Dial M for Murder might be one of Alfred Hitchcock’s least essential movies – even he joked “I could have phoned that one in” – but it is essential that you see it in 3-D, if you see it at all. Working with a technology that was foisted on him and that he regarded with suspicion, he nevertheless proceeded to use the stereoscopic process with typical perversion, resulting in one of the most remarkable movies about lamps, sofas and scissors ever made.
Opening at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox in freshly digitized 3-D days before its Blu-ray release, Dial M for Murder (1954) is a modest hoot on the big screen, an exercise in getting maximum effect – and in-your-face artificiality – out of as few spatial and dramatic elements as possible. As concerned with the dynamics of perception and synthesis of depth as it is about Tony Wendice’s plot to have his cheating wife (Grace Kelly, in her first Hitchcock movie) murdered, Dial M suggests the kind of structuralist experiment Michael Snow might have conducted with a old plastic 3-D Viewmaster, some cardboard character cut-outs and a doll house.
Made by Hitchcock to fulfill a contractual obligation with Warner Bros., Dial M for Murder was a last-minute affair on just about every level. Hitchcock had hoped to make a movie called The Bramble Bush, but the script wasn’t in shape and the international nature of the production was more than Jack Warner was willing to bankroll. Hitch wanted to get rolling on Rear Window, but star James Stewart wasn’t available for another year. Anxious to fulfill his obligation to Warner, he rushed to see Frederick Knott’s play – a hit in London – when it opened in America and felt it a perfect vehicle for Cary Grant, whom he’d always dreamed of casting as a wife-killer. But the studio didn’t want Grant. The stated reason was that the countercasting was bad box office, but (according to Hitchcock biographer Patrick McGilligan) the director suspected otherwise: Grant cost too much.
Jack Warner’s biggest hit of the year was House of Wax , a 3-D horror movie that was raking it in. He pushed Hitchcock to use the studio’s single stereoscopic camera to make the studio’s next big 3-D blockbuster, and it was a sheer lack of options that made the director agree.
Warner refused to ship the expensive equipment to London, so Hitchcock found himself shooting the entire movie on a Hollywood soundstage with an only modestly charismatic but efficient cast – Ray Milland as the wife-killer, Robert Cummings as the wife’s lover, and 24-year-old Kelly as the young bride with the deadly comin’-at-ya scissors – and facing the vexing challenge of making a kinetic 3-D spectacle out of a play in which people stood about in a single living room and talked each other to death.
So strap on your glasses, sit back and watch how the master made the most out of this meagre material.
First of all, he nudges the impression of phony depth of field simply by customarily shooting his characters on the other side of a looming domestic object: a chair, a desk, a telephone and, most ubiquitously, a lamp. (Indeed, if you watch the movie while imagining that lamp as a key character, Dial M becomes something else entirely.)
Secondly, he shifts the vertical axis of the camera sometimes so dramatically that we’re almost looking down on things from the ceiling, in the process weirdly reminding us of just how tiny this space is and how limited his options.
Finally, Hitchcock’s use of rear-projection, always so notoriously cheesy in the first place, here becomes surrealistic in sheer fakery: Look how he begs our awareness of it’s-only-a-movie-ness by perfunctorily planting a streetlamp and bobby in front of stock footage of London, or how the view through the apartment window appears to be looking onto a drive-in movie screen in the near distance. Even his own cameo makes a mockery of the very idea of depth: In a 3-D movie, Hitch is seen in a photograph.
For Hitchcock, stereoscopic technology was already a melting house of wax by the time he entered, and he frequently told people he suspected Dial M for Murder would be more widely seen as “a flattie” than a 3-D movie. He was right: After a very limited run in three dimensions, the movie went wide in two, and for the rest of his career he either didn’t speak of the film or simply dismissed it. Three-D, he famously said, was “a nine-day wonder, and I came in on the ninth day.”
Nevertheless, it compels our attention, if only to see how one of the most brilliant filmmakers in movie history amused himself in a closed room, just by moving the furniture around.