reviewed by Kiomars Vejdani
To grasp the full dramatic impact of Dial M for Murder it must be seen in its 3D format, the way it was envisioned and conceived by Hitchcock.
Although 3D films have been in existence since 1920's (with Anaglyph system, creating separate images for each eye with the use of complementary red and green colours), the real birth 3D cinema started in early 1950's with the advent of Polaroid system (using polarised light to create two separate images). Among the forerunners of using the system was Warner Brothers starting with House of Wax, followed by some other 3D films such as Charge at the Feather River, Hondo, and of course, Hitchcock’’s Dial M for Murder.
However, due to the difficulties of the system, after a short while the companies were discouraged to continue with its use. (It was expensive due to having to print two prints to be projected simultaneously by two separate projectors. Besides the incomplete harmony and synchronisation of the two images could give the audience a severe headache. )
The 3D system was forgotten and out of use for about three decades before its use was started again in 1980's. Later it was technically refined (especially with contribution from IMAX 3D) and routinely used commercially specially for its spectacular effects. A more serious use of 3D was taken up by James Cameron in his artistic creation of the magical world of Avatar. . His efforts were followed by works of Wim Wenders in Pina and Werner Herzog in Caves of Our Forgotten Dreams. Two documentary films worlds apart in their choice of subjects but having a common aim of using 3D effect to create a physical space to give their films an extra dimension in reality. . Later they were joined by Martin Scorsese in Hugo by using 3D effect to give the nostalgic world of silent cinema and the magic of Georges Melies a concrete and tangible reality. These film makers were all aiming at use of 3D as part of film language.
However, long before these film makers Hitchcock in 1954 with his Dial M for Murder used 3D effect in purely cinematic way. Hitchcock in his long career on numerous occasions by experimenting with new ideas and techniques in his films has contributed towards development of film language and expanding the boundaries of cinematic expression such as: innovative use of sound in Blackmail with dramatic use of sound effect, the use of long take in the Rope ( the whole film was shot in one long continued take), and exploring the possibilities of camera with restricted mobility in Rear Window ( the film was shot from the point of a man with a broken leg restricted in his room)
With Dial M for Murder he took the challenge of using 3D meaningfully to add to the effect of drama as an integral part of his cinematic presentation. Sadly his efforts were not destined to be seen by general public. Warner Brothers after disappointing use of 3D system decided to screen the subsequent films made in their flat screen version. Dial M for Murder was a victim of such a decision. The public had only the chance to see the ordinary two dimension version on general release. The 3D version has only been projected on rare occasions and in special circumstances such as recent screening at National Film Theatre in London as part of complete retrospective of Hitchcock, s films which I was fortunate to see.
Dial M for Murder has all the familiar elements and characteristics of a Hitchcock film. He introduces the films plot with his usual economy. The film begins with two establishing location shots. A street in London with a policeman in his universally recognisable uniform followed by showing the door to the residence of the protagonists. Next we see a man gently kissing a woman on the lips over the breakfast table. Their relationship indicates that they are husband and wife. We have the close up of the woman reading newspaper. The extreme close up of the paper shows the arrival of Queen Mary. After the shots of the ship arriving to harbour and mooring, among the passengers landing the camera chooses a man approaching us. Next we have the close up of this man kissing the woman passionately on the lips. The woman ( who in the previous shot was wearing a simple white dress) now is in a provocatively bright red dress. The situation indicates that they are lovers. So Hitchcock in precisely one minute and without a single word establishes the main element of plot and drama: Adultery.
Tony ( Ray Milland) is an ex- champion tennis player who has married to Margo ( Grace Kelly), a wealthy woman. Although they loved each other in the past, that feeling has gradually died away leading to the woman taking a lover (They could be the protagonists of Strangers on the Train few years down the line.)
As usual of Hitchcock there are several layers of reality. On the first level we have wife, s adultery. She is the one committing a sin against her husband. Her husband is the victim and our sympathy goes for him. But very soon a different reality sows its face. We find out that husband already knows about his wife, s unfaithfulness and having a lover. He is planning to murder his wife. His reason is not love and jealousy. It is much more selfish than that. He is worried about his own future as he has become financially too dependent on his wife and used to a life of leisure and comfort. He has to get rid of his wife before she and her money goes to another man. With revealing these facts the situation changes and there is a reversal of roles. The husband becomes the villain for planning to commit a murder and the wife becomes the victim.
But Tony, being an extremely intelligent man, has to plan a master work for a perfect murder. He blackmails a stranger with no interest in his wife, s death to kill her at their home while he is out with a group of friends as alibi ( again this element of drama has something in common with Strangers on the Train). We can see Tony’’s intelligent mind at work as he plans the detail of the murder, such as: blackmailing Margo anonymously for being in possession of her love letter, following Lesgate (the man he has chosen to commit the murder) for months to collect enough dark material from his past to force him by blackmail to do the killing, collect a large sum of untraceable bank notes to bribe him as well . At the meeting with Lesgate at his flat he makes sure that only his finger prints are on the love letter and later on he meticulously he removes all traces of his finger prints in his flat. Tony has not overlooked anything.
A regular theme in Hitchcock’’s films is clash between fate and man’s will power. Often Hitchcock builds his suspense on the basis of such a clash. In Dial M for Murder the element of chance makes Tony’s perfect plan go wrong. Two elements contribute towards this. The first one is Tony, ‘s watch being slow. So he phones slightly later than planned causing Lesgate act differently from Tony’s instructions The suspense of the scene is built around two objects which contribute towards the role of fate: Watch and telephone. The other factor is moving the scissors by accident from sewing box to the surface of the desk which Margo uses to kill Lesgate in self defence.
But Tony’s mind starts to work on an Alternative scheme to kill his wife. This time in the hands of law, by distorting the facts and re-arranging the evidence to change the appearance of things. So that Margo’s killing of Lesgate in self defence looks like a planned cold blooded murder of a blackmailer. In this way she can be executed for her crime. But once again Tony is defeated by fate. This time his intelligence and good memory works against him. By remembering the secret place of the key and revealing this knowledge he condemns himself.
However it is ironic that Margo who was the sinner in the first place for her adultery is saved, and Tony the original victim is condemned, defeated by the wealth and power of the society. Moral ambiguity is a common characteristic of Hitchcock’s films. Such an ambiguity shapes his characters. The people in Hitchcock’s films are neither purely good nor completely bad. But a mixture of both. While Tony cold-bloodedly plans his wife’s murder, he gets genuinely distressed when on the phone he hears her cries of agony of being strangled. When his criminal acts are found out and he is condemned by the law, he takes his defeat gracefully. He in a good natured way pour himself a drink and offers others in the room as well. As for Margo, she is fully aware of her sin towards her husband. But she is truly in love with Mark, the new man in her life. She feels guilty about her unfaithfulness and is tormented by not having the courage to confess her adultery. When she eventually finds out about Tony’s criminal plans, her reaction is deep sorrow rather than anger. We cannot really hate Hitchcock’s characters. In Hitchcock’s films there are no villains, only human beings with weaknesses.
But we already know all of these by watching the ordinary two dimensional version of the film. However Hitchcock by using the 3D effect adds a new dimension of meaning and emotion to the drama of the film. He makes his intention clear right from the start. In the film’s beginning title we see the close up of a telephone cut to extreme close up of one of its dials with a big letter M in red colour between the words “Dial “ and “ For Murder “. Hitchcock uses 3D effect to make these words prominent in the foreground and physically separated from the telephone dial in the background. Thus by highlighting these words he visually presents the main element of his suspense: The role of telephone in the murder plan.
Hitchcock uses 3D effect economically and only as the story requires. In fact in one scene in an intelligent way he deliberately avoids 3D effect to highlight his plot. Margo and Mark are embracing each other just before Tony enters the house. We see the shadows of the lovers on the flat white surface of the door. Soon as they hear the sound of the key turning in the lock we see their shadows separate as the husband opens the door. In this way Hitchcock has stressed the connection between adultery and the key ( the crucial object in the murder plan)
Rather than using 3D to project the images out of the screen, Hitchcock aims to get inside the surface of the screen to create depth. In the composition of his frames he puts objects (lampshades, rows of drink bottles, etc. ) in the foreground or around the characters to create physical distance between them. In this way by surrounding people with solid three dimensional objects he creates a claustrophobic atmosphere ( the film is based on a stage play). The characters seem to be captive of their environment.
Hitchcock pays special attention in the use of 3D in depicting the scene of crime. First in the high angle overhead view of the room with the camera following Tony as he explains the murder plan to Lesgate. The depth created by 3D adds to the effect of high angle to depict the scene of crime as clearly as possible. And a few moments later, with camera at eye level, while Tony is talking to Margo on the phone Lesgate turns off the light in the living room as he inspects the scene . The only source of light comes from Margo’s bedroom. The contrast between dark shadows in the foreground and the light of the bedroom in the background, with added physical space created by 3D brings the scene to life.
Another use of 3D by Hitchcock is expressing the vulnerability of the characters by showing them in close up, often looking direct at the camera, while with the help of 3D creating a physical distance between them and the background , thus separating them from their environment. In this way the characters look isolated, threatened, and helpless. Interestingly the first time this effect is used is with Lesgate when he begins to suspect that he is being black mailed by Tony to commit a murder. But mostly this effect is used with Margo. . It is used on several occasions. The first one is when she receives a hit of accusation. She is asked why she did not inform the police immediately. Her close up separated from the background expresses her loneliness and
helplessness. She looks questioningly at the camera, in fact at Tony ( he had instructed her not to inform the police). We cut to the shot of Tony behind the police inspector. The physical distance between him and the inspector created by 3D makes him look emotionally remote, not prepared to support Margo, leaving her in the hands of law. The same device is used two more times with close up Margo separated from the background to stress her defencelessness. The first one is when after questioning by the police she is formally accused of murder. The second occasion is her stylised “trial “. In one prolonged shot of her close up she looks at the camera only slightly turning towards the questioning and accusing voices off the screen. As we get closer to the verdict of guilty the colour of the background changes from grey and pink to red , until at the moment of death sentence being announced by the judge it becomes bright red. The added effect of 3D in isolating her from the background with its threatening change of colour fully conveys her sense of doom. The most dramatic use of 3D to show Margo in danger is the moment before she she is going to be strangled. The shot starts with her close up standing behind the desk holding the phone. As the camera rotates in a semi circle to show her from the back at the corner of the frame we see Lesgate approaching behind her. The space created between them by 3D , in a paradoxical way makes him look even closer and more dangerous.
Unlike other film makers of his time who in their 3D films used the cheap thrill of making objects jump out of the screen, Hitchcock uses this effect sparingly. In fact only on two significant occasions and at the crucial moments of drama. The first one is when Margo is being strangled by her would be assassin. Fighting for her life, her hand comes out of the screen moving in every direction to find something to save herself. As we know she finds the scissors and stabs the man with it. Her being saved at the cost of charge of murder is the first turning point of the plot, coinciding with the first defeat of Tony’’s will power by fate. The second occasion is when the location of the infamous key is revealed. As the inspector retrieves the key from under the fifth step to show to Margo and Mark ( and audience), the key in his hand comes out of the screen and pushed under our nose. This shot heralds the resolution of the conflict of the drama as well as defeat of Tony for the second and last time in the hands of fate. His defeat is completed when, after opening the door with the key he has retrieved from under the fifth step and entering the room, he finds himself trapped by the law. Once again the 3D by adding to the effect of high angle camera in depicting the scene of his entrapment highlights his ultimate defeat.
The 3D effect has never been used in a dramatically more meaningful way. Once again the Master has shown us the way.