Hollywood Century, 1954: In which one of the greatest visual storytellers in the medium__s history tries his hand at its hoariest gimmick
The first wave of 3-D did not last very long. The first film to showcase the new Natural Vision technology, Bwana Devil, was released in November, 1952; in 1955, only one movie, Revenge of the Creature, was released in the United States in 3-D. In between those two points was a flurry of activity that saw literally dozens of 3-D films fling themselves out at the audience like a paddle ball aimed right at the camera lens.
Compared to our current, undying wave of 3-D, the '50s fad went from gimmick to cheap exploitation film trick to yesterday's new so fast that almost no A-list filmmakers had a chance to try it out. There's one major exception: no less a master filmmaker and cinephilic icon than Alfred Hitchcock was able to make a 3-D movie in the vanishingly brief window when it might have been possible for him to do so. Though that window closed fast enough that his film, Dial M for Murder, was released after the unreliable process had lost enough of its appeal that it wasn't even put into general release in that format. Not until revival screenings starting in the 1980s did most audience members have a chance to see it in all of its dimensions. Even closer to home, it became the very first movie from the '50s to be released on a 3-D Blu-ray, for those of us in the fraction of a percent of people who've actually invested the money into home 3-D to enjoy whenever we want, secure in our knowledge that even if we're spendthrift geeks whom no-one will ever love, at least the ghost of ol' Hitch is nodding approvingly.
Coming in the middle of a run of absolutely stunning masterpieces, Dial M for Murder honestly is hard to describe as a major film in the context of the director's career; it came out the same year as Rear Window, with which it shared a leading lady, and that comparison alone is sufficient to prove that the earlier film doesn't find the filmmaker at his best (and it proves the same for the leading lady, when it comes down to it). But minor Hitchcock, especially minor '50s Hitchcock, is hardly disposable in the same way that, say, "minor Renny Harlin" would be, and the 3-D version of Dial M for Murder is especially a worthwhile and I might even go so far as to say important piece of work. It's arguably the leanest Hitchcock film since Rope, six years prior (which is his other major gimmick-driven film, for that matter), with only one major set and five (arguably even just four) significant characters to keep track of; its plot consists of really just one thing, which is presented in a narrative structure that resembles an essay. First the concept is explained, then we see the concept put into execution, then we see the concept re-explained, then the concept is deconstructed. It's about a murder plot: it is, I want to repeat and stress, about a murder plot. And really nothing else.
There's a pleasing purity in this, and a certain reduction to an essential Hitchcockian core: the whole movie becomes the explication of a man, who has been unmistakably slighted but in no particularly egregious or unusual way, reacting in the most cold-blooded, psychopathic and sociopathic way against the woman in his life. Or viewed from the other direction, it's about having the most theoretically sanctified and precious place in the world - the home that one's own money has bought and paid for - turned into a chamber of horrors designed to kill oneself. Specifically, the script which Frederick Knott adapted from his own play centers on Tony Wendice (Ray Milland), a retired tennis star living in London with his wife Margot (Grace Kelly), and largely on her money. Margot, we learn first, is all excited to resume a year-old affair with American mystery writer Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings); we learn second that neither of the Wendices were all that happy with the marriage almost immediately after it started, though Margot seems at least slightly more interested in making it happy; we learn third that Tony knew about the affair almost immediately, and has been biding his time all these months carefully setting up all the pieces for a flawless murder. This involves coercing a vague acquaintance from university, C.A. Swann (Anthony Dawson), through blackmail and money, to act as the human cog in a perfectly-timed series of events that Tony describes to his patsy and the audience with monstrously detached pride.
One teeny fuck-up gets in the way, though: a busted wristwatch puts Tony's timing off by a few minutes, which is enough to put Swann off his rhythm, and an errant pair of scissors that happens to be in exactly the right place allows Margot to kill her killer first. That brings us right about to the film's halfway point, with Chief Inspector Hubbard (John Williams) investigating the crime scene on the obvious assumption that Margot committed murder; but Hubbard is obviously a clever sort, and the improvisation Tony was forced to engage in has quite a few holes in it.
Thanks to the exact order in which details are presented, Hitchcock and Knott lay before the viewer a rather spectacular series of whirring gears to behold: we know everything that any character might possibly be aware of from the get-go so the thrill of watching the film has nothing to do with the question of what happened, and everything to do with the question of what Tony will do to deal with what happened. It's beautifully tense, and Milland is absolutely suberb, playing his anti-hero as being just clever enough that his mental acrobatics are legitimately admirable and exciting to behold, without ever giving the character even an ounce of charisma or warmth. He's just pleasant enough to Margot that, give or take a certain brittle Britishness, it's not impossible to wonder that she'd trust him and want to have some way of either salvaging the marriage or letting it die peacefully; but that's the same tone he takes when idly discussing how he's been stalking and manipulating Swann, and it's the same tone he takes in the story's final moments, when it's his own freedom in the balance. He is perhaps the most perfect sociopath in Hitchcock: he has absolutely no interest in morals or the wellness of humans, up to and including himself.
That being said, the film's superlative moment is one where Milland is barely even a presence: Swann's skulking through the apartment, his attack on Margot, and her frenzied struggle to escape. It's a terrific scene for a thriller, and in 3-D it becomes one of the all-time great sequences in Hitchcock, particularly during a jarring moment when Kelly thrusts her hand straight at the camera in a gesture of helplessness and terror. This is the one and only "something pops out of the screen" gag in the whole movie, which makes it stand out more; it's also a shocking moment of implicating the audience and our space during a particularly intense fight scene. Dial M for Murder is a film almost exclusively about the space of the home, with only one scene and a handful of cutaways taking place outside of the Wendice apartment; this becomes even more pronounced in 3-D, when the space becomes tangible and we can begin to notice just how much the blocking and the position of objects in the frame (to take advantage of the added dimension, the filmmakers loaded up the foreground with furniture and knickknacks), and especially how much the physical space seems to diminish and contain Margot. It's a threatening place for her even before the attack, but that's when it becomes the stuff of nightmares: harshly lit by cinematographer Robert Burks with a single key light designed to look like it's in a different room, the parlor becomes a chaos of angles and shapes, less a home than a pit of traps and blockades.
This excellent scene notwithstanding, Dial M for Murder doesn't do much with Margot, which feels like a wasted opportunity: we know from her other Hitchcock collaborations that Kelly and the director had a terrific rapport that he very rarely reached with his actresses, and while in her limited way she's able to make Margot seem real and plausible, Kelly simply doesn't have the material to make her interesting. She's the MacGuffin in the story of how Tony bloodlessly plots a perfect murder and then dances around trying to fix it when its perfection turns out to be not quite all there. And that's certainly fine, though it makes the film a little bit cooler and more remote than most of Hitch's thrillers, where the protagonist is also sympathetic. There's nobody to root for here: Tony is too obviously and persistently amoral, Margot is barely present, and Mark only slightly more than she. And as for Hubbard - well, we never root for the police in a Hitchcock film, do we?
All of which leaves Dial M for Murder feeling just a touch too much like an exercise to rank alongside the unflagging likes of Strangers on a Train or Rear Window or North by Northwest. Though as those titles imply, it's an exercise made by an enormously talented constructor of thrillers in the most fertile period of his career, and while it has a handful of damaging flaws, among them a rather bland Dimitri Timokin score, and a final scene that depends on one character acting in ways that seem a little too beholden to the writer's contrivance for comfort, this would still be at or near the top of many solid director's filmographies. It's stretched as tight as it can possibly be, and merciless in the execution of its perfect machine of a story, and it incorporates a gaudy gimmick that deepens both the human interest and the intensity of the thriller, and it's undeniably a work of genius, even if it's not that genius's finest hour.
Lastly, you know how some (all) Hitchcock films with rear projection make it look kind of hackish and bad? Oh my God, you don't know how bad Hitchcock rear projection can be until you've seen what it looks like in a 3-D movie, where it is literally just a flat pane behind three-dimensional people.
Elsewhere in American cinema in 1954
-Otto Preminger's Carmen Jones, starring Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte, is a watershed moment for African-Americans appearing in mainstream cinema
-Disney's live-action work reaches its first peak with the lavish adventure 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
-Nicholas Ray turns the Western on its ear with the strange and magnificent Johnny Guitar
Elsewhere in world cinema in 1954
-In Japan, Honda Ishiro sees Americans our giant monsters and raises us, with the iconic Godzilla
-The very first British animated feature is released, an adaptation of George Orwell's Animal Farm
-Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders take a Journey to Italy under the guiding hand of Roberto Rossellini