Culture: Film

Dial M for Murder

Dial M for Murder

Dial M For Murder is not one of Hitchcock’s classic classics. It’s not up there with Psycho or The Birds or Vertigo, but as a murder mystery it’s one of the best. Made in 1954, it was more than just another Hitchcock film, it took on the fad at the time, that of 3D – a fad that has returned to haunt us all. So this re-release in the format it was made in was more of a curiosity to me. A hater of all things 3 and D in the cinema, I wanted to see how the Master of Suspense used the gimmick to either enhance or distract from his storytelling skills. Film makers of today need to see this to witness what can be done.

For those who have never seen the film or know little about it, the plot is a simple one. Former tennis ace Teddy Wendice suspects his wife, Margot, of having an affair with American playwright, Mark Halliday. Having found a note from the writer, Teddy plots to have his wife murdered and to make it seem like a burglary gone wrong. He blackmails former college associate, Captain Lesgate, to commit the crime while Teddy has the perfect alibi – a night out with Margot’s lover. When the plan goes wrong and Margot ends up killing the Captain instead, she faces the death penalty. Something, however, doesn’t sit right with Mark or the police.

The joy of watching Dial M is seeing how Hitchcock framed a scene. Set almost entirely in one room, he toys with the viewer, showing us objects that are vital to the story without them ever being shoved in our faces. It’s here that he excels in the use of 3D. Margot’s handbag plays a very important part in the proceedings and in the flat, 2D version, it’s there for all to see but doesn’t stand-out. Here in the 3D version, whether in the foreground or background, it suddenly becomes increasingly prominent.

Hitchcock didn’t have to use 3D in the same way that others at the time did. He didn’t need to have the object propelled on to the screen so the audience ducked and dived out of the way. In fact, the only scenes that items do seem to escape from the screen are the opening credits and the famous hand of Grace Kelly as she wrestles to save her life from the throttling. Objects placed in front of the actors give a sense of depth; the actors placed show they are certainly apart from each other. These are the tricks that most modern directors have missed when working with the device.

The film itself is a clever, if some what dated mystery, with roots firmly set on the stage. Based on the play by Frederick Knott (who also wrote the screenplay) the dialogue and the delivery (especially from the beautiful Ms Kelly) is fixed in the 50s – even the attitude of the Police, who for some reason can break into suspects’ houses without a warrant and look through personal belongings without even asking. Using the setting of one solitary room does stifle the proceedings, so it’s reliant on good actors to pull it off. Ray Milland, who took the role after Cary Grant couldn’t do it, has the ability to be both very evil and likeable in the same breath. Grace Kelly is a little too clipped with her English dialect but she still pulls off a terrific damsel-in-distress, while the star performer is John Williams as the Inspector dealing with the case – a stereotypical, big mustached man who could be the blueprint to all those detectives we have seen since then.

As for the ongoing argument about the good and bad of 3D? The good is, given to a director who knows about framing, it really does enhance your work. The bad? The light-loss here is very obvious.  For a film shot in bright, glorious 50s colour, it becomes increasingly dark. We are told that we lose 15% of light from watching a 3D film. I am sure we lost a great deal more here.

Dial M doesn’t have the grip that Rear Window has, but Hitchcock is such a master film maker who knows how to push the right buttons to make a piece of entertainment work and this piece most certainly does. No matter what your opinion of 3D is, it’s worth while checking this out just to see a classic back where it belongs…on the big screen.

Dial M For Murder is on general release

Words: Stuart Wren

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