The 1950s experienced a brief fad of 3D movies. When most people think of 3D from before the 2000s, they imagine the red/blue glasses. But did you know that 3D technology of that time had polarized 3D lenses? That’s right! Even in the early days of 3D they had glasses like we do today!
Unfortunately, 3D proved to be a fad. It was difficult to produce and display properly and like today bad 3D experiences overshadowed the good ones. By the time Dial M For Murder came out in 1954, 3D was dead. It was shot in 3D and intended to be shown in polarized 3D (the good kind), but was shown in most theaters in 2D. Thankfully now we can see it how it was intended to be seen by Hitchcock.
Dial M for Murder is a classic crime/suspense film that was adapted from a stage play. Due to the limited location and the heavy dialog, it very much is like a stage play. It also feels like an extended episode of Alfred Hitchcock presents TV show and that’s a very good thing.
If you want action and don’t have the patience for lots of dialog, this is not the movie for you. Dial M for Murder plays out in a series of conversations mostly. I don’t want to get into too many details, so I’ll keep it brief. A woman Margot Wendice (Grace Kelly) is having an affair with Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings). Her husband Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) knows about it and has an elaborate plan to take care of the problem. He enlists the aid of a figure from his past played by Anthony Dawson.
I realize that this movie isn’t for everyone, but I was on the edge of my seat waiting to see what would happen next. The film plays out in three parts (minor spoiler): Relating the plan and acting it out, 2. Trying to compensate when the first plan fails, 3. And the unraveling of the plan. Most of this is done through dialog.
Ray Milland portrays the scheming husband brilliantly. Almost too brilliantly. He’s a former star in the film and I wondered if the character would have been able to do something much more lucrative with his life as careful of a planner that he is for the murder.
One performance that can’t be overlooked is by John Williams (no, not composer John Williams), who plays the chief inspector. He’s brilliant and adds the appropriate amount of humor in the procedings while maintaining a certain understated cunning. Williams made a lot of appearances on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, so it helps play into the idea that this film is an extended episode of that series.
One of the big negatives of early 3D that helped regulate it to gimmick status was the overuse of obvious pop out effects, think someone shoving an object right at the viewer. Since Dial M for Murder was directed by a master director, you’re not going to get any of that garbage. Instead, you’re simply drawn into the world of the film through the positioning of the camera. Often, objects are placed in the foreground, which would be distracting for a 2D film, but in a 3D film it helps make you feel that you are in the apartment sitting next to the characters. It’s an attempt to draw you in and for most of the film it works.
Far be it for me to criticize Hitchcock’s cinematography, but there are a couple of shots that are a bit odd, particularly an overhead shot that tracks Ray Milland and the potential killer for a long time. For some of the conversation Milland’s face is away from the camera which was a little distracting as usually in crappier movies it’s a way to insert new dialog (ADR) that originally wasn’t planned. I’ve seen too many bad movies, so it made me think of that.
The biggest flaw in the 3D presentation is a technical limitation of the 1950s. Films make take place on a set for interiors and most often that not exterior shots are done on location, outside. Older films took place entirely in the confines of a set or a studio, so to fill in the backgrounds they would use rear screen projection to give a simulation. This is usually noticeable when watching older films in 2D, however in 3D it’s glaringly obvious, because a shot will take place outside with some characters on a sidewalk in 3D and then there’s something like cars passing in the street behind them that is flat 2D, making it incredibly obvious that there’s some film trickery going on.
The Final Judgement
While not Hitchcock’s strongest film, Dial M For Murder is a great suspense film from a master. And for a 3D fan it’s a really cool historical footnote. If you have a 3D TV and like classic movies, you have to give Dial M For Murder a spin.