Jack Warner was one of the famed Warner brothers, and for many years ran the Hollywood studio that bore his family's name. Over the course of several decades, Jack made both good and bad decisions. One of the good ones was striking a deal with Alfred Hitchcock to helm a handful of movies in the early 1950s, and one of the bad ones was forcing the legendary director to shoot 'Dial M for Murder,' an adaptation of Frederick Knott's popular stage play, in 3D. When 'Dial M' went into production in 1953, the 3D craze was at its peak, but by the time Warner released the film in 1954, the passing fad had all but passed, and very few theaters ever exhibited this thriller in its intended format. Even worse, Hitchcock hated 3D and, according to his leading lady, Grace Kelly, felt "terribly encumbered and frustrated" by the process, which constricted the freedom of his camera and almost eliminated the creative angles he was so fond of employing in his movies. As a result, 'Dial M for Murder,' even in 3D, stands as a second-rate Hitchcock flick, and one of the Master's least interesting films from a visual perspective.
I remember seeing 'Dial M for Murder' in 3D back in the early 1980s when it enjoyed a limited theatrical re-release. I wasn't a big fan of it then, and the intervening years haven't altered my opinion. Hitchcock set out to adapt a stage play, and adapt it he does, about as faithfully as one can, keeping the single location set and only minimally "opening up" the drama. So what we end up with is a very talky motion picture that remains anchored in the drawing room. The camera cuts between the various speakers, occasionally providing an innovative perspective (see below), but for the most part remaining rather static. The dialogue is literate, sophisticated, and delivered with panache by a strong cast, but words alone have trouble riveting our attention. The one true action scene is a doozy and remains an iconic Hitchcock sequence, frequently recycled for cinema retrospectives, but it occurs relatively early in the film, and nothing else that follows can top it.
That scene (see below) features a groggy Margot Wendice (Grace Kelly) answering a late-night phone call, only to be surprised from behind by a hired killer (Anthony Dawson), who's been blackmailed by Margot's jealous husband Tony (Ray Milland) into murdering her. Tony, a former professional tennis player, has discovered Margot has been having an affair with an American writer (Robert Cummings) and seeks to exact revenge, as well as collect on Margot's lucrative insurance policy. Tony's plot is practically fool-proof - the quintessential perfect murder - but of course things go awry, forcing the clever mastermind to alter his plan on the fly. And his revised scheme is more diabolical than his original.
'Dial M for Murder' is civilized drama on steroids. The characters all speak with perfect diction, precisely pronouncing all their lines, and always maintain proper decorum. Tony and his hired killer, a former school chum turned small-time hood, converse seriously but with genteel charm, and the few intimate moments Margot spends with her lover are as stiff as a British upper lip. Even the suspicious detective (John Williams) examining the crime keeps a cool and pleasant demeanor throughout, never raising his voice, never showing the slightest hint of agitation. When characters are cornered, they look slyly askew; when Margot cries, she avoids a complete breakdown. Everything stays on such an even keel throughout - with the exception of the murder scene - 'Dial M for Murder' becomes more of an intellectual exercise than an emotional one. Wondering if Tony will get caught and how the cocky bastard might trip up are the issues that keep us involved, but without much physicality or human tension, the story can leave one cold.
Reportedly, Hitchcock began pre-production work on 'Rear Window' while he was shooting 'Dial M for Murder,' and the new project consumed all his interest. That shows up on the screen, as 'Dial M' feels like a Hitchcock film on autopilot. The passion that permeates 'Strangers on a Train,' for example, is absent here. Don't get me wrong, 'Dial M for Murder' is a well-made movie, especially given the constraints and encumbrances of 3D that handcuffed Hitch at every turn, but there's little creative spark on display. The film still outclasses others in the genre from other directors, but I hold Hitchcock to a higher standard, and this picture falls short of the brilliance I normally expect.
And yet for a form he supposedly loathed, Hitchcock uses 3D intelligently to create depth. Though it's obvious the prevalence of foreground items is a "3D move," the director shies away from such blatant tricks as flinging objects in the audience's face. Any overt 3D shots are employed judiciously, and thus achieve greater impact. It's too bad Hitchcock isn't still around today; watching what Martin Scorsese was able to achieve with 3D in 'Hugo' makes me wonder how Hitchcock would handle the process in this more technologically advanced age.
'Dial M for Murder' made Grace Kelly a star, and her stellar performance here, along with those in 'Rear Window' and 'The Country Girl' the same year, undoubtedly contributed to her 1954 Best Actress Oscar win for the latter movie. Kelly combines glamour and class with an incendiary spark of sexuality that Hitchcock would fully exploit in 'Rear Window' and 'To Catch a Thief.' Yet here, there's an enticing freshness about her, an unspoiled quality that's attractive and endearing. Though she plays an adulteress, she's still the undisputed heroine and squarely garners our sympathies from the get-go.
Milland plays the murderous mastermind well, maximizing his trademark debonair persona and lacing it with a calculating and cold-hearted streak. He nicely manages the character's duplicitous nature, and is such a beguiling villain, we occasionally find ourselves rooting for his success. Cummings, on the other hand, is completely ineffectual as Kelly's wooden lover. Though he made a strong and earnest Hitchcock hero in 'Saboteur' a dozen years earlier, Cummings looks bored and preoccupied here and generates no heat whatsoever with his gorgeous leading lady. As the hapless killer and arch inspector, respectively, Dawson and Williams contribute top-notch work, the kind of subtle yet engaging character performances that enhance many Hitchcock pictures.
'Dial M for Murder' may not captivate the way most Hitchcock films do, but it's still a good mystery and police procedural. The plot is largely credible, and when dissected, all the puzzle pieces snugly interlock, creating a satisfying whole that's more entertaining the second time around. Though attention is required to follow the finer narrative threads, the movie's talky nature and straightforward presentation sometimes dull our senses. The attack sequence, however, is worth the price of admission, and reminds us just how talented Hitchcock is when he brings his A game. The rest of the time, though, 'Dial M for Murder' is solid, but not spectacular. Let's just call it Hitchcock Lite.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Dial M for Murder' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case slipped inside a holographic sleeve. The BD-50 dual-layer disc contains both 3D and 2D editions of the film, enabling those without a 3D Blu-ray player to enjoy the flat version of this classic thriller. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4, and default audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with interesting techno music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
Talk about a letdown. After reviewing such brilliant Technicolor Hitchcock transfers as 'North by Northwest' and 'To Catch a Thief,' I eagerly anticipated Warner's rendering of 'Dial M for Murder,' especially because of the intriguing 3D factor. The film also had recently undergone an expensive and meticulous restoration, ramping up expectations even further. Yet as soon as the opening studio logo hit the screen, my buoyant sense of excitement quickly turned to confusion and disappointment. Why did the image seem so noisy? Why were edges fuzzy and littered with halos? Why was there no cohesion and consistency in the frame? Any issues I noticed in the 3D version also seemed to show up, albeit to a lesser degree, in the 2D version. What was going on here?
Well, before I publicly lambasted Warner, a studio that prides itself on its accurate reproductions of classic films, I decided to look into the situation further, and soon discovered the real culprit of this visual calamity to be the 3D process itself and the way it forces images to overlap to create a dimensional whole. Such layering produces a slightly soft, highly processed picture that confines true clarity to a very small area of the frame. Modern 3D technology eliminates these imperfections, but back in the 1950s, when the form was in its infancy and Hitchcock, following Jack Warner's edict, reluctantly employed it, such issues were a staple of the format, and they live on in all their glory here, enhanced by the greater resolution of high definition.
As a result, what looks like a thick layer of grain or liberal coating of digital noise seems to saturate the image of 'Dial M for Murder,' but it's really just the effects of heavy processing. Some film grain remains visible, adding welcome warmth and texture, but it's by no means excessive. Medium and long shots tend to be fuzzy and at times murky, with slightly blurred edges and some nagging halos that give the film a gauzy look. Contrast is nicely pitched, however, adding a pleasant vibrancy to the picture.
Colors are bright, too, with Kelly's red dress and blonde tresses providing some welcome pop, and solid black levels augment the aura of foreboding leading up to the murder scene. Fleshtones look natural, background objects come through well, and intricate patterns, such as the one adorning Milland's jacket late in the film, stay stable and resist shimmering.
The 3D imagery is relatively subtle, but the sense of depth Hitchcock achieves is quite good. Items in the foreground exhibit sufficient dimension, and Hitchcock cleverly varies the intensity of the 3D photography, lending the proceedings a more realistic spin. Gimmicky 3D tricks are thankfully absent, though the effect of a desperate Kelly thrusting her arm toward the audience as her assailant strangles her works beautifully and provides a satisfying jolt. Of course, the best instances of 3D are the opening credits, which pop way out into the foreground and display a striking crispness the rest of the visuals lack. At times, however, Milland, Kelly, and Cummings look like cut-out figures superimposed on a processed backdrop, which only serves to take the viewer out of the movie.
This is the first vintage 3D title I've seen in the home environment, and though Warner has done a great job cleaning up the image (no nicks, scratches, or other debris are present) and has restored the movie to its original widescreen aspect ratio (the previous DVD release was pan-and-scan), any remaining imperfections seem magnified. Aside from the flatness of the picture, the 2D version looks much the same, but if given the choice, I would stick with watching this mystery in 3D, which adds vital visual interest to a rather statically filmed stage adaptation.
Bottom line: don't expect sharp, elegant perfection from 'Dial M for Murder.' Though this Blu-ray release probably represents the original film better than any other home video rendering, its inherent watchability level falls far below the standards set by other Hitchcock Blu-ray releases. But then again, no other Hitchcock releases were saddled with 3D. Therein lies the rub, and that's why I'm giving this transfer middle-of-the-road marks instead of a failing grade.
'Dial M for Murder' is a talky drama with long segments of dialogue featuring no underscoring, so there's not a lot to evaluate from an audio standpoint. The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 mono track supplies clear sound that's free of age-related hiss, pops, and crackles, and fidelity is strong when Dimitri Tiomkin's music kicks in. A wide dynamic scale allows the score's dramatic highs and lows plenty of room to breathe, and critical accents, such as the phone mechanisms and key turning, are appropriately crisp and distinct. Dialogue is the main attraction and, thanks to the actors' superior diction and a minimum of competing elements, it's always easy to comprehend.
Most Hitchcock films possess a more complex aural fabric, but 'Dial M for Murder' is straightforward and no-nonsense down the line, and this workmanlike track nicely transmits the little that's there.
Just a couple of extras ported over from the 2004 DVD release are included on the disc, and unfortunately neither of them make any mention whatsoever of 3D. As this movie marked Hitchcock's only foray into the format, it's a shame Warner didn't see fit to produce a new featurette examining the director's relationship with the 3D process and how it influenced and affected his filmmaking.
'Dial M for Murder' doesn't rank among Hitchcock's best films, due to its talky nature and static presentation, but there's still a lot to like about it. The tight, intelligent plot, fine performances by Ray Milland and Grace Kelly, and novelty of the 3D effects make this cat-and-mouse mystery both stimulating and entertaining. While Warner's audio transfer suffices, the video transfer will certainly frustrate fans, and supplements are far too thin for a Hitchcock title. At times, the story gets bogged down in minutia, but it's refreshing to watch a thriller that doesn't have any holes. Though 'Dial M for Murder' can't hold a candle to 'Rear Window' or 'Vertigo,' it still rates a mild recommendation based on the film itself. It is Hitchcock, after all, and mediocre Hitchcock still outclasses the best of other directors time and again.