Alfred Hitchcock’s only excursion into 3-D, Dial M for Murder stars Ray Milland, Grace Kelly, and a bilge green ceramic lamp. Since the film has only rarely been shown “in depth” since its 1954 release (Hitchcock called the process “a nine-day wonder, and I came in on the ninth day”), viewers stumbling across it on TV or renting it in ignorance of its provenance may have wondered at this last performer—the hammy insistence with which the lamp thrusts itself forward in conversations, the sneaky coquettishness with which it maneuvers its shade into the corners of the frame—especially as it plays no role in the plot (if it contains jewels or secret documents, it keeps them to itself).
Film Forum’s revival—an opportunity to see Dial M in its original “NaturalVision” dual-projection process—restores its reputation. No preening prima donna (and wisely not, since it is not an attractive lamp), it is a loyal corps member in the object ballet for keys, stockings, telephone, and corpse that underlies the plot. Nothing if not pliable, it also serves as an anchor in the squalls and eddies of space unleashed by the 3-D process. Sitting squat at center stage, like the director in a party hat, it offers a steady reference point for cutting across the quadrants of the room that houses the bulk of the action (efforts to progress too far outside are blocked by Hitchcock’s notorious rear-projection screens, flatter and more explicitly artificial than ever with lampposts and railings comin’ at ya in the foreground).
The script sticks closely to a stage contraption by Frederick Knott, but Dial M is less a filmed play than a highly cinematic investigation of theatricality. Hitchcock deliberately refused to “open it up,” opting instead for another in his series of intent examinations of enclosed spaces (think Lifeboat, Rope, Rear Window), highlighted by placing the camera and the audience in a pit for some shots.
The story offers further tropes for this play on plays and players: Retired tennis pro Milland blackmails a shady school acquaintance (Anthony Dawson) into making an attempt on his wife’s life (motives: suspected infidelity, insurance payout). Often framed before the curtains that will later produce his surprise performer, Milland stage-manages throughout, demonstrating a tender solicitude for the accoutrements of his set.
The camera snaps to an overhead angle as he runs Dawson through his paces, a relief-map equivalent of the scene-of-the-crime diagrams on ’40s paperbacks. It’s a rehearsal for the viewer as much as for the killer—pay attention to the paths laid out. When it’s time to enact the crime, the lamp is out, and you’re left with Kelly to find your way in an abstract terrain of smeared highlights.
It’s a good example of Hitchcock’s use of the 3-D process for small surprises. Many of the most interesting depth effects come from shallow spaces (a door lock, a phone dial) and confusing cues. The big exception is, of course, the murder scene. When the performance goes awry, Milland is left with the challenge of constructing a new murder plot out of the given set of props and circumstances (aside from the pointed cameo for scissors, time now to mention solid supporting work from a blue airmail envelope, a wicker sewing basket, and a can of lighter fluid).
Things, yes, forged signatures of all things Hitchcock. As Godard noted in the Histoire(s) du Cinema, we forget the stories of Hitchcock’s films, “but we remember a row of bottles, a pair of spectacles, a sheet of music, a bunch of keys.” If the things here are homelier and less loved than, say, Marnie’s neon yellow purse or Cary Grant’s glowing glass of milk, and the film itself no one’s idea of major Hitch, it remains a fascinating investigation of a stillborn process from one of cinema’s most dedicated inquisitors of structure.