I can remember the last time I saw a 3D movie to the day. It was Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. The experience was so unpleasant that I never had the urge to see one again. It was murky, washed out, and instantly gave me a headache. So-called action scenes that were incomprehensible in two dimensions were completely unwatchable in three. The screening was free, and it still wasn’t worth it. The only problem with 3D is not the outrageous price. So imagine my surprise when I found myself excited to see a 3D movie. For the first time, the swooshy, in-your-face Dolby DIGITAL 3D logo gave me the jitters in a good way. But this wasn’t some big-budget new release.
It’s easy to forget, with the glut of 3D movies after Avatar, that 3D has been around a lot longer than you’d think. The early 1950s saw the first 3D craze; House of Wax is the best remembered example. But in 1954, Hitchcock made one called Dial M For Murder. By the time it was released, audiences had grown tired of the format, and most theaters showed it flat. Now, in preparation for a 3D BluRay release, Warner Bros. has created a 4K digital restoration. Just to be clear, that’s 4000 vertical lines of resolution, for a nearly 9 megapixel image—4 times as dense as your high definition TV.
It looks downright eerie. Seeing an old-school credits sequence pop out at you is surprising, to say the least. What’s even more unexpected is the almost total lack of in-your-face 3D effects. Nothing jumps out at the audience, and only a handful of times does anything really seem to pop out of the frame.
Dial M is based on a play, and sticks to it pretty strictly. It’s two acts, with an intermission (yes, “Intermission” floats onscreen), almost entirely played on a single set. So it’s a chamber play at heart, and the choice to film it in 3D is a bit of a strange one. Isn’t a 3D film based on a play… basically a play? And if no efforts are made to diversify the settings, what’s being added? It doesn’t seem like much besides Hitchcock’s masterful touch. But seeing a hand moving towards a lock in three dimensions, well, it’s just a lot of fun—and Hitchcock accomplishes this by bringing the camera closer than a play’s audience can ever go. We see the lock, the key, and the hand as if they were our own, focused right in front of us. We see people from mere feet away, as if they were standing across the room from us.
For the first time I’ve seen 3D really do what it was supposed to do. It added depth. And that’s because there was depth to begin with. It starts with a twisty script by the original playwright, Frederick Knott. Another layer is the solid performances by Ray Milland, Grace Kelly, Robert Cummings, John Williams, and Anthony Dawson—the only characters in the film. Then there’s Hitchcock’s unparalleled tension building; no one does it quite the same. In a movie about faces, about lying and scheming, it’s wonderful to see those faces as you would see them in real life.
The movie is interesting in its subject matter, too. Milland, as Tony Wendice, discovers his wife’s affair and plans a perfect murder. He spends a year meticulously plotting it. We learn all this when he explains the plan to Dawson, who plays the would-be-murderer. Grace Kelly is the wife, Cummings, her detective-fiction-writing lover, and Williams, the very British detective. It’s all a little complex, and I won’t try to lay it out here because seeing and hearing Tony explain the whole thing is the best part of the movie, and, really the best use of 3D I’ve ever experienced—and it’s just a guy talking. The rest of the film is comprised of the way his plan falls through, his coverups collapsing on coverups. Until the detective comes in to the film’s final third, you really want Tony to get away with it.
The hope for the success of Tony’s plan is part of what makes Dial M so enjoyable; you get to be right there with an aspiring master criminal, watching his rise and fall. You don’t ache to see Kelly murdered, but she doesn’t do much to illicit sympathy from anyone, so she is a welcome casualty to our entertainment. With Dial M, Hitchcock demonstrates that 3D, is, at its heart, an actor’s medium. It would be silly to suggest that something critical is lost in the flattening of the screen image; for centuries visual stories have been told using only the illusion of depth. It is difficult to say, however, that something cannot be gained by showing the actor’s full performance, in all its degrees and dimensions of movement. The small facial tells of a lie, the way someone pulls back, but only ever so slightly, to cover their surprise.
With all the hubbub about 3D, audiences avoiding it whenever possible, and critics doing their best to turn a blind eye, it’s strange that, used right, it can be really wonderful. Here it’s not just a trick to charge an extra three dollars for a ticket—though it was originally, and still is, a ploy to lure audiences away from the TV. I paid the same $12.50 I always pay at Film Forum. And for the first time, I saw a 3D movie worth every penny.
Dial M for Murder plays March 1st and 8th at Film Forum as part of The Complete Hitchcock.