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Dial M for Murder (Alfred Hitchcock) 1954 


    Most notorious because it was filmed in 3-D, I’ve actually seen Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder twice before (not counting 1998’s Gwenyth Paltrow / Michael Douglas starrer, A Perfect Murder, which was a remake of the film) on television or video without the benefit of its biggest gimmick, so when the opportunity presented itself to see the film in 3-D in a theater, I took up the chance, despite not being the film’s biggest fan. Unfortunately, the razzle-dazzle (which is used mostly to push end tables to the forefront of the frame so that the theatrical roots of the script are exaggerated) does little to boost what is at best a merely adequate Hitchcock thriller. 

    The biggest problem with Dial is that the film’s scope is too small and the level of suspense too low to thoroughly engage the audience for the film’s running time. There are essentially four characters in the film, and only one of them is really that sympathetic. The villain of the piece, Tony Wendice (Ray Milland), seems to be the one that we spend the greatest amount of our time with, so we end up placed in a position, like Psycho where we are basically rooting for the bad guy, since we understand him the most. Unlike Psycho, however, Wendice isn’t wounded in any way that might make his treachery understandable, nor is he particularly clever. He’s simply greedy and uninteresting, and Hitchcock’s typical sadistic desire to manipulate us into rooting for a villain really backfires here. 

    The other characters don’t fare much better. I suppose the heroes of the piece are Mrs. Wendice (Grace Kelly) and her boy toy, Mark (Robert Cummings), but they’re far too doe-eyed and boring to connect with us. Sure they’re pretty, and we would prefer that they triumph over Tony, but that’s about as far as it goes. In fact, one gets the impression that Kelly’s highbred character is slumming when she flirts with her author friend, which makes their hot and heavy exchanges all the more laughable. Luckily, Hitchcock seems to understand what a sad lot of characters these guys are, so after the intermission, he trots out a savior. Brilliantly played by John Williams, Police Inspector Hubbard deflates much of the pretentious twaddle that the film had created up to that point. Far smarter than any of the other characters, his presence is really a breath of fresh air here. It’s unfortunate that the rest of the film is not similarly opened up with his arrival. 

The movie is obviously based on a stage play, and it essentially takes place in one small apartment. Dial surely lacks the technical bravado of Hitchcock’s Rope, though, despite the limited 3-D effects, and the director shows off less than in usual films. As a result much of the director’s sadism feels closer to the surface, since the usual Hitchcock excuse for the ghoulish subject matter (it’s entertainment!) doesn’t seem as applicable here. Worst of all, there’s actually very little mayhem to be found, since the picture is so darn talky. While the film’s distilled minimalism is somewhat admirable in a Zen sort of way, I’d take Hitch’s full-blown set pieces any day over this stuff. 

* * 1/2 

Jeremy Heilman