Like the adrenalin pumping through the delighted and aroused murderous veins of Ray Milland’s Tony Wendice character, I’m thrilled to death to be able to own a 3-D edition of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 chiller DIAL M FOR MURDER, now on Blu-Ray (in one 3-D/2-D package) from Warner Home Video.
For eons this has been a Holy Grail lip-smacking fantasy disc perennially invading the perverse dreams of Hitchcock fans and 3-D buffs. I was once privileged to have seen a flawless polarized two-projected version in the early 1980s (at a now-legendary 8th Street Cinema 3-D Fest); ever since then, the movie, which I had up till that point considered marginal Hitch, rose in stature.
It’s groovy to see critics, now exposed to the movie as originally intended, re-evaluating it with a plethora of platitudes – the boldest actually being an Eighties Andrew Sarris declaration that in 3-D, DIAL M is “major Hitchcock.” While I don’t quite agree with that (sorry, scribes, but it can’t compare with Notorious, Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest or Psycho), I do admit that it is far more important with the carefully constructed third-dimensional imagery on brilliant display. And the specially-composed shots ARE brilliant.
Hitch, who, not surprisingly, avoided the obvious tricks of throwing crap at the camera, studied the process with great scholarly interest. As with the use of long takes in Rope and montage in Rear Window, Hitchcock figured out the pros and cons of 3-D and how to utilize the illusion to the ultimate effect.
The movie, based on an internationally acclaimed play by Frederick Knott (who adapted the work for the screen), concerns the insidious, homicidal plans of a cuckolded husband (a once-famed tennis celeb, now reduced to a sportswear pitchman). Upon the discovery that his gorgeous, rich and younger wife is an adulteress (and, insult to injury, not only schtupping a writer, but an American TV writer!), Tony Wendice sadly realizes his only option: devise a way to fiendishly murder her. And fiendish it is – I mean, George Sanders would…well, have killed to come up with it.
Since most of the movie takes place in the couple’s apartment, it presented a keep-their-attention challenge for the director. Since he had beautifully done this before (Rope, Rear Window, the latter released later that year), Hitchcock, once fully 3-D savvy, rehearsed the picture as if it were a Hollywood stage production and quickly knocked off the entire project in a mere thirty-six days. Hitch himself never thought much of it, sloughing it off to Francois Truffaut’s in the French director’s landmark 1966 Hitchcock/Truffaut book with “There really isn’t very much we can say about that one, is there?” The movie was a last-minute straw-clutcher, replacing a Warners property the director was very much interested in (The Bramble Bush), but, which upon prepping, went cold. So disdainful of DIAL M was Hitch that he did the unthinkable – he made the final picture of his Warners contract (The Wrong Man) for no salary! A nutty move indeed, since DIAL M proved a box-office bonanza, with audiences and critics. By May of 1954, when the picture was released, America’s 3-D addiction had gone to rehab. The movie was generally distributed “flat,” and (with the possible exception of select dates in the UK) not shown in 3-D at all outside of the United States. Suffice to say, that, even in standard 2-D, DIAL M delivers the big entertainment.
Milland and Grace Kelly (who would win untold accolades for this and two other high-profile ’54 offerings (Rear Window and her Oscar-winning turn in The Country Girl) are terrific as the Wendices; third wheel Robert Cummings, not so much as the aggressive lover (if each were to assume one of the three dimensions, his would certainly not be depth). Yet, the weird chemistry between the trio is astonishing – and can’t be wholly attributed to the Master of Suspense. While Kelly and Cummings are respectively amiable (the way her deteriorating relationship should be with Milland), it’s kinda all topsy-turvy when it comes to her adoring devotion to the spouse her Margot character is cheating on, her contact with Milland is fifty shades of Ray. And for good reason: Kelly and Milland were involved in a torrid affair throughout the production and shortly afterward, enough to almost railroad the actor’s twenty-year-plus marriage. It’s impossible to not notice her goo-goo eyes at every move Milland makes, even in lieu of his eventual revealing of his dastardly plans. This bizarre aspect adds to the movie’s strangeness-of-attraction theme. One never can really fathom how Kelly could ever prefer Cummings to Milland (early casting rumors of William Holden would have remedied that to some extent).
The supporting players, on the other hand, are superb: John Williams, who became a big Hitchcock favorite (appearing in To Catch a Thief and numerous episodes of the director’s smash TV series), is wonderful as the inspector who unravels Milland’s complex web of deceit and evil. Anthony Dawson as the dupe, chosen by Milland to carry out his wife-killin’ plot, instantly becomes one of the great (if not pathetic) faces of movie villainy (his nastiness would be further cemented by his later appearance in Terence Fisher’s 1961 Hammer classic Curse of the Werewolf, as the sadistic Marquis, sans chimps).
Of course, as with all best-laid plans (and, in this case, wives), it all goes wrong, propelling Milland into think-fast-Mr.-Moto mode, which he does with (gotta say it) genius.
Not to give away any of goodies (for those who have never it, or, who haven’t seen in a while), let me say that to be able to view this picture in a pristine widescreen, three-dimensional, restored WarnerColor version will have you Hitchcock/mystery fans salivating (if that’s your wont), so keep your drool cups handy.
The 3-D effects, ranging from subtle to awesome, comprise Hitch’s playing with his audience. In homage to the vehicle’s stage roots, he occasionally uses high-angle shots, which, in 3-D, resemble watching a play from a coveted balcony seat. Eye-level alternatives almost literally seem to place viewers in the brightly-lit Wendice apartment (perfect for both 3-D and WarnerColor, as each required increased amounts of light – the former to compensate for the picture-on-picture dual presentation, the latter to kick up the otherwise dull results of the studio’s lackluster color system). As the director told Truffaut, “I had them make a pit so that the camera could be at floor level.”
The director and 3-D really come into their own with shots of an attacked Kelly reaching her arm out at the audience, as she’s spread over a desk. This is further accentuated when she grasps a pair of soon-to-be-lethal sewing shears (the scissors themselves, an all-important latchkey, and an oversized-constructed telephone are likewise serve as swell third-dimension props).
A later sequence, when Williams questions Kelly, is also third-dimension remarkable for its framing (correctly in multiple planes of action). As the wily inspector asks the confused and frazzled woman about the killing, Milland walks back and forth behind the police detective, shooting reminding glances at his wife/victim (to stick to a prepared alibi/scenario, which will ultimately condemn her). It truly shows how sophisticated 3-D could be (and, sadly, rarely was).
Everything about this Blu-Ray is A+: the clarity of Robert Burks’ fine cinematography, the 3-D alignment, and, lastly, the audio (featuring Dimitri Tiomkin’s booming score). A special documentary (Hitchcock and DIAL M), and the original trailer round out this tasty home video confection (wrapped in an incredibly cool anaglyphic 3-D slipcover). It is nothing short of a memorable and engrossing movie experience, one that I have no doubt will be (and should be) frequently revisited.
Knott’s works relied upon apartment-trapped women in peril (Wait, Until Dark comes immediately to mind), yet it’s difficult for me to have any sympathy for Kelly’s Margot. She married a celebrity, who then petered out, and had to reinvent himself (admittedly, with lesser results). Then she hooks up with some flashy TV dude.
Not that I’m saying that murder is the answer, but I do kinda feel sorry for Milland (well, Milland’s character). It’s gratifying to know that he’ll never spend more than a few years in prison for a premeditated murder that never came off.
As with all noteworthy plays/books/movies, DIAL M had me a-thinking (perhaps way too much) regarding the futures of the lead characters in later life. Allow me to reflect.
Mark Halliday: Moved back to Hollywood with new wife Margot. Had three children (all deceased by the early 1970s, a result of booze, drugs and STDs). Writing career faltered (last-known credit, two episodes of The Baileys of Balboa). Divorced Margot in 1967. Moved to Vegas, subsequently married six more times (all chorus girls). Died in 1989, a combination of alcoholism and Alzheimer’s.
Margot Wendice-Halliday: Began a series of affairs amongst the Beverly Hills/Rodeo Drive crowd. Started drinking heavily. After divorcing Halliday, jet-setted to Europe and Barbados. Briefly became aging squeeze to Keith Moon. OD’d in 1974.
Tony Wendice: While incarcerated wrote his memoirs, which erupted into mammoth worldwide bestseller. Met gorgeous Brazilian model in 1959, heiress to 100 million dollar rum empire. Married in 1960. Moved to wife’s home in South America; had six children, all doctors and professors. Annually gave vast fortunes to charities around the globe. Early proponent of climate change. Celebrated 100th birthday in 2009, and 50th wedding anniversary in 2010 (with family, friends and sixty-seven grand-and-great-grandchildren in attendance). Has never plotted to kill anyone else.
Like I said, too much time.
DIAL M FOR MURDER. Color. Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]. 1.01 DTS-HA MA. Warner Home Video. CAT # 1000298479. SRP: $35.99.