‘Dial M For Murder’ — a sophisticated end to the TCM Film Festival
(Continuing Reveal Shot’s review of the 2013 TCM Film Festival concludes Day 4)
Of the two 3-D screenings at the festival, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Dial M For Murder” (1954) was the one I perceived to be a must. (The other, “Hondo” (1953) would have been a useful backup once it became obvious that I wasn’t going to get a good seat for “On The Waterfront” Friday night, but by then there were only about 15 minutes left until the John Wayne feature was set to begin.) It would be my last movie of the festival, on the evening of Day 4.
Leonard Maltin introduced the film with a very interesting talk about the use of 3-D in 1953 and ’54. He explained that the process worked just fine, but lost traction during 1953 because people didn’t like wearing the uncomfortable cardboard glasses. “But then Hollywood was thrown a curve late in 1953 when some films did well on 3-D, including ‘Hondo.’ …So they thought maybe we shouldn’t throw this technology away just yet.”
Maltin then interviewed the producer and actor Norman Lloyd, whose mind remains razor sharp at 98. Though Lloyd did not work with Hitchcock on “Dial M,” and never had a discussion with the director about the 3-D process, he did tell an entertaining story about Hitchcock’s “Saboteur” (1942). He described the filming of the shot in which Lloyd’s villainous character falls to his death from the Statue of Liberty. While Lloyd was in a saddle, flailing around like a falling man, a camera looking down at him was raised up to the ceiling of the studio, which on film looks as if he is falling away from the camera.
The print of “Dial M For Murder” at the festival looked quite sharp, especially for Warnercolor, that studio’s version of Eastmancolor, which has proven so problematic in restorations.
The use of 3-D in “Dial M” is modest but effective. From the opening credits, it looks as if the image is directly in front of your face. Hitchcock often seemed to have one of the characters and some piece of furniture in the foreground, while another character is in the background.
For most of its running time, though, “Dial M’s” 3-D effect does not call attention to itself, as the viewer tries to follow the labyrinth-like plot. It was intriguing to set up part of Tony Wendice’s motive as jealousy, since Margot has had an affair with the hack mystery writer Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings, in the only weak performance of the film). Sure, Tony (Ray Milland) is greedy, but he’s also irritated at being cuckolded by a clown like Halliday.
Tony’s fatal mistake of removing the key to the apartment from Lesgate’s pocket and placing it into Margot’s handbag is entirely logical, and yet just as logically seen by Chief Inspector Hubbard (John Williams) as a problem that casts suspicion on Tony.
Milland is very good as the scheming Tony, and Grace Kelly, even with all of her beauty and charm, is credible as a woman with the strength to fight for her life — and the vulnerability to be hurt when she finds out that her husband wanted to kill her.
Williams, who had played the same role on stage, gives “Dial M’s” best performance as a man who knows what to look for and won’t back down from a hunch even when the case seems to be going against him.
The one aspect of the plot that seems too contrived is a moment that may have been intended by Knott to be funny.
It comes when Halliday proposes that Tony lie to the police and save Margot from execution by claiming to have hatched a murder scheme — one that happens to jibe almost precisely with the plan we’ve seen unfold for the last 90-odd minutes. There were several laughs at the Chinese Multiplex 1 during the scene.
Seeing “Dial M For Murder” made me want to see more of the better 3-D films of the period, perhaps at next year’s festival.
[Update: By the way, as part of Maltin's presentation, he pointed out that "Dial M" was initially released in 3-D, but generated weak ticket sales in that form during its first engagement in Philadelphia, so the exhibitor asked Warner Bros. for a traditional "flat" print that wouldn't require glasses. That version did very well, and that's the one most audiences saw in 1954. Warner Bros. did offer the film to theaters in 3-D, but most just said no thanks. It's too bad. The glasses we wore at the festival screening were the comfortable plastic kind handed out at 3-D movies made today.]
– David B. Wilkerson