New York

Alfred Hitchcock

8th Street Playhouse

The comically brief 3-D or stereo movie cycle was launched in late 1952 and peaked that summer. The craze was long over by the time Alfred Hitchcock finished his stereoscopic opus, Dial M For Murder, 1954, and the film was released flat. Belatedly, the original version has premiered at a lower Manhattan revival theater as part of a pre-holographic, film-as-installation 3D retrospective.

Taken from a hit Broadway play, Dial M is a genteel thriller. Ex-Wimbledon champion Ray Milland decides to do away with Grace Kelly, his wealthy, unfaithful wife, and blackmails an old schoolmate, Anthony Dawson, to do the job. Kelly unexpectedly dispatches her attacker with a pair of scissors; Milland shifts gears to have her framed. (“Ingenious and almost entertaining,” Pauline Kael called it.) A good 90 percent of the action is confined to the incongruously cramped and dowdy Milland-Kelly living room. Hitchcock made no attempt to open the piece up—his strategy being to chamberize and underplay the stereo effects.

Other 3-D productions assaulted audiences with hurtling tomahawks or Jane Russell’s bosom; Hitchcock recedes his actors behind the Chippendales. His foreground is a fussy clutter of monumentalized bric-a-brac—tea cups, tennis trophies, jade Buddhas—in which a Victorian stereopticon wouldn’t seem out of place. With this visual obstacle course-cum-vortex to suck the viewer in, the lone use of the proscenium-breaking projectile effect is reserved for the murder sequence. As she’s being throttled, Grace Kelly pelts the camera with one shapely, supplicating arm.

Such canny restraint allows the stereo image to assert its own characteristics. (Given Hitchcock’s willingness to let the format dramatize itself, my suspicion is that those most excited by the film’s spacial metaphysics haven’t seen much 3-D recently.) Negative space is recorded on film to the same degree as positive, so 3-D “emptiness” has a tangible, almost viscous quality, as though the world were set inside an aquarium. (Jack Arnold made dialectical use of this in his 1954 Creature From the Black Lagoon, a 3-D film with extensive underwater sequences.) Moreover, 3-D depth is a startlingly unnatural succession of paper thin, pop-out card surfaces. With his deep, angular compositions, rigorous use of single-point perspective, and knack for cutting on volume, Yasujiro Ozu would’ve been a superb stereo filmmaker.

Hitchcock’s major discovery is that the pronounced sense of separation between the planes of the 3-D image increases in inverse proportion to the busyness of the composition. Unlike those of conventional films, 3-D close-ups are less claustrophobic than middle-shots. This paradox is exploited best in the plotting-the-murder scene. A series of looming reverse-angle close-ups expand the cramped set to Grand Canyon dimensions, with Milland and Dawson drawling at each other across a cosmic void. Having distended space like an accordion, Hitchcock snaps it back with a miniaturizing overhead shot to map out the crime in aerial relief.

However, after the killing (a typically kinky montage of jutting, boxy forms that supposedly took a week to shoot) Hitchcock runs out of ideas. The film’s last half is 45 minutes of sullen crosscutting between the overstuffed living room and the clean diagonals of the outside stairwell where the proof of Kelly’s innocence is stashed. Ultimately, Hitchcock’s problem is the same as his solution. The set which serves to concentrate one’s attention also prevents him from opening up any really deep space or choreographing much movement. When the camera dollies back a bit to smack your eye with an enormous, suddenly disclosed plateau, you’re as stunned by unused possibilities as you are by the coffee table.

J. Hoberman