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DVD SAVANT

Dial M for Murder
Savant Blu-ray 3D Review


Dial M for Murder
3D Blu-ray
Warner Home Video
1954 / Color / 1:37 flat full frame / 104 min. / Street Date October 9, 2012 / 35.99
Starring Ray Milland, Grace Kelly, Robert Cummings, John Williams, Anthony Dawson.
Cinematography Robert Burks
Art Direction Edward Carrere
Film Editor Rudi Fehr
Original Music Dimitri Tiomkin
Written by Frederick Knott from his play
Produced and Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Is this the first studio-generated 3D Blu-ray release of a feature from the 1950s? Although 3D home equipment owners may be fuming that product to run on their pricey setups has been slow in coming, things seem to be changing. Warner Home Video still holds the record for innovation when it comes to courting classic movie fans, and the almost-official word is that they're planning at least one vintage 3D reissue per year. If their new 3D Blu-ray of the Alfred Hitchcock classic Dial M for Murder does well, more companies are sure to chime in. Universal is concurrently releasing a 3D encoding of The Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Dial M for Murder hasn't gotten the attention given many other Hitchcock thrillers, but it may be the best drawing-room murder mystery ever. Hitchcock always said he filmed Dial M straight because he admired the tight construction of Frederick Knott's stage play and didn't want to crudely open it up. Hitchcock's respect for the material energized him to augment and support it for the screen, a perfect arrangement for a director so skilled in visual communication.

With its fine set of star performances, this is one of the most intriguing entertainments from the Master of Suspense.

Tired of living on an allowance in a small flat, retired tennis pro Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) devises a complicated plot to murder his wife Margot (Grace Kelly) for her money. He blackmails an old acquaintance named Swan (Anthony Dawson) to do the deed while he develops his alibi. When the murder plot goes totally wrong, Tony must think on his feet. He concocts another plan -- to frame his wife for murder!

People that sneer at filmed plays should give Dial M for Murder a close look. Hitchcock keeps the action confined mostly to a pair of rooms, yet we never feel hemmed in. A trial sequence is done in straight-on single shots of Grace Kelly, under expressionistic lighting. The exteriors are mostly rear-projections, ironically creating a somewhat depthless outdoors.

Four perfect actors inhabit the key roles. This is probably Ray Milland's most polished performance, as the Tony Wendice is perfectly adapted to the Oscar winner's urbane dryness. Milland projects intelligence and knows exactly how to project his inner tension whenever the other actors turn their backs to him.

John Williams has a field day as Inspector Hubbard, the expected snooty Scotland Yard detective. Hubbard asks questions, shows his dismay at troublesome witnesses and cooks up a proof of Margot's innocence as if inspired by the ghost of Sherlock Holmes. Hubbard is fundamentally sympathetic, and the only character not tainted by moral issues. The film allows Williams some humanity beyond the refined attitude and smart dialogue.

Anthony Dawson is a fine hired killer and is as much a victim of the piece as is the heroine. Swan's villainy gains a special tension when we find ourselves rooting for him in the big murder scene. He's the man on the spot, with a difficult task to perform: Hitchcock knows how to make us identify with unsavory characters under stress, and Dawson is creepy enough to make us very nervous.

Robert Cummings's performance has been disparaged as unromantic and uncharismatic, yet I find him a perfect bland hero for the icily beautiful Grace Kelly. Kelly is a bit like Nicole Kidman -- a great looker and good actress but cold around the heart. I never for a minute liked or believed The Country Girl. In Dial M for Murder she's Hitchcock's perfect trophy blonde, much more than a mannequin but still playing the stock part of a glamorous, helpless female in peril.

They're all stock parts, really. Dial M for Murder doesn't attempt a postmodern post-mortem on the chamber mystery, as does Anthony Shaffer's Sleuth. But it's possibly the most adept straight chamber mystery we've got. The villain is diabolical and the hero detective must be diabolically clever to catch him. That leaves the romantic couple as supporting accessories. Margot Wendice and Mark Halliday are adulterous lovers, which doesn't make them villains but also doesn't build much sympathy for them. Although jealousy is not the main motive for Tony's perfect crime, being cuckolded always has appeal.

Dial M for Murder is a mechanical play. We listen to all of the scheming and counter-scheming in the first person. Only an Agatha Christie fan can keep up, even with Hitchcock's help in placing relevant objects and clues right under our noses. Neither he nor the play cheat, withhold evidence or play narrative tricks ... no "lying flashbacks" here.

Several sections of the play are devoted to acting out murder scenarios, before and after the fact. Hitchcock previews Wendice's murder plan like a rehearsal for D-Day, complete with an overhead analysis of the battlefield - apartment. When that murder scheme falls apart we have just enough information to follow Tony's improvised Plan B, yet not nearly enough to intuit Inspector Hubbard's inspired retaliatory scheme. Hitchcock must have been challenged to stay ahead of the puzzle himself, and I confess to not having it all figured out the first time either. It's just too much fun to be carried away by the show. Try to keep tabs on the Latch KeysÉ they hold the solution to the mystery.

Perhaps driven batty by his producer-agent David O. Selznick, Hitchcock spent six years or so playing with visual gimmicks and offbeat cinematic techniques, sometimes for their own sake. For Rope and Under Capricorn he experimented with long takes and complicated dolly shots that mostly impressed other filmmakers. In Stage Fright and I Confess he tried to push the narrative language of film to show a secondary reality, with flashbacks by 'unreliable' flash-backing witnesses. Those didn't work so well. He also made time to see what he could do with color stylization.

In Dial M the Master of Suspense takes an authoritative approach to 3D, which at the time was a gimmick on the wane. His is probably the best 1950s 3D picture simply because he's given the process some serious thought and incorporated a theory of depth illusion into his staging. Cinematographer Robert Burks' reputation for precision is borne out in every shot. Only a couple of objects project out into the audience but everything else in the movie is designed in depth. Shots are often low-angled to show pieces of ceiling beyond, and every composition has a foreground object (in dialogue scenes, usually a table lamp) to balance the frame and provide something for us to 'look past' to see the actors. When the camera moves in MGM's Kiss Me Kate we feel like we're going for a roller coaster ride. In Hitchcock's picture we glide through a space with characters that seem to be in a living 3D View-master image. If anything, the 3D effects are sublimated; Hitchcock uses 3D as another compositional tool, directing us to look at the part of the frame he wants us to look at. His 3D depth-space is an enhanced cinema canvas.

Dimitri Tiomkin contributes a nervous, romantic score that makes good use of the brassy Warner Brothers orchestra. It is said that Warners' music tracks in the middle fifties were unusually impressive because of the way the music was arranged and recorded. It was also often mixed hotter than usual.

Last observation. The actual murder scene with the pair of scissors never seemed right to me. Perhaps Margot Wendice is a powerful tennis player, but penetrating a man's back at that angle is like stabbing a telephone pole from the other side. How can she get any power behind the scissors? Perhaps Hitchcock realized this when he followed up with a painfully graphic angle of the victim being impaled by his own weight when he falls. Ooof. One look at that unexpected bit of Hollywood gore convinces everyone.

Hitch must have been censor-proof by this time. If one does not know the film, the poster artwork makes it look as though Grace Kelly is being raped, not choked. I can't help but think that the director approved the campaign while envying the role given Anthony Dawson. Hitchcock was far too portly to 'rehearse' the scene with Kelly, to show his actors how to do it.


Warners' new Blu-ray 3D + Blu-ray presentation of Dial M for Murder has attracted a lot of attention. A new digital restoration not only cleans up the film (both the left-eye and right-eye prints) but gives the early Warnercolor a good working over, and reformats the 3D for the new process that eliminates flutter, alignment mismatches and other issues that plagued old two-projector film screenings.

I've read reviews that I think unfairly slam some technical aspects of the transfer -- in 1954 Eastmancolor's fat sandwich of emulsions and filters was far from perfected. It didn't dupe particularly well, which gives some shots unavoidable photochemical artifacts. Why do home video reviewers insist on critiquing 60 year-old movies as if they were filmed yesterday? Big mistakes get made, but by and large experienced transfer people know a bit more than you and I about their work, and do the best with what they're given. I'm grateful that the studio bothered to retain both the left and right-eye prints for this 3D film. Some 3D pictures released by United Artists weren't so lucky.

I saw Dial M projected in Polaroid 3D in 1979 and remember it very well; until the new generation presentations came along it was the best 3D experience I'd had. I was also fortunate enough to attend Warner Home Video's theatrical screening of this new restoration at Grauman's Chinese on September 24th. Here's what I had to say about that:

It's shaping up as a 3D week here at DVD Savant. On Monday I was fortunate to attend a Warner Home Video screening at Grauman's Chinese of Alfred Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder. I haven't heard of any other theatrical screenings so this was a big opportunity. Warners VP George Feltenstein gave an enthusiastic, informative introduction, explaining that a similar 3D festival in New York in the early 1980s led to a brief 3D revival, the one that included Jaws 3D. Back in 1979 I had been fortunate to see a two-projector Polaroid screening at the Tiffany Theater on the Sunset Strip, which was my best experience ever with old-style 3D.

They projected the restored digital Dial M in the modern Real D format, which ironed out all the potential flaws. The alignment and convergence of the images is now perfect. The color restoration is quite good as well -- only opticals looked a bit less sharp. Hitchcock's conservative use of the 3D process is still marvelous, with foreground objects (particularly a table lamp) lending depth to the '3D stage' without asking us to strain our eyes. Even more than usual, Hitchcock directs our attention to exactly the right part of the frame, and focuses and converges the effect for that plane. He really can't afford distractions, for the screenplay is almost two solid hours of drawing room mystery exposition. Miraculously, the unobtrusive 3D provides a sort of hyper-spatial context, not a distraction. Our concentration is not broken. Other 3D pictures, even the new ones, constantly billboard the depth effect. After the main titles, Hitchcock does this maybe only four times.

This was also the first time I've seen Dial M displayed at its proper aspect ratio, 1:85. It mattes off very cleanly. I fully understand why earlier 3D film festivals didn't show it this way -- aligning a two-projector system involved hours of work, so they just left the screen unmatted and showed everything full frame.

It may have been wishful thinking, but George Feltenstein said he'd like to see all of Warners' 3D titles converted this way. The plan is to prep House of Wax for Home Video 3D in 2013. (9/25/2012)

What I said there essentially goes for the 3D Blu-ray version. The fact that the show is matted to 1:85 widescreen is a big help, as the cropping focuses the action and loses extraneous visual material, as Hitchcock planned. Of course, it also makes Dial M fit our widescreen TVs much better. I must add that I thought the opening music sounded a bit distorted at the Grauman's screening and also on the disc. The audio clears up before the end of the opening titles.

The same disc also contains a flat 2D encoding. It looks fine, far better than the older flat WB disc from 2004. A new featurette gives some background on the film, mostly through Peter Bogdanovich but also with input from a round robin of personalities, critics and filmmakers -- Robert Osborne, Patricia Hitchcock, Richard Schickel, etc. The trailer is here as well.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Dial M for Murder Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Very Good
Sound: Excellent
Subtitles: English
Supplements: 2D Blu-ray encoding; featurette, trailer
Packaging: Keep case in card sleeve with lenticular 3-D image
Reviewed: October 6, 2012

Footnote:

1. From correspondent Len Power, October 10, 2012

Hi Glenn. Reading your review of Dial M for Murder reminded me of a funny story told in a TV interview by an actor (English actor, Gary Waldhorn, I think) who had appeared in a theatre-in-the-round production of the play. As you know, the police inspector deliberately picks up the raincoat belonging to the murder suspect rather than his own so he can check if the latch key he needs to solve the mystery is in the pocket. As every man apparently wore exactly the same 'Mackintosh' raincoat in those days, the audience doesn't spot the switch and only learns of it at the end of the play. In this production, the suspect's and the police inspector's raincoats were set on a chair very close to the first row of the in-the-round audience. At the appropriate moment, the police inspector picked up the suspect's raincoat and turned to leave. Suddenly a hand reached out from the audience to stop him and a loud voice from that audience member said, "Excuse me, you've got the wrong coat!" Every actor's nightmare.....

The play seems prone to problems. I saw an amateur production where everything had gone smoothly until the end where the police inspector explains in a very complex speech how he solved the mystery of the latchkeys which led him to the murderer. The actor playing the police inspector realized suddenly that he had left out a crucial line of the explanation and had to backtrack and ad lib carefully to make sure it all made logical sense. He didn't quite get there and as I left the theatre, I was aware of puzzled audience members asking each other what really happened. Cheers -- Len Power, Canberra, Australia




DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2012 Glenn Erickson

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