When I was a kid my friends and I went to one of the local movie theatres to see Hitchcock’s Dial M For Murder (1954) in 3-D. We wore those flimsy paper glasses and gasped when Grace Kelly's hand emerged from the screen, clutching a pair of scissors.
Recently I got to relive that moment by attending a screening at Film Forum of a newly restored version in digital 3-D. This time we wore solid, plastic glasses. The only film Hitchcock ever shot in 3-D, it was great to see it again on the big screen.
Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) is a former tennis player whose wealthy wife, Margot (Grace Kelly), is having an affair with an American crime writer, Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings). Tony plots what he believes to be the perfect murder of his wife, the details of which includes pressuring a former schoolmate, Charles Swann (Anthony Dawson), into committing the crime. Tony invites the visiting Mark to attend a stag party with him while Margot stays home. The plan is for Swann to strangle Margot, make it look like a burglary, and leave without a trace. What could go wrong? Apparently, a lot. Margot fights back and winds up killing Swann. With some quick thinking Tony decides to use the situation to his advantage and implies to the police that Swann was blackmailing Margot, thereby giving her a reason for wanting him dead. Margot is accused of murder, and tried and convicted. While she's in jail awaiting execution, Mark takes it upon himself to prove her innocence and finds an unlikely ally in Chief Inspector Hubbard (John Williams).
Dial M For Murder is not one of Hitchcock’s best films. But it’s still a Hitchcock film, which makes it more enjoyable than most other films. Grace Kelly is her usual sophisticated, beautiful self and Ray Milland plays the charming snake like few can. I’ve never been a big Robert Cummings fan and he didn’t change my mind with this film but Anthony Dawson was born to play a petty thief and John Williams steals every scene he’s in with his humorous delivery.
Set almost entirely in the Wendices’ small flat, Hitchcock shot low, which combined with the crowded, richly coloured flat lends a claustrophobic feel to the film. Based on a popular play by Frederick Knott, at times it feels like you’re watching a filmed play but that doesn’t take away from the moments of suspense or the story itself.
The scene in which Tony invites Swann over to his flat under the pretence of buying a used car from him is important to the story because it establishes their relationship and outlines the murder plan. Yet for the first time I noticed that the scene drags, too long compared to the rest of the film, even though it offers one of Hitchcock’s better screen appearances (he’s seen in a class reunion photo hanging on the wall).
The murder scene though is classic Hitchcock. Tony phones Margot from the club, a ploy to get her out of bed and over to the desk where Swann lies in wait. But everything goes wrong when Margot, who’s being strangled on the desk, grabs a pair of scissors and stabs Swann in the back. The irony is the reason the scissors are out in the first place is that Tony suggested Margot spend the evening pasting clippings of his tennis achievements in a scrapbook. Tony, who is still on the phone, hears the entire thing, never flinching once.
This is where 3-D is used most effectively. I must confess, I’m not a big fan of the medium. The recent films I’ve seen have given me a headache (Alice in Wonderland was a painful experience) but the use in this film is fine if not very dramatic, save for Margot’s clutching hand.
Common objects often play an important part in Hitchcock films. In Dial M For Murder it’s a latchkey (in Notorious there is an important key as well). At first, how Swann got into the Wendice flat is a puzzle to Hubbard as is the fact that the key in Margot’s purse does not fit the door. Later on, he puts two and two together and a key helps to uncover the truth.
If you've never seen Dial M For Murder or it's been a while, I suggest you check it out, whether in 3-D or not.