Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 suspense film Dial M for Murder presents a textbook case for why 3-D movies failed to catch fire in the 1950s and then again failed again to catch fire during a brief resurgence in the 1980s and has failed to become the primary means by which audiences view films even with the technological revolution of 3-D projection in the 21st century. Lying at the heart of the failure of 3-D glasses to become standard equipment for enjoying movies of all types is a paradox. Standing on one side of that paradox in the 1950s surrounded by a huge crowd were movies like Bwana Devil. On the other side, standing almost alone, were movies like Dial M for Murder. And the paradox? If a movie was any good, it certainly didn’t need a gimmick requiring the discomfort of wearing 3-D glasses to find an audience.
Dial M for Murder proved to fit into that category; a category it shared pretty much by itself with Creature from the Black Lagoon. Proof that the film turned out at least to be critically respected enough to standup to the test of whether it belonged more in the category of those movies needing 3-D is offered in the form of its barely sneaking into the top half of the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 most thrilling American movies of the first century of filmmaking; ahead of films that filled out the bottom 50 of that list that range from All the President’s Men to Halloween to The Poseidon Adventure.
Although Dial M for Murder represents Alfred Hitchcock’s only experiment with 3-D technology, the truth is that only a fractional percent of those who have seen the film have actually enjoyed the illusion of all three dimensions. As Hitchcock himself put it, 3-D was a nine day wonder and he got there on the ninth day. As a result the collapse of interest in seeing 3-D movies by audiences and the growing resistance of theater owners to accept movies requiring the glasses, by the time Dial M for Murder hit screens, it was released in the standard 2-D version. Another indication that it really didn’t even need to be shot in 3-D in the first place is that the film was a hit. Not one of Hitchock’s biggest blockbusters, to be sure, but the failure on that part was much more likely due to content than the lack of 3-D.
The means by which the content of Dial M for Murder contributed to its not being one Hitchcock’s biggest commercial hits may also be due to a certain paradox. The paradox? This is a movie in which a tennis player is a major character, but not only is the film lacking any scenes of a tennis game taking place (a common motif running throughout Hitchcock’s films) but it is essentially a filmed version of the stage play on which it is based. Like Rope and Lifeboat, Dial M for Murder is another one of Hitchcock’s fascinations with claustrophobic settings. The severe confines within which the story plays out almost certainly must have been the driving force behind why Hitchcock ultimately decided to show up at the nine-day 3-D party on its final day. What better way to enhance the experience of making a movie based on a stage play confined to a single set than to try out the latest in technological gimmickry?
So, ultimately, after all the problems involved in trying to adjust the clunky 3-D filming process to fit a style that Hitchcock had pretty much perfected for his own purposes by the early 1950s, what audiences were left when they showed up at theaters was a 2-D movie with oddly out-of-joint 3-D effects about a former tennis pro whose resentment toward his wife for making him give up what he loved explodes into violent jealously after she compounds that misstep by taking on a lover.