Dial 'M' for Murder
There are a lot of filmmakers that have taken on stories revolving around the perfect murder. For some it is an exercise in what elements in a crime would be necessary perpetration such a crime while for others it just might be a flight of fancy for some darkly wishful thinking. Of all the directors to take on this scenario no one in the history of cinema could approach the amazing talent and vision possessed by the master of the psychological thriller, Alfred Hitchcock. Throughout his career he always managed to shock the audience, consistently keeping them on the edge seats. Understandably there are a myriad of factors to why Hitchcock became the undisputed Grand Master of Suspense. He possessed the eye for detail and an uncanny ability to light and set a shot while eliciting the best possible performances out of entourage of the greatest actors of their time. One factor in Hitchcock’s amazing success in defining this sort of movie was his capacity to delve deep into the darkest recesses of the human mind. The man was innately a gifted psychologist able to play on the intrinsic fears and apprehensions of the viewer. By knowing how the human mind works on such a deep level Mr. Hitchcock could literary play on the minds of his audience guiding them down the suspenseful maze of his diabolical design. Many of his best films coincided with a pivotal time in the history of the industry; the forties and fifties. Mr. Hitchcock the function of a bomb hidden in a room is not to explode; this is generating tension in the audience by letting them know it is there, waiting.
It was during this time that the American family embraced the latest technology of entertainment, the television. Now people didn’t have to make that arduous journey downtown to the neighborhood movie theater, you could sit in your living room, turn a dial and watch a drama, comedy or musical in the comfort of your home. The glowing tube dominating the American home began to threaten the all-important studio box office the studio box office receipts resulted in many innovations. Some, like air conditioned theaters, widescreen images and high quality audio not only stuck but continued to improve over time. One experiment that faded away was 3D moves. It managed to persist awhile but the cheap cardboard glasses with two color cellophane lenses never quite made it past the stage of a gimmick. That was until recently when advances in technology provided the resolution and stereo-optical effects to make 3D possible.
The area of overlap between Hitchcock and 3D was restricted to a single film under consideration here, ‘Dial ‘M’ for Murder’. Easily reaching the American Film Institute’s top ten list of thrillers this movie has long been heralded as one of the definitive ‘perfect murder scenarios released to theaters hot on the heels of another crafty killing movie also from Mr. Hitchcock, ‘Strangers on a Train’. Together they make an ideal double feature of suspense. Another thing they have in common is the utilization of a tennis player as a central character. In this movie the former tennis player is Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) who is able to live in a well-appointed apartment in London thanks to the wealth of his wife, Margot (Grace Kelly). In order to spend more time together she persuaded him to give up the tennis circuit and the spotlight it afforded Tony. Although Margot is beautiful and cultured Tony is only enamored of her money. To achieve this goal the wheels begin to turn as Tony plots to remove his wife, permanently. Fortunately for the devious Tony the alumni of good schools occasionally grow up to become unsavory characters. An acquaintance from Tony’s time at Oxford, C.A. Swann (Anthony Dawson) but Tony proves to be far better at criminal planning. Luring Swann to flat the plan begins to unfold. It turns out that Margot had an affair with a dashing younger man, Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings) carrying a letter from him in her handbag. Several months ago Tony stole the bag and letter waiting for the proper circumstance to use them. Craftily, Tony gets Swann to touch the letter providing the perfect ploy to blackmail him. Tony offers Swann a simple way to extricate himself. Tony will give Swann £1,000 to murder Margot. There will be a party and at precisely 11 pm Tony will phone their home. When Margot excuses herself to receive the call Swann is to sneak up behind her and kill her. The plan implodes when Margot defends herself killing Swann with a nearby pair of scissors. The problem for Tony is the key he provided to Swann is still on him. The alternate plan just pulls everyone deeper into intrigue and mystery.
The most filmmakers and apartment key would be a trivial prop. In the hands of a cinematic genius, it becomes an item escort with danger and suspense, transforming it into a sort of Damocles. I have great interviews with Alfred Hitchcock, where he stated that before he steps both on the soundstage has already envisioned how the film will look and feel. That is the artistic aspect of his genius. The practical side isn’t getting the actors to fulfill that vision. Reportedly, when one act that asked Mr. Hitchcock. “What is my motivation”, he replied, “your paycheck”. Even with the cast is superbly talented as this one you can see Alfred Hitchcock’s influence in this style. Grace Kelly remains an icon of Hollywood glamour. She was one of the favorite actresses that work with Mr. Hitchcock. He was known for his blonde actresses, all of them beautiful, but few healthy sheer ability to entrance and audience as completely as Grace Kelly. In order to successfully play the part of Margot required. The actress is believable as both someone accustomed to well in high society as well as possessing an intrinsically intelligent mind. As always, Mr. Hitchcock chose his cast, wisely.
Although not originally filmed in the current 3D rendering techniques the stereoptical information persisted in the source material. When migrated to the modern methodology the results are better than most retrofitted 3D conversions I have seen. There is a striking sense of depth and multiple layers in the picture. The look is usually extremely natural but occasionally the overlaying of people and objects against the backdrop come across as contrived, overly separated. The color palate is bright, typical of the Technicolor process commonly utilized at that time. This does work synergistically with the 3D process resulting in an image that truly pops. The audio is featured in a DTS-HD MA Mono remix that retains the original sound of the movie. As with a lot of monaural audio tracks it is frequently best to allow your home AV receiver to reprocess the sound for a fuller audio field. Some experimentation is in order to achieve a sound that you find suitable but there is usually a mode that emulates the rich acoustics of the opulent theaters that were popular when this movie was new. The distribution rights for the Hitchcock oeuvre are currently held by several studios. In what appears to be simultaneous decisions rather than a coordinated incentive they are re-releasing a number of his most popular films on Blu-ray. Gratefully, they are not pressing the issue with the current move towards 3D by converting other of the Master’s movies. Since this was originally filmed for this sort of presentation it is a rare opportunity to see a sixty year old film created with 3d in mind.
Documentary Hitchcock And Dial M