Directed by the most historic of cinema perfectionists, employing what was (at the time) the decaying gimmick of 3D, Dial M for Murder displays the virtues and visual pleasures derived from total control, even as it’s story displays the inherent foolishness of perceived control. Released the same year as Rear Window, which saw Hitchcock relating directly to a crippled peeping tom, Dial M for Murder sees the director envisioning himself as Ray Milland’s Tony Wendice, a retired tennis star who blackmails an old college chum, Charles Swann (Anthony Dawson), into murdering Wendice’s rich, cuckolding wife, Margot (Grace Kelly).
Indeed, the script, adapted by Frederick Knott from his own dinner-theater staple, serves almost entirely as scaffolding for Hitchcock to create a single set (Wendice’s apartment) wherein Tony is allowed to direct the performers in his own plot, the intricate explanation of which is the dialogue’s main focus. The entire first act of the film involves Tony instructing Swann, step by step, movement for movement, how to kill Margot in just the right way as to not get caught.
In the confined environs of the apartment, Tony sees himself as a stage director of sorts, placing perfect absences and minor ordeals to ensure that his plan passes the test with the inevitable inspector, played here wonderfully by John Williams. And while he runs his rehearsal, Hitchcock uses his typically stunning framing and blocking in the apartment to create a gorgeous depth of field, rendered utterly hypnotic when seen in 3D. When the murder is (unsuccessfully) enacted, however, the use of the 3D technology is positively thrilling, from Swann’s careful attempts to put the scarf around Margot’s neck to Margot’s now-famous reach and grasp for the scissors she plunges into Swann’s back.
Framed by Tony for the murder of Swann, who’s painted as the blackmailer who threatened to out her affair with television writer Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings), Kelly’s Margot becomes the central pawn of the manipulative schemes of the three male leads, as surely as many actresses (including Kelly herself) felt Hitchcock was using them. If Tony is given the role of director and Mark the role of writer, Williams’s Inspector Hubbard can be seen as a sort of all-powerful producer, perhaps even a critic, studiously questioning every single facet of what might be called Tony’s production, which is ultimately found lacking.
Made on the cusp of some of Hitchcock’s most liberating works (Vertigo was a mere four years away), Dial M for Murder suggests a trap that the master was fascinated with: taking a script built on unyielding talk and near-unnoticeable movements and transforming it into a knotty imagistic wonder of tremendous visual and personal depth. Ultimately, the film is something of a transitional work in a three-film cycle that also includes Rope and Rear Window—the “apartment trilogy,” if you will. In each of these works, confinement is utilized as a challenging way to explore visual ideas and elements: Rope‘s seemingly uninterrupted single shot mirrors the ostensibly perfect murder at its center, whereas the flourish of voyeuristic intrigue that powers Rear Window suggests an inherent perversity in both the filmmaker and viewer. In conjunction, Dial M for Murder is a pitiless, darkly hilarious act of self-excoriation, obsessed as it is with the mirror image of its creator, a man who not only depends on control for his livelihood, but also perversely sees it as a gateway towards true liberation.
Okay, so there's some truly astounding ringing going on with this AVC/MVC-encoded transfer, which does indeed hamper both the 2D and 3D versions of the film. It's a shame, but it doesn't render the film awkward to watch. The colors, from the yellows and greens of the lamps in the Wendices' apartment to the red of Swann's tie, pop with lushness and clarity. The sense of detail and texture is sharp and occasionally stunning. The black levels and contrast are also excellent. As for the audio, it's similarly imperfect but still levels above the DVD release of the film. Dialogue is presented strongly out front, with Dimitri Tiomkin's score and the soundtrack solidly presented in the mix. A step forward for a film that deserves Criterion-like attention.
The lone featurette afforded here, a short documentary on the making of the film, is informative and fun to watch, but the film calls for quite a lot more discussion, especially considering its frankly breathtaking use of what many consider a disposable technology. Sadly, this featurette is only bundled with a theatrical trailer. A letdown, for sure.
Dial M for Murder may never look quite as impossibly perfect as it does on the big screen, but Warner's suitable, inarguably flawed Blu-ray transfer is by quite some lengths the best it's ever looked on the small screen.