Saturday 10 March 2018

On TV: "Dial M for Murder"

Retrofitted 3D entertainments are ten-a-penny these days, but Dial M for Murder takes us back, way back – to a moment when Hitchcock was growing restless in America, and casting around for new twists and gimmicks to inflict upon the paying public. That’s right: it’s a revival of a film old enough to have been in 3D first time around. One could argue a certain snobbishness is at play in addending digital whistles and bells to an auteurist touchstone like this, and not, say, Bwana Devil or House of Wax: the implication – read: bald-faced lie – is that 3D has always been the connoisseur’s choice, rather than the studios’ way of grubbing a few extra bucks off us at the box-office. (Hardly a buttock-tester at 105 minutes, Dial M also came complete with an intermission, by way of boosting popcorn sales.)

Even Hitch, in his career-spanning interview with Truffaut, was prepared to admit he was “playing it safe”, using 3D to lend an extra dimension to a penny-dreadful scenario every bit as stage-bound as 1948’s similarly experimental Rope. This is a much straighter proposition in every sense, though, with Mayfair belle Grace Kelly, in brazen scarlet dresses, carrying on an affair with her smooth American lover (Robert Cummings), while her suavely patrician hubby (Ray Milland, so reminiscent of Fifties-era Jimmy Stewart as to seem a placeholder) plots to have her offed.

In the background lurks a disquisition on the inner workings of a marriage, and how – once two become one – everyone’s obliged to live a double life, the latter an inchoate form of what would become one of this director’s major themes. Mostly, though, Dial M for Murder is a showcase for Hitchcock the technician. Witness the glee he takes in deploying stereoscopy to punch up what would otherwise be conventional insert business: the horizon-filling “M” on every telephone dial, the close-ups of the scissors Kelly grabs while fighting back, the persistent emphasis on keys being trousered or palmed. There is still something novel and thrilling in Hitchcock's use of the new format to unlock the medium’s spatial possibilities: in the overhead shot tracking Milland’s attempts to rehearse the murder, one senses an early rendering of the CG-reliant forensic examination shows like CSI would later make commonplace.

The drama will depend on hubby losing control of this crime scene, first to the inspector who insists on picking over its every detail (John Williams, the definition of scene-stealer), then to the lover, who proposes another version of events entirely, and in doing so comes to save Kelly’s life. It’s theatrical in more than just its origins (a Broadway hit for writer Frederick Knott): these characters serve as both directors, blocking out and guiding the flow of movement through this space, and actors, shifting the props around and constantly questioning the motives they’ve been given.

Hitchcock, in need of a hit, perhaps valued the (entertaining) chicanery more than he did character or any metatextual interpretation, which is why Dial M remains a diversion rather than a landmark in his filmography, an occasionally dynamic blueprint that would be set aside in the wake of a run of fully-realised masterworks. Over the next decade – in Rear Window (a 3D plot, no less effective for being filmed in 2D), Vertigo and Psycho – this director would find other, more enduring ways of getting into his characters’ (and audience’s) headspace. Hitchcock was big enough to walk away from this technology and make better films: Dial M for Murder may not be the week’s best release, but it stands as the most instructive.

(MovieMail, July 2013)

Dial M for Murder screens (in 2D) on BBC2 tonight at 11.15pm.

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