Having recently remastered Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M For Murder in 3D for people with ludicrously expensive TVs, Warner Brothers is bringing the 1954 classic back to the big screen the way it was originally intended. The film was produced back when 3D became a brief phenomenon the first time in the 50s and specifically came at the end of the 3D first cycle in the multiplex. In fact, audiences were so tired of the crazy format when the film initially hit theaters that it played in 3D only briefly in major cities before going out into general release in good old fashioned 2D. The film is still a taught and ludicrously entertaining thriller in any number of dimensions and has long been cherished as an underrated gem in Hitchock’s canon. However, if you’ve never seen the movie through a pair of plastic glasses, this theatrical release is definitely worth seeking out. That Hitchcock kid sure knew how to tell a story visually and his use of 3D remains one of the best, even in the modern era.
The story comes from a stage production by cheeky British playwright Frederick Knott. True to the form, it takes place entirely in a single room. That might seem like an odd choice for a 3D production, but Hitchock liked to use stage plays as a means to test his visual imagination. He infamously shot the play Rope in a single shot and used 3D here to heighten the cinematic experience in a similar manner, but more on that later. The plot concerns Ray Milland’s jealous ex-tennis player with a delightful plan for murder. Since the guy is married to Grace Kelly, he should be thrilled. However, she’s having an affair with a famous detective novelist (Robert Cummings) and he’s become psychotically enraged. Milland tracks down an old college colleague in a spectacularly mustached Anthony Dawson and blackmails him into a complicated murder plot. Dawson will strangle Kelly while Milland is out with Cummings to avoid any suspicions. The whole thing hinges on a phone call, which Milland makes late and the murder is bungled. Kelly kills Dawson in self-defense, but ends up tried for murder. It seems like the dastardly Milland will get away with it until a detective with an even more spectacular mustache played by John Williams takes a special interest in the case.
It’s all fairly standard murder potboiler stuff, but written with a dark and distinctly British wit that clearly tickled Hitchock’s gallows sense of humor. The actors are all well cast with Kelly at her most radiant, Milland as a delightfully dapper mastermind, Dawson working some upper class sleazeball charm, and Williams providing some wonderful comedic relief as the detective. However, while the plot might run like a Swiss watch and the actors all do their job admirably, Hitchcock is always the star of his movies. With little actionm a single location, and the story boiled down to a war of words, it’s material that doesn’t easily lend itself to the director’s usual pyrotechnics. Yet, it’s one of Hitchcock’s most carefully constructed pieces of visual storytelling. His use of camera and physical choreography shifts with the dialogue. The way characters are positioned in the frame and in relationship to each other always expresses something about the characters and the scene. It’s all fairly subtle, yet has a subliminal impact even if you aren’t looking for it. His use of suspense rhythms is as expert as always with the central set piece involving Grace Kelly’s strangulation being one of his most potent. Using canted angles and dark shadows, it’s striking to watch, while the cross cutting between the crime and Milland’s reaction over the phone drags out the tension almost unbearably (at one point Hitchock even cuts to he mechanics of a phone dialing to further twist that knife).
The 3D comes into play most dramatically in that sequence when Kelly’s hand shoots out towards the camera in a way that surely made audiences leap from their seats in the 50s and still has a visceral impact now. It’s one of only two times that Hitchcock uses the “poke at the screen” gimmickery of 3D. The other involves the reveal of a key clue. This gives the moments extra dramatic impact (like a well timed close-up), but that’s not to say that he ignores the added depth other than those two moments. For the most part Hitchcock uses 3D to explore the space of the apartment. Lamps and bedframes poke out at the audience in a way that pleasingly flaunts 3D, while also immersing the audience in the single set location. At one point Hitch even uses a shot from the ceiling to lay out the crime scene, which is visually striking while also helping establish the geography of the room for the murder. Hitchcock also plays with depth in how the characters are situated through a few stunning moments of the camera spinning around a single character to reveal others behind them. Compared to the more gimmicky 3D horror movies from the 50s like House Of Wax, Hitch’s 3D is far more subtle. Yet, it actually has an impact on the story, heightening his visual design and getting one good jump out of the audience. The film still plays wonderfully in 2D, but in 3D it’s an intriguing use of the format as a means of visual storytelling that few even now have bothered to explore.
Warner Brothers’ new 3D print is absolutely gorgeous. A few moments early on are slightly fuzzy, but it’s unclear if that’s a flaw in the transfer or just a result of the old 3D technology not working quite as well in a fresh digital presentation. Regardless, having seen the movie screened in 3D using the old red/blue technology, this is a revelation. Dial M For Murder has never looked this good before in general and now all of Hitchock’s experimental 3D techniques can be absorbed and appreciated in detail never possible before. Even though it’s comprised of little more than 3-4 people in a room at a time, there is far more going on in the use of depth in this movie than anything currently clogging up 3D spots at the multiplex. I once read an old interview with Hitchcock in which he admitted he was sad that more people couldn’t see Dial M For Murder as intended, but was confident that there would eventually be 3D TVs available in people’s homes to right that wrong. It’s eerie how right he was. Few filmmakers before or since can come close to matching what Hitchock could do to audiences with a camera. It’s a shame he didn’t get to play around with the format more. There are so many more lessons he could have taught contemporary filmmakers now that 3D is apparently here to stay whether we like it or not.
The wryly funny script, the fantastic performances, and of course Hitchcock's masterful audience manipulation, this time in a new dimension.
Audiences not used to watching movies from the 50s might find it a little slow, but it's impossible to imagine anyone would find the movie boring. The 3D transfer also has some soft spots in the early going, but that's just quibbling over what is ultimately an amazing set.