Fango Flashback: “DIAL M FOR MURDER” (1954)
Hard to believe that two years after the initial 3D craze began in 1952 with exploitationer BWANA DEVIL and had peaked with 1953’s HOUSE OF WAX, that the next year’s DIAL M FOR MURDER, shot in the same showy process, would be relegated to the standard two dimensions upon release. Whereas today 3D has become a fact of moviegoing life and has also made it into the home courtesy of pricey TV sets and space-helmet-like goggles, audiences had grown tired of the gimmick by the time master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock adopted the format for this 1954 Warner Bros. film, a classic thriller starring Grace Kelly and Ray Milland. Back then, Hitchcock said of 3D, “It’s a nine-day wonder, and I came in on the ninth day.” Thanks to New York City’s Film Forum (209 West Houston;  727-8110), you can now rediscover DIAL M FOR MURDER in a gorgeous 3D digital restoration, which opens today and runs through Thursday, April 4.
Based on the popular Broadway play of the same name, Hitch’s DIAL M FOR MURDER casts his most-famous blond, Kelly, as a rich wife who runs afoul of her urbane husband (Milland) when he learns that she has been cheating with mystery writer Robert Cummings (of Hitch’s SABOTEUR). Milland cooks up a scheme to do-in his wife and collect on the inheritance by blackmailing a shady university acquaintance to strangle his wife while he’s out. Things do not go as planned, however, when Kelly turns the tables on her attacker and stabs him to death with a pair of scissors. However, hubby has another card up his sleeve and incriminates his wife for the death of the intruder, sending her off to the gallows unless the boyfriend and police inspector John Williams can get to the bottom of things.
DIAL M FOR MURDER remains just as fresh and crackling as it must have played back in the 1950s. Milland, a few decades away from bill-paying work like 1970s drive-in fare THE THING WITH TWO HEADS and FROGS, exudes both charm and menace as the former tennis ace turned murderous manipulator. A true princess in every sense of the word, Kelly is as luminous as ever here, and we never lose sympathy for the adulteress. As the persistent detective, Williams, who older Monster Kids like myself remember from his classic music infomercials that played endlessly between B&W horror flicks years ago, makes for the perfect foil to Milland. He’s a Columbo with class.
Of course, it’s the attempted “murder” of the title itself that represents DIAL M’s highpoint and also shows off the film’s best use of 3D. Bad guy Anthony Dawson (the filthy prisoner from CURSE OF THE WEREOLF) attacks Kelly from behind, as the victim’s outstretched arm seemingly reaches out to the audience for help while grasping for scissors to defend herself. Hitchcock lensed DIAL M as a staged play and confined the action to mostly a single set, feeling that opening up the story would ruin the original work. So his smart use of 3D—placing objects, furniture, etc. in the foreground of many shots, shooting from low angles, etc.—brings the intimacy and voyeuristic aspects of the movie to life. You feel like you are part of the drama in that fancy flat, sharing cocktails with the lovely Kelly (not a bad place to be!) and then serving as an accomplice (or savior) when the killer pounces.
Strangely, Hitchcock looked back on DIAL M FOR MURDER as a contractual obligation film, made to “recharge his batteries.” Shooting DIAL M in 36 days, the ultimate punster even noted that he “could have phoned [it] in.” The film certainly served as the perfect dry run for his next film, the same year’s REAR WINDOW, which also finds Kelly and new lead James Stewart confined to one set. But DIAL M FOR MURDER deserves to be seen as more than Hitchcock coasting, as it remains a crackling and exciting film.
If you are in the mood for more Hitchcock, a national tour of the director’s nine earliest surviving works will soon be rolling into town, silent pictures all newly restored by the British Film Institute. The restorations include THE PLEASURE GARDEN (Hitch’s very first film), DOWNHILL, EASY VIRTUE, CHAMPAGNE, THE FARMER’S WIFE, BLACKMAIL, THE RING, THE MANXMAN and the Jack the Ripper story THE LODGER. These rarities begin unspooling June 14-16 at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (Castro Theatre) and will hit LA, Brooklyn, Chicago, Seattle, Houston, Boston and many more cities throughout the summer. Keep an eye on your local arts’ calendar. And Big Apple movie fans will hit genre paydirt again as Film Forum Jr. will be playing such favorites as HOUSE OF WAX with Vincent Price on April 7, Hitchcock’s own remake of THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (May 12) and FORBIDDEN PLANET (June 23).