The films of Alfred Hitchcock, dubbed the Master of Suspense, have thrilled viewers as far back as the silent era. Now, Hitchcock fans have a fresh reason to be excited.
Audiences can experience Dial M for Murder as originally intended — in 3D, but with digitally restored colour and sound — after painstaking work by experts at Warner Brothers Studios. Hitch’s 1954 classic — restored from print versions long faded and marked — is to be released in a new 3D Blu-ray version. But first, the film is heading back to theatres.
The restoration got the star treatment at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival. The screening sold out in just 10 minutes and received rave reviews. It returns to the TIFF Bell Lightbox beginning Oct. 5.
Jesse Wente, head of film programs at TIFF Bell Lightbox, talked to the CBC News about the new restoration, Hitchcock’s minimalist use of 3D and that infamous scissors scene.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Q: Many don’t know that Hitchcock actually filmed Dial M for Murder in 3D. How well does 3D from the 1950s hold up today?
A: Early 3D can be difficult to recreate today, as the style and process of making a vintage 3D movie is different than a modern 3D film. However, in the hands of a master like Hitchcock, one sees the potential of what was at the time a fad. Hitchcock uses the 3D to create a sense of depth, often positioning characters behind objects in the foreground: the spirit bottles in the opening scene for example, with the characters standing behind them, social iconography in front.
Q: Probably the most iconic scene from Dial M involved Grace Kelly and a pair of scissors. Hitchcock devoted a lot of time to that scene. How is it showcased in the restoration?
A: Hitch shows that he could make things jump out of the screen at the audience and upon occasion shifts the convergence point – most notably in the opening credit sequence, where the titles seem to hang in the air over the seats or in the infamous scissors scene, where the end of the scissors suddenly and violently protrude into the audience’s personal space. This scene is certainly the most eye-popping in the restoration.
Q: Hollywood flirted with 3D in the early ‘50s, but it ultimately fizzled. Today, despite some box office successes, several prominent movie critics like Roger Ebert are still disdainful of 3D. What sets the digitally restored Dial M apart?
A: Grace Kelly. And the fact that you’re seeing the technology deployed by one of the greatest filmmakers in history. Hitchcock’s use of 3D – mostly for background and depth perception – is the model for how the best 3D work – even today – is done. By using the tech seemingly sparingly, it makes those moments of intrusion seem all the more jarring and thrilling. To me, Dial M is an example of a commercial technology being put to artistic use. As we’ve seen with films such as Pina [directed by Wim Wenders] and Cave of Forgotten Dreams [directed by Werner Herzog], in the hands of a master filmmaker 3D is no longer a gimmick.
Q: Hitchcock was calculated and reserved with Dial M, even minimalist. How does that type of film fit with our perception of 3D films today, when the technology is usually used in large-scale blockbusters or for shock value?
A: It’s true, 3D films of today tend to populate the screen with imagery in order to fully display the technology involved. For Hitchcock, 3D is a tool used to enrich the themes and experience of the film. The increased depth allows character relationships to be represented spatially: the husband in the foreground, the wife in the centre and the lover in the background – a line-up that is subsequently reversed later in the film.
3D only adds to the emotions Hitchcock is trying to stir, while in many modern films, 3D is the emotion. It’s the 3D itself you’re reacting to, not how it alters the image on screen. Perhaps this is why Hitchcock’s use is so effective: when the detective unveils the hidden key at the end, it looms large, poking out at the audience, wrapping us into the murder. It’s a subtle use of a not-so-subtle technology.
Q: I read that Hitchcock tried to resist the studio’s demand for a 3D movie. Was his heart really in making Dial M as a 3D movie?
A: Hitchcock completely disliked 3D, dismissing it at the time – and rightly so – as a fad. This belief was subsequently proven true when the film was released: produced a year earlier, the 3D craze had already fizzled and the film was shown in 2D, mostly because theatres had already dismantled their 3D set-ups.
Hitch found the large camera cumbersome and restrictive and complained. However, he produced the film in order to satisfy his contract with Warner Brothers. Upon its release, Hitchcock encouraged people to see the 2D version, but there’s no denying the master could have been the greatest of all 3D practitioners.
Q: Did Hitchcock make any other films in 3D? Has there been demand or plans for other Hitchcock films to be re-released or transferred to 3D, for instance a title like North by Northwest, with its exciting scenes?
A: Dial M for Murder is Hitchcock’s only 3D movie and I hope it stays that way. His films require no further embellishment than playing them in a cinema, as they were meant to be seen. One should not tamper with the work of a master.
Following a current engagement at New York's Film Forum (ending Oct. 4), the new 3D restoration of Dial M for Murder returns to TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto beginning Oct. 5.