For my first entry in the Blind Spot Series, I watched Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 film, Dial M for Murder, starring Ray Milland, Grace Kelly, and Robert Cummings. I’ve been on something of a Hitchcock kick lately, with recent viewings of Strangers on a Train, Vertigo, and Kent Jones’s Hitchcock/Truffaut.
This film is definitely what I would call second-tier Hitchcock, which is not to say that it is a bad picture by any means. The movie is adapted from a stage play by Frederick Knott, who I recently learned was also the writer of the play Wait Until Dark, which was made into a fantastic Audrey Hepburn movie in 1967.
It has the unity of action and setting which is characteristic of stage plays. All the scenes except the scenes of the husband at the club are shot in the single set of the couple’s home. Hitchcock described to François Truffaut that although he used “cinematic means to narrate a story taken from a stage play,” he resisted the urge found in many stage adaptations to “open it up” and vary the settings. He viewed that as a mistake, so that “what they get is simply some dull footage that’s been added to the play artificially.
Certainly the claustrophobic set adds to the sense of confinement that both the husband, played by Milland, and the wife, played by Kelly, feel in their marriage. Unfortunately, the score by Dmitri Tiomkin is hit or miss. There’s often too much scoring, when silence might have been more effective. Though some of the music is eerily effective in building tension (and sounds a lot like some later Herrmann scoring), some of it is distractingly cheery, such as when the inspector enters the home to try to set up his trap for the villain.
Again as could be expected from a film adapted from a play, this movie is very dialogue-heavy. Hitchcock’s very best films adhere to his desire to achieve his expression through purely visual means. Curiously, this was Hitchcock’s only 3D film. It seems to me that this had to be a purely historical accident, in that it happened to be released during the height of the 1950s 3D craze. There’s nothing about this particular film that seems to call for 3D treatment, although I’ve been assured from those that have seen it in 3D that the shot of Grace Kelly reaching back toward the viewer to grab the scissors during her attempted murder is quite effective.
The best sequence, for me, is the very brief trial scene, which is filmed in an extremely abstract and subjective manner. Grace Kelly stares stunned at the camera in front of a purple background, shaking her head slightly in response to the offscreen queries of a judge and lawyers. This is a strikingly expressive use of color, prefiguring some of the effects Hitchcock would later use in such films as Vertigo and Marnie. Hitchcock also used color in the wardrobe to indicate Grace Kelly’s journey. As he explained, “I dressed her in very gay and bright colors at the beginning of the picture, and as the plot thickened, her clothes became gradually more somber.”
I absolutely recommend this highly entertaining film. Despite being a lesser entry in the Hitchcock catalog, it is still a great film filled with terrific performances and sure-fire direction from a master filmmaker.
This post is part of the Blind Spot Series, hosted by The Matinee blog.