Adapted from a stage play by English playwright Frederick Knott, Hitchcock’s classic was originally shot in 1954 on stereoscopic film, but was predominantly screened in 2D upon its release due to 3D’s fall in popularity. As it is the only film Hitchcock made in 3D, it is intriguing to see how he engaged with the medium.
A sweeping violin score opens over bright yellow credits that leap out of the screen. The camera pirouettes into the apartment, where Grace Kelly is locked in a clandestine kiss. Kelly’s adulterous Margot is about to become the victim of a murder plot devised by her husband, for which her lover Mark, a crime fiction writer, is the perfect detective. The details are meticulously organised, but the perpetrator has overlooked the unpredictable nature of reality.
DIAL M FOR MURDER is an intellectual play on the formula of the murder plot or the notion of the perfect crime. Hitchcock builds layers of precision, from the illicit conspiracy within the narrative, to the immaculately spaced objects and trinkets in the intimate apartment, behind which we peer.
Remaining within the apartment’s four walls, Hitchcock emphasises the theatrical aspects of the script. The camera watches through the doorway, over the characters’ shoulders, down from a high angle as if onto a Cluedo board: a room full of props and clues. Voyeuristic, we are compliant witnesses in the arena of the crime scene.
The restoration gives extraordinary clarity to the rich colours, and to the clammy fury of Margot’s husband Tony (Ray Milland), who oozes with stifling menace through the three-dimensional intimacy. Milland doesn’t miss a beat with his seamless delivery, his fine-tuned charm oiling the plot with a fluent confidence. At times his arched eyebrows and strained smile are evocative of Jack Nicholson’s intensity. Grace Kelly is radiant and enchanting as the scarlet Margot, echoing the pedestalled Madeleine of Hitchcock’s later VERTIGO. Sharp, dapper and brilliantly dated, the fast-moving dialogue effortlessly glides the story from polite chit-chat into bribery and murder.
The vivid warmth of the Eastmancolor film stock is intensified by the 3D, from the daffodils in the hallway, to the glowing lamps in the apartment, to Margot’s descent from rich red gowns to drab browns as Hitchcock expresses her tumble into the sinister trap. Keen to construct a fully immersive experience, Hitchcock had trenches built into the sets in order to place the cameras at angles that would thrust the audience into the heart of the misdemeanour – even the shadows appear to bulge from the walls. It is fascinating to experience Hitchcock’s intended vision: the intensity and complicity into which he hoped to plunge his audience, and the climatic moment when Grace Kelly’s hand desperately breaks out of the screen.