Dial ‘E’ for Excitement as a little seen Alfred Hitchcock classic returns to UK screens, digitally restored and for the first time in 3D as it was originally intended. 3D movies were the big craze of the early 50′s. Revived as a ploy to lure audiences back from their newly invented television sets, 3D movies proved so immensely popular that studio head Jack Warner ordered contract director Hitchcock to shoot his new project, Frederick Knott’s Broadway smash thriller Dial M for Murder, stereoscopically.
The movie tales the story of a spoilt but broke playboy Tom Wendice (Milland) who weds wealthy Margot (Kelly) but when his callous behavior sends his wife seeking solace in her arms of another man (Cummings). Tony plots to bump off Margot to keep him in spats & Martini’s and blackmails an unsavory, Penny-dreadful acquaintance, Captain Lesgate (Anthony Dawson), to do the dirty deed. As with Hitchcock, nothing goes according to plan and the result is one of his most mischievous and visually ingenious movies in his oeuvre.
Although Hitchcock himself wrote Dial M for Murder off as a standard contract job, he, nevertheless transformed Knott’s medium-fusty stage whodunit into a devilishly playful psychological thriller by keeping to it’s stage origins and restricting the action mostly to a single setting, accentuating the limited space by using tight angles and lenses, making it feel claustrophobic . This artistic decision may of been forced upon him because 3D cameras of that time were even more cumbersome as IMAX cameras are today, he joked that they were ‘as big as a star’s dressing room’.
You’d assume that because this movie came out at the fag end of Hollywood’s the first big wave of 3D movies that the 3D in this movie would look kitsch or overwrought but Hitchcock was a stock above most. Whilst his peers approach to 3D was to treat it as cynically as a sideshow gimmick, Hitchcock instead employs 3D to emphasize visual depth, making the audience feel like they are in the room too, so much so that foreground tea tables are so close they could all but clonk your knees. This approach to 3D photography was taken up more than fifty years later by James Cameron when shooting his 3D epic Avatar.
Hitchcock also found canny way to use colour for psychological subtext. As revealed in his famous interviews with French New Wave director & Hitchcock fanboy Francois Truffault, Hitchcock recalled: ‘We dressed Grace Kelly in very gay and bright colours at the beginning of the picture, and as the plot thickened, her clothes became gradually more somber”.
Seen mostly in its flat version at the time of its release, where you can still see evidence of Hitchcock’s subtle maneuvers through space in such scenes as one that uses scissors to shocking effect, it’s a rare treat to see a cinematic master going out of his comfort zone and producing a work as wonderfully inventive, fun and chilling as this.