Alfred Hitchcock's many dimensions

Review: The master moviemaker didn't need the 1950s gimmick of 3-D, but he made good use of it anyway.

June 09, 2000|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

"Dial M For Murder," which opens tonight at the Charles, may be the most understated 3-D film ever made. That's why watching it is such a delight.

Legend has it that Alfred Hitchcock had little desire to work on the 1954 film adaptation of Frederick Knott's play, but ended up directing it because he had a contractual obligation to Warner Bros., and because it gave him another opportunity to work with his leading lady du jour, the luminous Grace Kelly. In fact, "Dial M" was filmed in 3-D only because studio boss Jack Warner was intrigued by the process -a momentary rage in the annals of film history -and figured it would bring in extra money.

But Hitchcock, whose visual sense remains unmatched in the cinema, surely must have relished the challenge to use 3-D for something more than simply having his actors throw things that would appear to land in the audience's laps.

Certainly, there's nothing about "Dial M" that would seem to call for a third dimension. It's a relatively straightforward story: Wealthy socialite Margot Wendice (Kelly) is married to a washed-up tennis player Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) and is having an affair with American mystery writer Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings). When Mr. Wendice finds out, he blackmails an old high-school acquaintance to murder Mrs. Wendice. But when she manages to kill her attacker, the resourceful Mr. Wendice frames her for murder, making it appear that she was the aggressor.

Seen flat - that is without the 3-D effects - "Dial M" is notable only for its lack of splash. Save for the attack on Kelly's character, and a nifty little sequence in which Hitchcock heightens the suspense of a key telephone call by tracking its path through the phone lines, it's stage bound, rarely leaving the confines of the Wendice apartment. The effect is akin to watching a stage play from a particularly good seat - enjoyable enough, but not what we go to the movies to experience.

But seen as the film was intended to be shown, it becomes clear what Hitchcock was trying to do. The master was too proud a stylist to simply use 3-D as a way to goose a reaction from the audience. So he uses it to add a marvelous sense of depth to the film, always placing objects - chairs, flowers, wine bottles, open doors - in the foreground. It's an ingenious way of opening up a story, one that heightens the audience's sense of being in the same room as the Wendices.

For the voyeuristic Hitchcock, such an opportunity was not to be passed up. That same year, he would direct "Rear Window," which turned his audiences into a bunch of peeping Toms. Together, his two 1954 films constitute Hitchcock's clearest statement on how movies make voyeurs of us all.

Not that Hitchcock eschewed the more traditional 3-D effects altogether; they show up twice, and convincingly draw the audience into his film. Near the end, the police inspector handling the case (a marvelously wry John Williams) hands over a key piece of evidence, and his outstretched hand hovers directly in front of your face.

More dramatic, however, is the attack on Mrs. Wendice. As a stocking is wrapped around her throat, she falls backward and extends her hand, grasping desperately for something to save herself. The clear intention is for audiences to reach out and grab her hand and pull her from danger. It's not only one of the most spectacular moments ever caught on 3-D film, it's also one of the most affecting, as audiences, for a moment, feel as desperate as she does.

There's nothing we can do - except sit back and let a master film director show how even the most gimmicky film technique can be used in service of a story, not instead of one.

"Dial M For Murder"

Starring Grace Kelly, Ray Milland and Robert Cummings

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Released by Warner Bros.

Running time 105 minutes

Rated PG (a stabbing)

Sun score * * *

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