Dial “H” for Hubbard

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To Filmhouse to catch the last 3D screening of DIAL “M” FOR MURDER. I’d seen the film before, and written it up for Hitchcock Year, and seen it again in 3D on video with Japanese subtitles and red-green glasses which mess up the colour cinematography, but this was my first ever big screen 3D screening. Most satisfactory.

John Williams as Chief Inspector Hubbard is the chief source of pleasure, with Anthony Dawson’s vulpine assassin a strong runner-up (curiously, both men have more famous name-sakes).

Hitch’s restrained use of the stereoscopic process to chart the dimensions of a room is beautiful, but I also found myself enjoying the worst aspects of the film — the grainy London location shots. Warners refused to pay for Hitchcock to shoot 3D in London, so the street scenes and dock scene were filmed flat. Hitchcock sticks a few foreground objects in to try to add a bit of depth, but the fantastically grainy rear-projection is distracting, and in at least one place surreal —

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Robert Cummings, the Butcher of Strasbourg, approaches his friends’ flat in a taxi — the view through the windscreen shows a flat street scene gradually enlarging — no sense of it getting closer, it just looks like it’s being blown up. We’re inside a 3D taxi driving up a flat street. It’s quite boggling. It’s like this London cab has it’s one zoom lens at the front. That’d be quite a good scam: you get in, pay for your journey, and instead of taking you there, they just zoom in. Then you pay up, get out, and find you’re still where you started from. Only then does the cab roar off, taking your money before you can protest. I’m surprised they haven;t attempted to rip the tourists off that way.

Since Hitch and the 3D camera and his stars never went to London, I got very interested in a scene late on where Grace Kelly is driven up to her flat, gets out the car, and approaches the door. How could this be achieved without Grace going to London?

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Close, skeptical viewing provides the answer. The woman getting out the car is NOT Grace, but a reasonably similar stand-in. Hitchcock follows the dictum laid down by Michael Powell, who had to shoot many of Roger Livesey’s scenes in I KNOW WHERE I’M GOING! with a double. Don’t have your lookalike skulk around behind a cape like that dentist pretending to be Bela Lugosi in PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE. Simply have the phony stride boldly up to the camera in full view. The audience is expecting to see an expensive movie star, and that’s just what they will see if you give them no reason to doubt it.

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Hitch then cuts quickly to Chief Inspector Hubbard watching from the window. When he cuts back, the stand-in is gone and Grace Kelly is there, standing in a Hollywood studio in front of the rear-projection screen showing a London street (and which formerly also showed her double). Deuced clever, these movie johnnies.

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15 Responses to “Dial “H” for Hubbard”

  1. Heh! What a cheesy idea. But they got just the right man to lend it class.

  2. Whoa, that’s a commercial from my teen years, IIRC. Although a cheesy idea, it’s far from the cheesiest compilation I remember being sold on television. Some were masterpieces of musical horror.

  3. This one is just a cunning trick to con people into buying good music without realizing.

  4. And it was so successful the ad continued to be run years after Williams had died.

  5. I remember seeing that ad first around the mid-1970s (it ran 20 years?!?), way before ones like (for example) Disco Italiano, and around the same time a collection of pallid ’50s/early ’60s pop hits was advertised which annoyed me so much I left the room whenever it came on. I could at least listen to the snippets Williams was pitching.

  6. Seeing the film for the first time recently I wondered whether Hubbard contributed something to Joe Orton’s Inspector Truscott. They share a certain self-centredness and contempt for conventional detection methods…

  7. Hubbard is in the long tradition of the third act detective inspector, the nearest thing to a pure deus ex machina in twentieth century theatre: someone who comes in and sorts out the plot when it’s gotten into an unwieldy fankle. Truscott’s function is more satirical. When Hubbard bends the rules it’s for story purposes, and can be dismissed with a little joke: “Highly irregular, of course, but my blood was up.”

  8. I saw this in 3D in the theater a few months ago, and I really enjoyed it. But then I’ve always really liked the movie, even flat. It’s just that Grace Kelly’s clavicles are even more beautiful in three dimensions. I’m sure the location double’s clavicles weren’t nearly as nice. And Hubbard’s character always reminds me of Columbo, with his, “Oh, just one more thing …” shtick.

  9. He’s one of a troop of pre-Columbian detectives including two in Clouzot movies, Charles Vanel in Les Diaboliques and Louis Jouvet in Quai Des Orfevres (whose raincoat has been stolen). Blatty says he modified the detective in The Exorcist because Columbo had just appeared on TV and the characters were very similar, by pure coincidence.

  10. Hubbard in Dial M is certainly a lot nattier than Columbo.

  11. A *lot*, yes.

  12. Grant Skene Says:

    Finally got to see “Dial M for Murder” in 3D today. It certainly added another dimension to my appreciation. The murder attempt with Grace Kelly reaching her hand out to you and Inspector Hubbard holding the key out to you are very effective. In general, you do get the sense of being on stage with the actors, walking through the apartment as the play occurs. I would say, Hitch is going for the effect of “the best seat in the house” as you enjoy a good play. Hitch shows he could be a good “hired director”, presenting someone else’s story well.

    I loved how the phone keeps being set back in centre of the middle distance of the depth field throughout, culminating in Hubbard reenacting Margo`s actions on the fateful night, but now he is dialing the phone to ultimately “murder” Ray Milland legally. Granting an active agency to Grace Kelly’s passive plight. Is that the reason for the cheap joke of the assistant briefly carrying her purse effeminately before being warned he might be arrested. Has Hubbard assumed Margo’s role psychologically to guide her to release?

  13. The cheap joke might just be Hitch deciding to show some humour while he can! Glad you were able to see it in 3D, it took me decades to manage it, first by a Japanese laser disc bootleg, then finally on the big screen.

  14. Grant Skene Says:

    It has been a long wait for me, too. Theatres throughout Canada are showing Dial M in 3D this week (select theatres and showings). There was about a 25% attendance at my showing (better than the crowd for Alpha last week in the same place). The crowd was very appreciative, and laughed in the right places. I overheard one younger attendee say she was a little bored at the start but was totally into it by the end, and she was glad she came.

    I agree that it does start slow, but that is too modern sensibilities. Hitch is walking us around the room, getting us used to the space and the location of key objects. I also suspect that he was giving the audience a chance to get used to 3D.

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