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Film History (2004) - Dial M for Murder




Most critics have accepted Alfred Hitchcock's own dismissal of Dial M for Murder as a run for cover -- a safe, conventional film-of-the-play about which little need be said one way or the other. Here, Hall describes the effects of 3-D cinematography on the narrative of Frederick Knott's original play in terms of distancing the spectator from the action. He claims that Hitchcock's placement of props between the camera and the actors produces a contemplative distance between camera and action.

This article presents information about the motion picture "Dial M for Murder," directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Depending on one's attitude to 3-D films, Dial M for Murder offers either the most or the least rewarding use of the process of any film of its period. Obvious, gimmicky visual effects for show or shock value is rigorously avoided; yet there is considerable use of multi-plane space for composition in depth. In particular, the placement of objects or furniture in the immediate foreground obtrusively calls attention to the space around and between the actors, and between the actors and the camera. Such obtrusiveness, though not of the vulgar kind so enjoyably and knowingly exploited by House of Wax, has the effect of emphasizing the space of the action itself, and certain details of the mise-en-scene, which do, occasionally, protrude from the screen. Ultimately, it introduces an imaginative distance from all the film's characters in favor of an awareness of the plot, and the whole film, as a mechanism for the production of suspense.


Most critics have accepted Alfred Hitchcock's own dismissal of Dial M for Murder (1954) as a 'run for cover': a safe, conventional film-of-the-play about which little need be said one way or the other. It receives cursory treatment in most book-length accounts of Hitchcock's oeuvre, meriting only a page, for example, in Raymond Durgnat's The Strange case of Alfred Hitchcock (London: Faber and Faber, 1974), the shortest chapter Durgnat devotes to any feature film made after 1940. It has figured otherwise only in discussion of its two most commonly noted features: the relatively discreet use of 3-D, and its remarkably faithful adaptation (screenplay by the original author) of Frederick Knott's stage play.'

Audiences, however, have tended to concur with François Truffaut's defence of the film to its indifferent director: 1I enjoy it more every time I see it'.2 Coming at the end of a period which generally marked a slump in Hitchcock's commercial fortunes, it proved his most popular film since Notorious (1946), with US and Canadian rentals of $2.7 million: half a million more than its nearest competitors, though the total still represents only half the business subsequently achieved by Rear Window (also released in 1954).3 On the two occasions on which I've seen the film with a paying audience, it has each time been received with spontaneous applause at the finish, with other audible responses throughout insofar as one can tell from these things - suggesting consistent and considerable enjoyment (a reaction I share, and a common one in my experience).

I don't want to claim for Dial M for Murder the distinction of unrecognised masterpiece, or to uncover a hitherto neglected major work; relative to Hitchcock's other achievements in this period - it is bracketed on either side by / Confess (1953) and Rear Window - it remains of minor interest. But unlike some of Hitchcock's more ambitious projects, it is, within its own self-imposed limits, almost entirely successful. If, as he himself noted, it simply uses 'cinematic means to tell a story taken from a stage play' (Hitchcock, p. 213), the film offers an unusually pure example of Hitchcock's narrational stategies: the broad fidelity to Frederick Knott's original text permits a very clear view of precisely what its director added or changed, and of the specifically cinematic methods used to shape dramatic emphasis and guide the spectator's attention. (For a detailed account of the differences, in incident, dialogue, tone and even theme, between play and film, see Bordonaro. My own account is concerned more specifically with the 'mechanics' of Hitchcock's film in a stylistic sense, but Peter Bordonaro's article is an essential reference for anyone interested in the film. He suggests that it is centrally concerned, unlike the play, with sexual jealousy rather than monetary gain as Tony's principal motive for attempted murder.)

The film's undisguised theatricality, its refusal to Open out' the drama beyond the boundaries of the play's single set (apart from a very few, brief inserts: mostly minor, but one or two highly significant), has often been taken as proof of Hitchcock's laziness or lack of ambition on this occasion. As one of his periodic attempts to explore the possibilities of a deliberately delimited setting, Dial M for Murder belongs with Lifeboat (1944), Rope (1948) and Rear Window. The use of 3-D also places it with the last two films as a technical 'stunt', the multiplane process being its equivalent for their sustained exploitation of, respectively, the long take and point-of-view editing. Hitchcock's comment, à propos Dial M, that 'I could just as well have shot the whole film in a telephone booth' (Hitchcock, p. 213) might apply equally to all these films, supporting Hitchcock's view that a confined space can be as 'cinematic' as an expansive one.4 A number of commentators have also noted the similarities between the central situations of Dial M for Murder and Strangers on a Train (1951): they both concern a tennis player with an inconvenient wife, whose murder is to be executed by a disinterested third party. As Knott's play appeared the year after the release of Strangers, it's not impossible that he was directly influenced by it.

View Image - Fig. 1. A poster advertising a rare 3-D screening of Dial M for Murder [SabuCat Productions].

Knott's play

The play itself had a more chequered history prior to Hitchcock's acquisition of the property than one might have supposed. Written for the stage, the script was rejected by all the London theatre managements to which its author submitted it. As a last resort, Knott sent the play to the Drama Department of BBC Television, which produced it in March 1952, as a live studio broadcast (re-enacted within the week for a second performance, as videotape was not yet available and no kinesc...

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