Dial M For Murder is a 1954 suspense film from Alfred Hitchcock. In addition to being his only foray into the world of 3D film, it’s also his first of three films featuring Grace Kelly (the others being Rear Window and To Catch A Thief). The film has been ranked by the AFI in its list of “10 Top 10″ for Mysteries.
Our story revolves around a woman who has been seeing another man behind her husband’s back. Retired tennis pro Tony (Ray Milliand) discovered, about a year ago, a love letter to his wife Margot (Grace Kelly) from her long-distance lover Mark (Robert Cummings), a novelist living in New York. Come to find out that ever since that discovery, Tony has been planning to have her killed, but always acting as if he doesn’t suspect a thing. Mark is coming into town for business, and so the trio convene and put on airs as if nothing at all is going on between all of them. Little do the adulterous couple know that Tony is actually planning on using Mark’s visit as part of his alibi, and that his planned murder of Margot is imminent.
Tony has decided that the actual deed should be done by someone else (naturally) and so he schemes to blackmail an ex-university acquaintance who has fallen on hard times – and some shady business of his own – to carry out the act. After a drawn-out blackmail session, this ne’er-do-well grudgingly agrees, but when it comes time for the murder, he botches it badly and actually ends up being the one killed. This of course upsets Tony’s plan considerably, and now he is trying to cover up this new murder without the details of his own plan seeing the light of day.
Dial M For Murder is a bit of a mixed bag. It’s a serviceable one-room suspense drama, but it comes up lacking in the mystery department, as there really isn’t much of one. And especially when compared to Hitchcock’s other films from that period, it’s sort of the weak sister. But remember, we are talking about Hitchcock, and a slow Hitchcock film is still a pretty decent escape. He still manages to squeeze some suspense out of the closed quarters and dialogue-focused proceedings. But let’s briefly explore why this one just doesn’t quite stand up to his other work from that time.
The first issue with the film is that there really isn’t a likable person to be found. The best we can do is Grace Kelly’s character, who is having an affair with a bland, vanilla writer from New York named Mark. Hooray for infidelity! How does she justify their continued tryst? Because “Tony has changed.” Well, yeah he has; but so has she, in that she’s sort of sleeping around. (As an aside, the more general idea that the lovely Grace Kelly would need to slum it with either of these clowns is what actually stretches credulity to the breaking point. But I digress.) And obviously Tony’s no saint either, since behind his debonair front he’s plotting to have his wife murdered. And this isn’t a rash, heat-of-the-moment thing either; he’s been planning it for quite some time.
But Hitchcock is often playing around with infidelity and unlikable characters. No, a larger issue is that there just really isn’t much action here, and even less mystery. The biggest moment of suspense comes from trying to hide a door key on the stairwell. We spend most of the movie just waiting for the bad guy to get caught, and all of the various drawn-out conversations simply pad the time leading up to that inevitable outcome. That may not sound like it could ever be terribly exciting, but in Rope it actually was. So what makes this one different? On top of the fact that we don’t really care about any of these people, the murder and its cleanup occur quite early on, and then we’re just stuck with verbal sparring and theorizing. At least in Rope there was a dead body right there in the room whose discovery could at any moment blow the whole thing. Tension! But here? Eh, some tension… I guess. It’s more about if someone’s lying can outlast a couple of “it just doesn’t feel right” vague theories.
I’m mainly critical because Hitchcock’s films should ultimately be held up to his other work, which in the 1950s basically saw him at his peak. Dial M For Murder is better than most of his work from the 1930s, and some of his 1940s efforts, but by the ’50s it felt like a regression; a nice bit of escapism, and a better-than-average 3D outing. It’s possible he gambled on the one-room drama specifically for its limited setting in order to simply experiment with 3D filming. Regardless, it survives primarily on the strength of its main lead performances by Ray Milland and Grace Kelly. Milland in particular gives an extraordinary performance as yet another Hitchcock villain whose charisma helps to mask the fact that he’s an ice-cold sociopath.
Video / 3D
First, the good news. The use of 3D in the film is understated but effective, lending a nice extra layer of depth to most scenes. Some of the scenes aren’t that much enhanced from their 2D counterparts, but on the whole the film benefits and the 3D is very naturally presented, never showing a cookie-cuter diorama effect. The 3D version is slightly darker, however, as if the picture didn’t fully compensate for the light tinting of most 3D glasses. It’s not a huge adjustment, however, and with that knowledge should be easy to adjust your viewing conditions accordingly.
Now the less encouraging news: this is simply an underwhelming image. By all accounts, the print never really looked spectacular, and the problems shown here seem to be inherent to other transfers as well. There is considerable haloing in several of the scenes, most noticeable around character’s faces, with light ghosting in a couple as well. Most of the time these are brief occurrences, it’s just the number of them that continue to draw attention. And although colors are generally strong throughout, detail is very hit and miss. This looks to be a more or less faithful presentation – and even upgrade – of the image, but it is one that may never be trouble-free, and it’s difficult to not be disappointed when compared to so many other strong transfers from that era, including other Hitchcock films.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track is largely successful. Dialogue is very clear and there are no dropouts or other issues to report. Its only potential weakness is that the music score often feels constrained. Not to the point of distortion, but simply because some of its more bombastic music cues come across as a bit stifled and boxed in. But overall the soundtrack delivers respectably.
Both the 2D and 3D versions of the film are housed on the release’s single disc, so perhaps there wasn’t much room for extras, although two are included. The first is a retrospective on the film entitled “Hitchcock and Dial M” (SD, 21:37) which features some of the usual Hitch commentators remarking on the story, as well as the film’s impact. Also, the theatrical trailer (SD, 2:38) is included.
Dial M For Murder is lesser Hitchcock, although still entertaining. And actually, the 3D does help it out a little. It has a certain double-bill feel to it, especially when compared to almost everything else he did during the 1950s. Two compelling lead performances rescue it from being forgettable, although they also struggle to cater the audience’s favor. The Blu-ray itself does what it can with what seems to be a troubled source image, but unfortunately it just can’t make it a stunner.