The Times (05/Aug/1983) - The old broom that knows the corners best
(c) The Times (05/Aug/1983)
- keywords: Alfred Hitchcock, Dial M for Murder (1954), François Truffaut, Frederick Knott, Grace Kelly, John Williams, Ray Milland, Robert Cummings
The old broom that knows the corners best
The week's new films form a distinctly odd couple. Hitchcock's version of Frederick Knott's stage thriller Dial M for Murder - made in 1953, but released for the first time in Britain with its original 3-D effects - is set in a fusty theatrical wonderland, where droll chief inspectors solve fiendish crimes in capacious Maida Vale flats. Runners - the first cinema collaboration between the writer Stephen Poliakoff and the chief director of television's Brideshead Revisited, Charles Sturridge - takes its subject from every week's news story: the runaway child, the anxious searching parent, the spectacle of society crumbling. Yet it is the antique film that vibrates with life: viewed in 3-D, Hitchcock's thriller loses its dust and becomes absorbing, exhilarating entertainment; Runners - brimming with potential, made by fashionable talent - runs a poor, panting second.
The importance of Dial M for Murder lies not only in the perspective effects that restore full life to one of the few films from the Fifties' 3-D craze ever directed by a major figure. For the material itself inhabits a fascinating corner of popular culture. Knott's play, first performed in 1952, seems the Shaftesbury Avenue thriller incarnate. The crime is attempted, bungled, hidden and uncovered with the charming aid of homely minutiae: mat fibres caught on a shoe, the darning in a pair of stockings, latchkeys, staircarpets, a telephone from the days of lettered dials ("Dial 6 for Murder" would be the paltry modern title). Hitchcock's version, made in Hollywood for Warner Brothers, preserves this peculiarly English world in outlandish 3-D aspic. The part of the wife's lover, Halliday, may have been lightly Americanized to suit Robert Cummings, but the rest of the cast make no transatlantic concessions. Ray Milland, the murderous husband, tosses off a reference to the Home Service's Saturday Night Theatre; his wife Grace Kelly reads The Times at breakfast, and pronounces bank as "benk".
For Hitchcock the film merely served to complete his studio contract; "I just did my job", he told François Truffaut. His interest in the material indeed seems to fluctuate. One senses his delight in the wry humour of Chief Inspector Hubbard, who arrives late in Act II, hangs up his hat and stealthily ferrets out the truth. (The part is deliciously played by John Williams, from the Broadway cast, though he never lets us forget that his birthplace was Chalfont St Giles.) Elsewhere, Hitchcock seems principally interested in the bungled attempt on Grace Kelly's life, a sequence which took almost a week to shoot. While she answers the phone, her hired attacker attempts strangulation; during the struggle, scissors are snatched from a wicker mending-basket and end up quivering in the attacker's back.
The scene is lifted directly from the play (Knott himself wrote the screen adaptation), but Hitchcock's clear delight in its cruel irony ensures extra impact. Apart from this upsurge of 3-D Grand Guignol, Dial M for Murder is remarkable for the subtle, even beautiful, use of three-dimensional imagery. While Knott's characters weave their complicated web of infidelity, blackmail and deceit, Hitchcock's camera pursues the actors around armchairs, table lamps; desks and doorways in long, sinuous takes. We seem to be witnessing a half-abstract ballet of objects, people, decor and space, and the effect is hypnotic.