Alfred Hitchcock directs Dial M for Murder, 1953.
When discussing the film (officially his 45th) in François Truffaut’s A Definitive Study of Alfred Hitchcock — a book-length transcription of 50 hours of conversation between the directors — Hitchcock said the picture was an example of him “coasting, playing it safe.” In the book they’re done with the film within three pages: “There isn’t very much we can say about that one, is there?” I disagree. Dial M for Murder has a romping plot, a gloriously slimy villain and — thanks to the fact that (as in Rope before and Rear Window after) the action is mostly constrained to one room — some of the weirdest, tricksiest camera work of Hitchcock’s career. —My favourite Hitchcock: Dial M for Murder by Henry Barnes
François Truffaut: Now, we come to 1953, the year in which you made Dial M for Murder.
Alfred Hitchcock: There isn’t very much we can say about that one, is there?
FT: I’m not so sure about that. Would you say this picture was made because it happened to be convenient?
AH: I was running for cover again. I had a contract with Warner’s at the time and was working on a scenario called The Bramble Bush. It was the story of a man who stole another man’s passport without knowing that the passport owner was wanted for murder. I worked on that for a while, but it wasn’t any good. Just then I found out that Warner’s had bought the rights to the Broadway stage hit Dial M for Murder. I immediately said I’d take it because that was coasting, playing it safe.
FT: It was filmed very quickly, wasn’t it?
AH: In thirty-six days.
FT: An interesting aspect is that the picture was shot in 3-D. In France, unfortunately, we only saw the flat version because the theater managers were too lazy to make the necessary arrangements for the distribution of Polaroid spectacles to the audiences.
AH: The impression of relief was especially in the low-angle shots. I had them make a pit so that the camera could be at floor level. Aside from that there were very few effects directly in relief.
FT: Among the objects projected in depthwere a lamp, a flower vase, and particularly the scissors.
AH: Yes, when Grace Kelly is looking for a weapon to defend herself. There was another shot of the keyhole and that’s all.
FT: Was the picture very faithful to the play?
AH: Yes. I’ve got a theory on the way they make pictures based on stage plays; they did it with silent pictures, too. Many filmmakers would take a stage play and say, ”I’m going to make this into a film.” Then they would begin to “open it up.” In other words, on the stage it was all confined to one set, and the idea was to do something that would take it away from the confined stage setting.
FT: In France we call that “ventilating the play.”
AH: Well, that whole operation boils down to very little. Let’s say that in the play one of the characters arrives in a cab. In the film they will show the arrival of the cab, the person getting out and paying the driver, coming up the stairs, knocking at the door and then coming into the room, and this serves to introduce the long scene that takes place in the room. Sometimes, if a stage character has mentioned something about a trip, the film will show the journey in a flashback. This technique overlooks the fact that the basic quality of any play is precisely its confinement within the proscenium.
FT: As a matter of fact, that concentration is the most difficult thing to work out in a stage dramatization. And more often than not in the process of being transposed to the screen, the dramatic effectiveness of a play will be dissipated.
AH: Well, this is where the filmmakers often go wrong, and what they get is simply some dull footage that’s been added to the play artificially. Whereas in Dial M for Murder, I did my best to avoid going outside. It happened only two or three times, when the inspector had to verify something, and then, very briefly. I even had the floor made of real tiles so as to get the sound of the footsteps. In other words, what I did was to emphasize the theatrical aspects.
FT: The effort at stage realism was even apparent in the soundtrack, which was far superior to Juno and the Paycock and to Rope.
FT: And this would also explain vvhy the trial was shown simply through a series of closeups on Grace Kelly’s face against a natural background and with color light revolving behind her, rather than to show the whole courtroom.
AH: This way was more intimate, you see, so that the unity of emotion was maintained. If I’d had a courtroom built, people would have started to cough restlessly, thinking, “they’re starting a second picture.” We did an interesting color experiment with Grace Kelly’s clothing. I dressed her in very gay and bright colors at the beginning of the picture, and as the plot thickened, her clothes be came gradually more somber.
FT: Before dropping Dial M for Murder, and particularly since we’ve discussed it as a minor effort, I should mention that this is one of the pictures I see over and over again. I enjoy it more every time I see it. Basically, it’s a dialogue picture, but the cutting, the rhythm, and the direction of the players are so polished that one listens to each sentence religiously. It isn’t all that easy to command the audience’s undivided attention for a continuous dialogue. I suspect that here again the real achievement is that something very difficult has been carried out in a way that makes it seem quite easy. And speaking of facility, I’m aware that it’s easier to reply to criticism than to praise, but just the same, I would appreciate your comments.
AH: I just did my job, using cinematic means to narrate a story taken from a stage play. All of the action in Dial M for Murder takes place in a living room, but that doesn’t matter. I could just as well have shot the whole film in a telephone booth. Let’s imagine there’s a couple in that booth. Their hands are touching, their lips meet, and accidentally one of them leans against the receiver, knocking it off the hook. Now, while they’re unaware of it, the phone operator can listen in on their intimate conversation. The drama has taken a step forward. For the audience, looking at the images, it should be the same as reaqing the opening paragraphs of a novel or hearing the expositional dialogue of the stage play. You might say that a filmmaker can use a telephone booth pretty much in the same way a novelist uses a blank piece of paper.
The screenplay and the stage play on which it was based were both written by English playwright Frederick Knott, whose work often focused on women who innocently become the potential victims of sinister plots. The play premiered in 1952 on BBC television, before being performed on the stage in the same year in London’s West End in June, and then New York’s Broadway in October. [x]
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