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Dial 'M' for Murder

When questioned, Alfred Hitchcock consistently downplayed Dial 'M' for Murder (1954), his brisk adaptation of Frederick Knott's popular stage play. "I was running for cover" he told François Truffaut, claming that the project — necessary to complete his contractual obligations to Warner Brothers — was "coasting, playing it safe." Upon the movie's release, he told the press that he could have "phoned it in," and one wonders how many folks realized the pun indicated a certain lack of sincerity in the comment. Nonetheless, while it should be noted that Knott's crackling script remains the film's star attraction, Dial 'M' also is an important transitional work in the Hitchcockian canon, returning to the confined settings of Lifeboat (1944) and Rope (1948), while also serving as a perfect segue to Hitchcock's greatest single-set achievement, Rear Window (1954).

The plot concerns retired tennis pro Tony Wendice (Ray Milland), who has left his formerly lucrative career due to age and injury, and now sells sporting goods as a part-time profession while living comfortably in a London flat with his wife Margot (Grace Kelly), a woman whose inherited wealth allows Tony to enjoy a lifestyle to which he has become accustomed. But after Tony discovered, one year earlier, that Margot was carrying on an affair with American novelist Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings), the cuckolded husband fashioned malevolent revenge: After discreetly withdrawing £1,000 from his bank account over several months, he contacts Charles Swan (Anthony Dawson), an old college chum from Cambridge who has since fallen on hard times. Using a combination of bribery and blackmail, Tony "influences" Swan to enter the apartment while he is away at a dinner party with Mark. A simple late-night phone call from Tony will bring Margot from the bedroom, at which point Swan is to strangle her, making the scene look like a botched robbery. It's the perfect murder, with Margot's lover Mark serving as an unwitting alibi. But of course, as mystery-writer Mark previously pointed out to Tony, things in real life rarely go according to plan.

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By 1954 the "3-D" fad was well into decline, but Warner still required Dial 'M' for Murder to be filmed in the awkward format (which their marketing folks tagged "Naturalvision"). It was a burden Hitchcock accepted, albeit with many reservations. For starters, he didn't believe there was anything terribly cinematic about 3-D, a process that reinforced the audience's perspective from outside of the picture, rather than drawing them in. And the bulky 3-D camera was so large and unwieldy that Hitch had a trench placed in the soundstage floor so he could shoot from low angles when necessary. Once it's known that Dial 'M' was a 3-D title, its remnants appear in stark relief — lamps placed in the living-room foreground, a single key held out in close-up, and Grace Kelly's struggling, outstretched hand, which also adorned the film's one-sheet posters. But aside from these few moments, Hitch wasn't about to reconfigure his movie to conform to what amounted to little more than a marketing stunt, and in fact by 1954 most theaters requested the 2-D prints. The fact that the film has remained consistently popular for half-a-century since is a testament to the director's insistence on a classical approach to shot-selection and editing throughout. Hitch also insisted that his movie remain as true to the stage-play as possible, only leaving the confines of the two-room apartment half-a-dozen times, convinced that successful theatrical productions work because they are, by definition, confined within a proscenium (he even went so far as to have the soundstage floor tiled in order to accurately capture the sound of theatrical footfalls). The quick shoot (completed in just 36 days, with an entire week set aside for the horrific strangling scene) was complemented by Hitchcock's cast. In just her fourth film, Grace Kelly came to the production on a one-picture deal and soon became one of Hitchcock's favorite leading ladies. As the smooth, diabolical Tony, Ray Milland offers a career-defining performance. John Williams, as the clever Chief Inspector Hubbard, shows why (along with Leo G. Carroll), he was one of the director's favorite supporting actors. As Charles Swan, Anthony Dawson seems to define the essence of a screen villain. In fact, the only weak performance can be said to come from Robert Cummings as Margot's paramour — he's perfectly competent, but his square-joe American earnestness often collides with his co-stars' elegant British reserve. It would be Kelly and Williams who would re-appear in further Hitchcock films, co-starring again in To Catch a Thief (1956). And Kelly would find herself alongside Hitch just months later, shooting Rear Window — Hitch was managing pre-production on that masterpiece while filming this modest exercise in cinematic craftsmanship.

Warner's DVD release of Dial 'M' for Murder features a solid full-frame transfer (1.33:1 OAR) with Dolby Digital 1.0 audio — the sound is perfectly clear, while fans doubtless will gush over the flawless Technicolor print, which is so vivid it occasionally suggests three-dimensional framing. Supplements include the featurette "Hitchcock and Dial M," which includes comments from Peter Bogdanovich and M. Night Shyamalan (22 min.), the featurette "3D: A Brief History" (7 min.), and the original theatrical trailer. Keep-case.
—Robert Wederquist

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