Murder in Three Dimensions

dialm1Imagine the superimposed title popping out at us, but the “M” sunken into the background…

Hitchcock’s only 3D film… had the “gimmick” not died out, we could have had REAR WINDOW in three dimensions, which could REALLY have worked… VERTIGO in three dimensions, with that exponential zoom literally opening up before our eyes… PSYCHO in three dimensions: a dagger in your chest! A Janet Leigh in your lap!

But alas, DIAL M FOR MURDER is all we have, but nevertheless it may be the best 3D film of the era (IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE actually serves up a remarkable number of nice visual ideas using depth and height and space — Richard Carlson is increasingly isolated — but Hitch’s use is both restrained and typically quirky. Unfortunately, these stills and this clip are all I’ve actually seen in depth.

Yeah, I dunno why this is the two-screen version you have to go cross-eyed to watch (the third version that appears between the two when you cross your eyes will be 3D) but if you double click on it you’ll get a red and green anaglyph version.

Note how the odd low angles set up peculiar perspectives — this seems to be part of Hitch’s strategy to gradually explore this room from every angle. Plus the constant use of foreground objects to add an extra layer of depth and really embed those characters in Hitch’s dollhouse.

In the second part, we get a high angle on Grace Kelly, and then the magnificent glide around her, cutting her adrift in space and suggesting a predatory POV. As the assassin raises the scarf to strangle her, the depth effect helps us appreciate why he can’t strike when her arm is raised with the telephone receiver.

When Grace reaches for the scissors we can identify them more easily in 3D, and not only do we get the great extreme perspective of her hand reaching out at us, but the sensation that, as Shadowplayer Paul Duane pointed out, we could almost reach into the screen, pick them up and hand them to her.

(Incidentally, there are two sets of scissors. One has already been attached to the assassin’s back, to make it look as if he’s been stabbed. These are only revealed when he falls forward, but they’re already there. The other pair is real, picked up by Grace, who then mimes stabbing the guy, before quickly lowering her hand with the scissors still clutched in it. You can just catch a glimpse of them.)

The beginning. Running for cover after the disappointing reception of I CONFESS, Hitch rounded out his Warner Brothers contract by accepting an assignment to adapt a hit play (originally presented on TV). Following his most recent theory on the subject of theatrical adaptation, he starts with a flurry of opening-out (with horrible grainy process shots of London streets) and then dives into the drawing room and shoots the play, with only minimal changes. The art goes into casting and design and presentation. Why buy a sound dramatic structure and then mess with it?

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Happy couple Ray Milland and his wife Grace Kelly are introduced, followed swiftly by happy couple Grace Kelly and her lover Robert Cummings. I’m not sure I follow Grace’s taste in men, but I guess a successful mystery writer, even if he is Bob Cummings, might be more interesting than a retired tennis champ, even if he is Ray Milland.

Tennis makes its first appearance in EASY VIRTUE, and had recently turned up as a subplot of STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, making it the most Hitchcockian sport next to maybe ski-ing. Hitchcock biographer John Russell Taylor offers the amusing idea of Guy in STRANGERS marrying Ruth Roman and enjoying her wealth and status, then starting to feel insecure… slowly he morphs into Ray Milland…

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1950s photoshop!

Some swift and efficient exposition — in a highly artificial ¬†theatrical structure like this, nearly everything is exposition, disguised or otherwise — and then Ray packs Grace and Bob off to a show so he can blackmail Anthony Dawson into offing his erring spouse. Edinburgh-born Dawson, a gaunt and haunted figure, is excellent as the vile Swann, even managing to generate little wisps of sympathy for the haggard blaggard.

Dawson’s low-key performance points to one reason the movie is often undervalued: apart from Grace Kelly, it doesn’t boast a lot of obvious star power. Ray Milland takes the role Cary Grant wanted, because Warners weren’t willing to cough up for his salary, and Milland is terrific but he doesn’t have the same star wattage. Dawson was never a well-known name, although his face crops up everywhere from DR NO to Polanski’s PIRATES. And Hitch favourite John Williams is again somebody who never hogged the limelight or rose to enormous prominence. And Bob Cummings is Bob Cummings — his wide-eyed heartiness is fine here, and helps us forget that his character is an adulterous swine as the story goes on, but he’s no Jimmy Stewart. Imagine Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart with Grace, and maybe James Mason in Dawson’s role and Charles Laughton in Williams, and you can redesign DIAL M as a big starry thing — but I don’t think you necessarily improve it much. These lesser lights all suits their roles perfectly, and shine in them.

With Kelly and Cummings playing love rats, we could actually sympathise with Milland a bit more than is comfortable, but the fact that he’s mainly plotting murder to ensure his financial security robs him of pathos, and his nasty scheme to blackmail another wretch into actually committing the ghastly deed is pretty low. Still, his glee in explaining how cunning he’s been turns a very long, expository scene into a pleasurable experience. Writers are always afraid of exposition, whereas Hitchcock knew fine well that all storytelling is exposition, whether it’s done in dialogue or via action. The trick is to make it GOOD exposition.

There’s one odd shot I love in this scene, when Milland talks about spotting Dawson by chance in a bar. We suddenly get a shot of Dawson’s elbow, and then the camera kind of wobbles up to his face. What it’s just done is re-enact Milland’s discovery of Dawson in that distant bar (rather as the camera re-enacts the first Mrs DeWinter’s death in REBECCA). A lovely, strange moment.

The appeal of a perfect murder scheme is always watching it go tits-up, of course. Grace announces her intention of going out to the movies, forcing Ray to act quite suspiciously to force her to stay in. He manages the hideously complicated business with the key with skill (surely he could just get another key cut for the killer? But that would ruin the third act) and then his watch stops, and he has trouble getting to the phone… (Ray’s scenes are the biggest addition to the play, with Hitch enjoying making us root for the baddie, amping up the suspense, and then having the plan misfire in a totally different way.)

I’m fascinated by the snatches of conversation we get from the club bore who’s droning on at the stag party (world’s worst stag party, I think we can agree).

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Hitch had a very precise colour scheme worked out which involved dressing Grace in a red robe for this scene (her white costuming was only to begin after she survives the murder attempt and goes from adulteress to innocent victim. But Grace wanted to wear the diaphanous nightie (the saucy trout!) and Hitch relented, making this the first really sexualized attack in Hitchcock, prefiguring all that nastiness in FRENZY. Dawson isn’t sexually motivated, but the slow build-up to the scene, the light shining through the gown, and the shot of the bare legs kicking, stress a queasy erotic undercurrent.

dialmformurder3D

Dawson’s death is pretty unpleasant — the scissors going in is bad enough, but then when he falls on them — ouch. I guess this gruesome detail also serves to make Grace not wholly responsible for his death. She just wounded him, the rest was bad luck. Of course, we don’t blame her for scissoring his spine anyway. I hope we’d all have the presence of mind to do that. And if we all did, he wouldn’t stand a chance. The place would be like a butcher’s window.

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Scheming Ray must now switch from a carefully thought-out scheme, months in preparation, to frantic improvisation, which he does with incredible skill, framing the victim for blackmail and his wife for murder. Hitch beautifully fast-forwards through the trial with what would normally be called a montage, except here it’s only a couple of shots. The shifting coloured backdrop makes for a stylized scene quite different from everything else in the movie, but somehow he gets away with it.

dialmv

If a thing is lovely, maybe it stands a good chance of being accepted for that reason alone.

Then we get the grand unmasking. Cummings suggesting that Milland fake a confession is a really nice idea — using his crime-writing prowess he’s come up with a fictional explanation for Grace’s innocence, not realising he’s hit on the truth. The rest of the climax, with detective John Williams (“Highly unorthodox — but my blood was up!”) getting Grace off death row so he can take her home and establish her innocence, is highly implausible, but you just go with it, I think, for the sake of Platonic unity.

Get all the main players back on the stage, and incriminate Ray with a variation on the “Why Mr Rusk, you’re not wearing your tie…” ending. And then Ray, a good sport, offers everyone a drink. Here it might have been nice to end the movie the way Dusan Makavajev ends MONTENEGRO: subtitles appear, word by word:

THE

DRINK

WAS

POISONED

But no, I think John Williams combing his moustache is equally good.

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27 Responses to “Murder in Three Dimensions”

  1. I have never seen DIAL M FOR MURDER in 3D and I don’t know if I’ll get a chance. I’ve never seen a film in 3D for that matter. Wearing those accursed glasses seems to me to be against the film-viewing experience.

    For me DIAL M is excellent for Grace Kelly’s really good performance and the music is striking too. I also love that trial montage this sudden violent explosion of colours.

    This film is important in relation to REAR WINDOW because Hitchcock worked with Grace Kelly but also on Hitchcock’s idea of cinema which is at the centre of the following film. A 3D film adaptation of a stage play is essentially reconfiguring the theatrical experience in a more stylized arena. Audiences get the illusion of inhabiting the same physical environment as the performers rather than the reproduction of reality which is at the centre of REAR WINDOW. Hitchcock tried 3D and figured that it’s not necessary and then went on to the essence of cinema which is shot-counter-shot following the gaze and subjectivity of a single character and through that offering a vision of a world and exposing the limitations of the vision.

  2. The closest I have come to 3D is when I went to Sentosa park in Singapore where they had these seats that was configured to move up or move down or shake left and right to simulate the experience of a minecart film we were shown.

  3. AnneBillson Says:

    I remember seeing this on TV when I was very young and being struck, even at that age, by the eroticism of the attempted murder scene – though I probably didn’t even know the word back then. That white nightie, him sprawled on top of her, attempted strangulation… and Kelly just looks so lovely as she’s struggling for her life. It didn’t make me feel uncomfortable – it was more something primal in the sequence that fascinated me. At the same age, the scene where the judge puts on a black cap to sentence her to death seemed totally horrific, disproportionately so when one considers the actual image.

    Incidentally, has anyone ever tallied up the causes of death in Hitchcock’s oeuvre? Would be interesting to know whether stabbing or strangling or shooting comes out on top.

  4. david wingrove Says:

    Never having seen DIAL M in 3D, all I can say is that the ‘flat’ version is very flat indeed. One of Hitchcock’s clumsiest and most stilted films, and Her Future Serene Highness Princess Grace truly was a talent-free zone! In the acting department, anyway. Her skills in other areas were the stuff of legend…hence her (otherwise inexplicable) screen career.

    For me, the one fascinating aspect of this film is the way it stretches the whole concept of auteurism to the breaking point and beyond. Had it been made by anybody other than Hitchcock, it would barely rate air time in the 2 AM graveyard slot on TCM. Yet thanks to the Hitchcock cult, it now rates as a ‘minor classic’.

  5. I HAVE seen Dial M For Murder in 3-D, and it was a revelation.

    As I trust many may recall Dial M was tes-released in 3-D but primarily presented flat. As such it WAS flat. Hitchcock described it as “run for cover” project in that he had chosen a very popular play to adapt rahter than go out on a limb with something more original. But in 3-D it WAS quite original. A number of year sback here in L.A. the Tiffany theater (home of out local Rocky Horor Picture Show gang) got a hold of it in its original form. That means there were TWO projecters and a couple of intermissions to change reels. Awkward but more than worth it.

    While the story itslef is rather bland and the characters far from compelling the treatment was another story. In 3-D Dial M is a companion pice to Rope on the one hand while looking forward to Michael Snow’s Wavelength (1967) on the other.

    IOW it’s a film about a room.

    Hitch’s visial ideas have always been on the edge of “conceptual art.” Here he goes right over that edge and takes a swan dive into it.

    I do hope a true 3-D Dial M can be made more widely available.

  6. Interesting.

  7. I fell in love with Grace K when I saw her in Rear Window for the first time at an impressionable age, so I won’t have a word said against her. Here she manages an attractive English accent, and seems genuinely broken and vulnerable in her last scene, entering her own home like a ghost.

    Otherwise, she’s used somewhat as a clothes horse, and isn’t required to do too much acting until the killing.

    And I’ll defend the film even as a flat experience — the giant phone and finger, the staging of the death, the high angle “God” shots, and the phantasmagorical trial are all fun/clever tricks few filmmakers would have thought of or attempted.

    Arthur and David W, I’ll have to ensure you have 3D experiences at some time. I’m sure David would appreciate Flesh for Frankenstein in 3D.

    As a bespectacled nerd, I don’t have any issue with wearing glasses to watch a film, although fitting 3D ones under or over my regular ones is always tricky. It seems like it might be something we all have to get used to, not for every film of course, but if more good filmmakers make 3D movies, there will come a tipping-point where we can’t resist it.

    I’d say the specs are less counter-cinematic than subtitles, which we all learn to live with and appreciate.

    Anne, myself and my partner were both quite disturbed by Frenzy as kids, when we were probably too young to be watching. Whilst Dial M injects eroticism into murder, like a giallo, in anticipation of Psycho, Frenzy does seem to try to avoid sexiness, but when you’re 12 or 14 anything with nudity and copulation is very interesting. So it was a very freaky scene.

    I imagine gunshots probably predominate in Hitch — the spy thrillers all use guns, and they get used in Strangers on a Train and Marnie (the horse) as well. Even non-thrillers like Juno and the Paycock.

    But how many people does he kill with a single plane crash in Foreign Correspondent? Those count as drownings, and if we add those in Rich and Strange and The Skin Game and The Pleasure Garden… No wonder he nearly made Titanic and Wreck of the Mary Deare.

    Otherwise, despite Rope, Strangers and Frenzy, stabbings are more common that stranglings — Psycho, Blackmail, Dial M (where the strangulation fails), Sabotage

  8. Having recently watched Chabrol’s excellent La Rupture, I wonder if perhaps Chabrol does suspense better than Hitchcock. For me, Chabrol depicts real menace and evil more convincingly and with less complacency than Hitchcock.

  9. Dial M is ver giallo-like.

    Flesh For Frankenstein is quite spectacular in 3-D, especially for the scene where the creature (quite a handsome young stud as per usual with Paul Morrissey) is lifted from the tank and for a few moments appears to float over the audience.

  10. Peter, I think menace & evil is a different thing from suspense. In a way, Hitchcock challenges complacency when he manipulates the audience into rooting for a bad guy. I haven’t really seen enough Chabrol — who strikes me as a more diverse talent than is usually admitted — but I’ve felt a lot more suspense with Hitchcock.

  11. David, I know that when I watched Chabrol’s La rupture, I felt the suspense at a visceral level, something I have not experienced watching a Hitchcock. Plus, with the Chabrol, I had a sense of the characters as real human beings. That’s probably why I think Chabrol evokes a more tangible aura of menace and evil.

  12. Well, Chabrol doesn’t always go for that effect, but he often has less of a sense of “movieness” than Hitchcock, so the situations and characters could emerge as more real. And his films are mostly more recent, so the characters will seem more like people we know.

    I just had a similar discussion re Hitchcock and DePalma. Part of my difficulty is I don’t much like comparisons of this kind anyway — I think they’re very useful for discovering differences, but no use for establishing a ranking of quality.

    Another difference is likely to be caused by Chabrol working outside the classic studio era, which mostly encompasses Hitchcock. In a Hitch film certain conventions are a given, although he did much to change the rules (like killing off the heroine of Psycho). Whereas Chabrol’s European arthouse milieu encourages an “all bets are off” philosophy, where the characters are free to behave as he imagines they would in life, with fewer censorship and industrial restrictions.

  13. “the first really sexualized attack in Hitchcock” ?

    I thought the murder of Laura Elliot in Strangers on a Train was pretty sexualized – a stalking and seduction followed by strangulation instead of copulation. I’d say that the murders of young women in Hitchcock are always sexualized, beginning with the murder of the young woman in the opening shot of The Lodger, her blonde hair fetishized by Hitch’s lighting.

  14. I think you’re right as far as Strangers. And Anny Ondra stabbing the guy in Blackmail maybe. But women are in jeopardy more in the later films.

  15. Glad you published that shot of Grace Kelly facing us with the red abstract background. This is one of the most effective sections in 3-D, the abstract background making Kelly in the foreground seem more solid and three-dimensional – more right there with us in the theater – than at any other point in the movie.

  16. Seems like Hitch really found a lot of interesting uses for the technology, which still haven’t really been pursued by anyone else.

  17. Tony Williams Says:

    I also saw DIAL M in 3-D when it was shown at the London Institute of Contemporary arts in the early 80s. It needs to be seen that way otherwise it ends up looking like a flat theatrical adaptation. Hitchcock uses deep space to suggest the power plays going on between the three central characters, foreground and background frequently reversed whenever one wins a moment in the verbal dual.

    Also, when Dawson attacks Kelley her arms reach out appealing to the audience. This is no HOUSE OF WAY juggler’s trick no arrows flying at the audience in THE CHARGE AT FEATHER RIVER but something integral to Hitchcock’s authorship. Up to that point audiences may have been caught by the thrill of the stalking and attack but, after, when the arms reach out to the auditorium the clear implication is that a human being is about to be murdered and we are punished for gratuitously enjoying the spectacle up to that point.

    The 3-D version definitely needs reviving.

  18. There is obviously a bootleg (with foreign subtitles) out there somewhere. I wish somebody would upload it. If Warners or whoever now owns it won’t do the job of letting audiences see the film as it was meant to be seen, let the pirates take over the task.

    In my perusal of 3D films from this period, the Hitchcock looks like the most interesting, with It Came from Outer Space surprisingly clever and effective in its use of 3D, and Arch Oboler’s The Bubble is a lot of fun.

  19. It was shown at the Dryden at the George Eastman house a few weeks ago and I missed out!

    Still kicking myself…

  20. Christopher Says:

    thats how I feel about the Arm reaching out even without the 3D..Its sad..Heres a chance to save Grace..but what can I do?..
    of course i can’t get by without turning it into a comic situation..Each time her hand comes back in with something new from the audience..a Pop corn bag..a drink cup.a box of Good-n-Plenty..all of which the hand(with a mind like THING) inspects and quickly shakes away…

  21. Heh!

    It’s a similar quality to the Grace-imperilment in Rear Window, but there we have Jimmy Stewart’s reactions to redouble the audience’s concern. It’s ABOUT the helplessness of the audience to affect the action.

  22. this last theme is the place where Hitch and De Palma intersect most fully

  23. I think that’s so. And it’s a theme which interests Hitch more towards the last thrid of his career. DePalma doesn’t seem to have much in common with early Hitch, and rarely references that work.

  24. Christopher Says:

    Grace Kelly,despite her regal class and all her edith head finery,always manages to “handle herself”..not a princess..a Queen!

  25. As Miss Piggy put it: “Married a prince… NOT BAD.”

    To Catch a Thief is probably the one where I’m least keen on her.

  26. Christopher Says:

    …but she packed BEER and CHICKEN for lunch!

  27. Oh, that’s her best scene, maybe her best scene in any film! Forget I said anything.

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