The notion of a motion picture in three dimensions has been around since the birth of cinema. The early pioneers of film, curiously fascinated with the capabilities of the medium, experimented with 3D at the turn of the century.
The 1950s proved that 3D could be commercially viable; film attendance was on a decline, primarily because of television, therefore studios experimented with wider formats and 3D as a way of drawing audiences in to their theatres. This promised audiences an experience that couldn’t be replicated outside of the theatre. In 1953, studios released a number of films in 3D, capitalizing on the sudden craze.
Alfred Hitchcock’s first and only film conceived and filmed in 3D, Dial M for Murder (1954), was filmed in the summer of 1953, when 3D was at its peak. The studio, however, delayed its release as Frederick Knott’s play, from which the film was adapted, concluded its run.
In May 1954, when Dial M for Murder was finally released, audiences and studios had lost interest in 3D. The film eventually opened in 2D and most audiences saw the film in its flat format. Alfred Hitchcock would later comment on 3D by saying, “It’s a nine-day wonder, and I came in on the ninth day.”
Dial M for Murder was eventually overshadowed by Rear Window (1954), arguably one of the director’s greatest achievements, which was released a few months later. Dial M for Murder is now remembered for its experimentation with 3D and its inventive use of space.
The film was photographed by Robert Burks using the Natural Vision 3D camera process that was developed by Milton Lowell Gunzburg. This was a 3D camera rig that was used on a number of 3D films during this time period.
Dial M for Murder became a visual exercise for the director; he experimented with style and technique, using a camera that Grace Kelly described as being “the size of a room,” and added a cinematic touch to the theatrical quality of the film.
The majority of the action in Dial M for Murder place within a single location, as characters perform in long, unbroken takes. There is even an “Intermission” between the two acts. Tony (Ray Milland) asks that Margot (Grace Kelly) call him during the intermission of their show; later, we have our own intermission after she has successfully killed Captain Lesgate (Anthony Dawson). The film, however theatrical in this regard, is made cinematic in its exploration of space and its use of 3D.
Alfred Hitchcock had previously experimented with narratives that confined its audience in a single location, with films such Lifeboat (1944) and Rope (1948). In Dial M for Murder, he sets his film in a London apartment, focusing on the complex relationship of a husband and wife. The opening scene of the film is of Tony and Margot, husband and wife, kissing. The wife then lifts her eyes off her paper and cautiously scans her husband’s face, as she discovers her lover, Mark (Robert Cummings) has arrived into town. The following image is of Margot and Mark embracing. These images contrast one another and speak to the narrative of the film; both are set within the space of the home. In three shots, the director suggests that this space, their family home, will become the arena for marital conflict.
David Bordwell has observed that only five minutes or about 6% of the entire film take place in locations outside of the house. The film essentially focuses on three key events within this space. The planning of the Margot’s murder, which is orchestrated by her husband, Tony; the murder attempt itself; and the aftermath, where character’s repeatedly reenact their interpretation of the events.
The floor plan of the home becomes a crucial element to the narrative of the film. In our diagram, we broke down the scene where Tony choreographs his wife’s murder in extensive detail with Captain Lesgate. In this “planning” scene, we are offered a tour of the house from high angle shots. It’s in this scene that we discover firsthand how calculated and precise Tony is with his plan; that is, except for the one crucial element that eventually gives him away.
Tony offers a walkthrough of the entire home, showing how Captain Lesgate will use each part of the home during the murder. The process of the murder is more exciting than the murder itself. Tony has planned every detail of his plan in advance, and hearing this information for the first time is shocking and engaging. The murder itself takes place in the dark. Captain Lesgate fails horribly and is killed. Tony’s plan fails, and we don’t see his perfect plan come together, therefore his extensive walkthrough is a thrill on its own.
Dial M for Murder explores the interior spaces of the home; whereas architecture is often the backdrop of films that deal with single locations, the focus here is on interior architecture. In working with a widescreen format, compositions are balanced with various items from the home; lamps and chairs are placed in the foreground, emphasizing the image as a three dimensional one. The camera occasionally scans the interior space of the home, spinning across household items, and settling between them as a way of separating the frame.
In addition, space is used in a number of inventive ways, particularly with the use of high angle and low angle shots. The high angle shots throughout the film show off the design of the set, whereas the low angles shots – were achieved by having a section of the floor dug for the camera – offer a distinctive look at the surrounding space.
The living room is where the murder takes place, but there are architectural clues and interior design elements that become essential to the organization of Tony’s plan. The space of the home itself assists (or rather, is meant to assist) in the murder. The key, which serves as Captain Lesgate’s entry into the house, is hidden under the fifth stair. Captain Lesgate hides behind the curtains before his attack. In this sense, the interior space and interior architecture of the home play a significant role in the choreography of the murder. Tony and Captain Lesgate use the space of the home as a way of executing their plan.
In addition, different parts of the home are made more significant as we constantly refer to them. Tony’s desk, for instance, becomes much more noteworthy over the course of the film. It’s where Tony keeps his bank records, which eventually influences Captain Lesgate in agreeing. In the course of the film, however, the desk is used in a number of ways. Tony hides a stocking on the desk, as a way of connecting his wife to the murder; later, Tony’s bank records then incriminate him in the crime after Chief Inspector Hubbard (John Williams) notes inconsistencies with his finances. In this sense, we can see how various parts of the home play a significant role, and how their roles evolve over the course of the film. This also provides us with an understanding of how inanimate objects in the film, such as the telephone, key, latch and stocking, become characters in and of themselves.