking on the sofa gives realness and the subtle effect of almost spying on the conversations taking place, out of sight – much like the man instructed to murder watches from behind a curtain later in the film. There is a lot of talking, almost all captivating, throughout the movie and only once or twice does this drag slightly. Inspired touches such as the use of some very creaky wooden floorboards on set to make the sound of footsteps louder and almost intrusive in the pauses in conversation are inspired touches by the master of suspense and at times the sound of footsteps when complete silence is needed become almost unbearable. Bravo!
Blessed with one of the best extended murder sequences in movie history and still today a film that inspires such masters of the craft as horror director Dario (SUSPIRIA) Argento who has cited DIAL M as a major influence on his own work (the black gloves, silk stockings, cat and mouse trappings and random, stylised violence that Hitchcock showcases here is also the blueprint of many Argento films).
DIAL M FOR MURDER is a time capsule of how to make a film set in one room with a limited cast reach out and hold you by the throat for the attention it deserves, just like the bloodiest of crime scenes that you may well just have driven past, you can't look away. The only deviation from the one room setting being a single courtroom sequence bathed in dark swirling reds and a close-up of just one face in absolute anti-expectation and totally anti-establishment filmmaking). The only possible flaw for modern movie-makers trying to copy this perfect scenario of suspense being that if Tony had owned a mobile phone in this movie (and in lesser remakes of the story since, such matters have been boringly updated) things may well have turned out the way he had planned them. Murder, today, is just way too easy - and too easy to be perfect.
NOW GO AND ANSWER YOUR PHONE!
Words: Mark Gordon Palmer
All images of DIAL M FOR MURDER are © WARNER BROS