It probably doesn’t need a review or a re-evaluation of any kind (which is why this isn’t really classified as a review), so consider this a message to all of you in Toronto that Alfred Hitchcock’s wonderful Dial M for Murder opens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox this week (on Friday October 5th) in its original 3D, albeit digitally projected with a pristine 4K restoration. For those of you who don’t live in Toronto or those who want to own it, you can buy the 3D Blu-ray on October 9th.
Might we persuade you, though, to go see it on the big screen? Sure, the film isn’t exactly what most people would think of as the best use of 3D, but it’s a gorgeous looking restoration of a classic film. Fresh off an engagement at the Film Forum in New York and after a screening on the opening night of TIFF this year, the 3D print of Dial M for Murder was made with the help of TIFF so Warner Brothers could screen the film theatrically once again, and if you get the chance, there’s really no better option.
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Made towards the tail end of an extremely short lived 3D boom in the early 1950s, Dial M was rarely even screened in the format it had been shot in thanks to exhibitors growing cold on the idea. Not even the use of the same camera equipment that was used to shoot the cult classic House of Wax was enough to make theatres screen the film in anything other than a flat format. More theatres screened the film in 3D during a brief re-release in 1982, and even that was pretty limited.
In all honesty, why should they have? Hitchcock was a bit ahead of his time when it came to using 3D because much like Ridley Scott did earlier this year with Prometheus and James Cameron did with Avatar, Hitchcock used the format to give depth to the surroundings instead of thrusting things at the audience. Alright, so there’s one key pushed in the audiences’ noses at a crucial point and some of the optical effects look extremely dated and out of place, but such nods and winks seem like they were purposefully done that way so Hitchcock could call attention to the artifice of using the 3D process in the first place.
The film also quite inarguably doesn’t really need the gimmick. It’s essentially a one set film based on a stage play from Frederick Knott (who also penned the source material for Terrence Young’s arguably more explicitly harrowing Wait Until Dark), in which a man living in London tries to get away with murdering his own cheating wife. Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) can only listen over the phone as his allegedly perfect plan to blackmail a former acquaintance into killing his wife (Grace Kelly) backfires, but thinking quickly, he’s able to frame his wife for the murder of the hitman, sending her to death row under a cloud of suspicion. It’s a curious and original type of mystery because the audience knows exactly what happened in terms of the inciting crime, but they’re left to wonder what Tony overlooked that could lead to him getting exposed.
Much like how a play unfolds, a great deal of time is set building up the characters through dialogue rather than action – making the viewer sympathetic towards those harshly affected before placing them firmly in the shoes of a calculating sociopath – and Hitchcock directs Knott’s adaptation of his own work as if the camera is a cumbersome intruder into the lives of these people. Sometimes shots are deliberately obscured by bottles and vases in the fore and backgrounds to add to the depth of the 3D, but also to heighten the film’s almost voyeuristic leanings. Then again, what Hitchcock film doesn’t have at least several moments that feel intrusive to the characters?
In another clever use of 3D, Hitchcock remembers that theatre itself is three dimensional. Sitting in one’s seat in a proper theatre, everything in front of the viewer is undoubtedly three dimensional, but it isn’t like the viewer can reach out and touch what’s in front of him. Somewhat strangely, this digital restoration makes this point even clearer, by cleaning up the image and leaving only the period grain from the camera.
Dial M for Murder might be a deceptively simple story with a handful of great twists that uses a technology that seems unlikely, and while it isn’t Hitchcock’s best, it’s definitely high up on his list of accomplishments. If the opportunity to see this in a cinema presents itself, you owe it to yourself to check it out if you haven’t seen it in 3D before. Just tell yourself you’re going to the theatre to see that play you really love that you’ve seen several times on stage before if you feel the need to rationalize it.
If there’s more that you need to sell you on the film, here’s a stellar piece from David Bordwell (who presented the film when it played at the festival this year) that can tell you more than I ever could.