Blu-ray Review: Dial M for Murder

Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Warner Brothers

Release Date: October 09, 2012

 Region: Region Free

Length: 1:45:24

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: English DTS-HD Mono Master Audio (48kHz, 24-bit)

Alternate Audio:  

French Mono: Dolby Digital

German Mono: Dolby Digital

Italian Mono: Dolby Digital

Spanish Mono: Dolby Digital

Portuguese Mono: Dolby Digital

Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese, German SDH, Dutch, Italian SDH

Ratio: 1.78:1

Bitrate: 29.92 Mbps

Notes: This title is available in a DVD edition that contains a “flat” version of the film in the 1.33:1 ratio. Luckily, this version isn’t cropped. They simply unmated the top and bottom portions of the frame.

Title Screenshot

“I was running for cover. When your batteries run dry, when you are out creatively, and you have to go on, that’s what I call running for cover. Take a comparatively successful play that requires no great creative effort on your part and make it. Keep your hand in, that’s all. When you’re in this business, don’t make anything unless it looks like it’s going to promise something. If you have to make a film — as I was under contract to Warners at the time — play safe. Go get a play and make an average movie — photographs of people talking. It’s ordinary craftsmanship. But there is another interesting facet about the photographed stage play. Some people make the mistake, I think, of trying to open the play up for the screen. That’s a big mistake. I think the whole conception of a play is confinement within the proscenium — and that’s what the author uses dramatically. Now you are undoing a newly-knitted sweater. Pull it apart and you have nothing. In Dial M, I made sure that I would go outside as little as possible. I had a real tile floor laid down, the crack under the door, the shadow of the feet, all part of the stage play and I made sure I didn’t lose that. Otherwise, if you go outside, what do you end up with? A taxi arrives outside, the door opens, and they get out and go in.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Interview with Peter Bogdanovich, 1963)

Dial ‘M’ For Murder was a smart career choice for Alfred Hitchcock. He needed a fast hit after the commercial failure of I Confess (which deserves a much better reputation). Frederick Knott’s play had been a hit in both London and New York, and Alfred Hitchcock knew that it would make a fast and easy hit for him if he were to adapt it for the cinema screen. The play began its life as a rather unimaginative television production for the BBC, but the play’s success was really due to the enthusiastic reception that it received on the London stage. (Broadway success was just around the corner.)

Alfred Hitchcock opted to keep the play’s structure intact and hired Frederick Knott to help him turn his hit play into a screenplay. With the exception of a few minor changes to the text, Knott needed only to reformat his play into screenplay form. One of the more obvious changes was a dramatically different (and much shorter) opening.

“As the curtain rises, MARGOT is handing MAX a drink. She suddenly hears something in the passage outside and opens and peeps through the hall door for a moment. Then she closes the hall door and turns to MAX.

MARGOT
(A little worried)

For a moment I thought it was Tony. I’m sorry I interrupted you. What were we talking about . . . ?

MAX

I was just telling you that I murdered exactly fifty-two people since I saw you last.

MARGOT
(With a laugh, picking up her drink. Sits on couch)

Oh, yes — one a week. How did you do it?

MAX

Every way I could think of. I electrocuted some in their baths, locked others in the garage with the motor running or pushed them through windows and over cliffs. Other weeks I preferred to poison, shoot, strangle, stab, slug or suffocate.

MARGOT

Just according to how you felt?

MAX

When you write for that kind of television you don’t have time to feel anything.

MARGOT

Where do you get all your ideas from?

MAX

Oh — newspaper stories — police files — bad dreams — other writers . . .

MARGOT

You once told me you’d never write anything that wasn’t original.

MAX

Huh — you try being original fifty-two times a year!

MARGOT

Suppose you just dry up and can’t think of anything?

MAX

If it comes to that I just use my three hats.

MARGOT

What do you mean?

MAX

I’ve got three old hats marked: Who kills who, How, and Why.

MARGOT

Which is what? I mean what’s Why?

MAX

‘Why’ is the motive for killing. You’ve got to have a motive, you know. There are only five important ones. Fear — jealousy — money — revenge — and protecting someone you love. I just write them down on pieces of paper and pick one out of the ‘Why’ hat.

MARGOT

Sounds rather like sorting the week’s washing.

MAX

It’s about as artistic as that. But better paid. It’s no more frustrating than writing plays that aren’t produced or novels that aren’t published. . . . And don’t forget this: It all goes to prove that WITO makes teeth bright — white and bite! Makes amends and keeps your friends.

MARGOT
{Laughs)
Let’s have your glass, Max.

MAX

No . . . I’m all right, thanks.

MARGOT

I could hardly believe it when I heard your voice. At first I thought you were phoning from New York.

MAX

Yes, I thought you were shouting a little louder than necessary. As a matter of fact I was just around the corner. (A pause anxiously) Was it all right . . . my phoning like that?

MARGOT

Yes, of course.

MAX

Was that — Tony who answered?

MARGOT

Yes, it was. (An awkward pause) I do hope he isn’t going to be too late. Poor darling. He always gets caught when we’re going to the theater. (Pause) So you’re not here on a holiday — this time?

MAX

No, not this time. I came over to write some short TV films. After that I think I’ll finally knock off for a year and write that novel. I’ve got to write it someday.

MARGOT

Another crime story?

MAX

I have to stick to crime — it’s my stock in trade. But there’s no reason why a murder story can’t be as good as anything else. And I think I could write a good one if I took the time. I thought of a pretty fair gimmick on the plane coming over. There’s a pair of twins — identical — one lives in Paris and the other in New York — all of a sudden they both decide to…

(MARGOT has been growing anxious and loses interest in all this.)

MARGOT
(Interrupting)

Max, before Tony comes I ought to explain something.

MAX

Yes?

MARGOT

I didn’t tell him anything about us.

MAX

Oh.

MARGOT

When you rang up yesterday, I just said that you were a radio writer I’d met when he was in America.

MAX

Well, that’s true enough.

MARGOT
I said I’d met you again just before you went back to New York and you promised to look us up if you ever came back.

MAX

I see.

MARGOT

Max, I know you think it’s silly, but when you get to know Tony, you’ll understand why…”

-Frederick Knott (“Dial M for Murder” Play Book)

The rest of the scene plays out like Hitchcock’s film version (with a few minor alterations that condense their exchange). Hitchcock has replaced this text with a short montage that explains the relationship between the three principal characters in an efficient visual manner. One will also notice that Max has become Mark in the screen version.

There are a few other small additions to the screenplay. For example, Mark and Tony are shown at the club as Tony waits to make the phone call. Hitchcock is able to prolong the suspense elements of Margot’s attempted murder. We see Tony waiting to use the phone and Lesgate waiting anxiously for it to ring. This scene is improved exponentially by cross-cutting between these elements. We are also shown a slightly extended version of Tony’s manipulation of the crime scene. An example would be that in the play, Tony simply pockets the scarf, but he burns the scarf in the film. Hitchcock also shows us a short scene after this that dramatizes the police detectives discovering some of his planted evidence.

The only other major change to the original play occurs right before what is “Act Three, Scene One.” Hitchcock has added a somewhat expressionistic rendering of Margot’s trial. Instead of dramatizing a realistic condensation of a trial sequence, Hitchcock shows us Margot’s subjective emotional experience during her trial.

Judgement

The scene acts as a sort of bridge between scenes that would have played rather awkwardly without something to separate them. (Curtains are drawn between the scenes in Knott’s play.) The scene replaces a radio broadcast that is heard at the beginning of the final act.

“[TONY] puts attaché case on bed, looks at watch and then crosses to table. He turns on radio. He returns to attaché case and unlocks it. He takes out money, puts it in pocket and re-locks the case. The radio fades in as he looks up at the set and listens intently.

ANNOUNCER

… The main obstacles were the export of fruit and vegetables. Agreement has now been reached that the export quotas originally asked for be lowered by twelve and a half percent.

The Home Secretary has written to the lawyers of Mrs. Margot Wendice to say that he has decided that there are not sufficient grounds to justify his recommending a reprieve. At the Old Bailey last November Mrs. Wendice was found guilty of the murder of Charles Alexander Swann and was sentenced to death. The official forecast is that there will be bright periods and showers in all districts today. Frost is expected again tonight, especially in the South.

(Phone rings)

The time is now eleven minutes past one and that is the end of the news…

TONY switches off radio and crosses to phone.

TONY
(Into phone)

Hullo!

PENDLETON
(Off stage, heard through receiver)

Mr. Wendice?

TONY

Yes?

PENDLETON

Pendleton here.

TONY

Oh, good afternoon.

PENDLETON

Have you decided about the letters?

TONY

Yes — I’ll be quite frank with you — the cost of the defense has been very high. I shall have to ask for five hundred pounds.

PENDLETON

Five hundred! But I’m only asking for her letters . . .

TONY

That’s all very well — how would you like your wife’s letters read by millions of people?

PENDLETON

I’m prepared to offer three fifty . . .

TONY

No, I’m sorry. I’ve quite made up my mind.

PENDLETON

Could you give me a little time to think this over?

TONY

By all means, think it over — only I’m going away the day after tomorrow.

(The door buzzer, TONY glances anxiously at the door. Quietly)

Excuse me. I shall have to ring you back.

He rings off. Goes to door and opens it. MAX stands in the passage outside. He wears neither coat nor hat. They stare at each other for a moment or two.

MAX

Hullo, Tony…”

-Frederick Knott (“Dial M for Murder” Play Book)

Alfred Hitchcock omitted the exchange between Tony and Pendleton, because Mark arrives in a taxi just as Tony is entering his building. The exchange is interesting and says a lot about Tony’s character, but in the end it isn’t necessary. Other than a few minor alterations, the rest of the film follows the play rather faithfully. Most of these minor changes were made to simplify and condense the sequence. However, a small flourish was added to the film’s final moments. The curtains closed on the play after Tony realizes that he is trapped.

“After several paces he sees MARGOT and MAX, stares at MARGOT for a long moment and then drops the books and the handbag to the ground. Then he turns and sees HUBBARD. Suddenly he throws away his raincoat and rushes to the hall door in a panic. He opens the hall door but a detective in plain clothes moves in from the left and blocks his way. TONY turns back into the room and stares at MARGOT. MARGOT turns her head away from tony and toward MAX. HUBBARD looks TONY up and down for a moment, then moves very slowly to the telephone and dials a number.

Curtain”

-Frederick Knott (“Dial M for Murder” Play Book)

Hitchcock and Knott ended the screenplay with Tony pouring a drink for himself as he offers everyone else in the room a drink. He remains cool as a cucumber throughout the entire scene. It really is a very charming bit of business.

Most people would be fast to mention that Dial M for Murder was Grace Kelly’s first appearance in an Alfred Hitchcock film, but it is rarely mentioned that Alfred Hitchcock cast two actors that were featured in the successful New York production of the stage play. Anthony Dawson had played Captain Lesgate, and John Williams won the Tony Award for his portrayal of Inspector Hubbard. Anthony Dawson spoke about this in his unpublished memoirs.

“… I had never met Hitchcock before, and yet he was about to do me the most fantastic good turn I could imagine. In that wonderful fat man’s Cockney voice, he said, slowly, drooping every word separately, as though he had all day: ‘Tony, I just called to let you know that I want you for this picture, so you’re quite safe to make yourself a nice deal.’ What could I say? I mumbled my thanks and put the phone down, feeling rather dazed, electrified, stunned; all of these. The full impact of this call from Hitch was very soon to come home to me.” –Anthony Dawson (Rambling Recollections)

Original Play Cast

Warner Brothers was going through a 3D phase at the time, and they expected Dial ‘M’ For Murder to be shot with this same process. Alfred Hitchcock agreed to this and began educating himself on the technical aspects that would be involved with the thirty-six day production.

“As far as I’m concerned, there’ll have to be a lot of changes when you’re working with 3D. The close-up, for instance, will have to be scraped completely. Can you imagine two normal sized heads on that big screen? They’d look like monsters. In that respect, 3-D will be more like a stage play. But when you’re showing a lot of people at once, 3-D will be very effective. If the whole movie industry goes the way of 3-D, there will be a lot more panoramic films and a lot less intimate stories. It will be marvelous, though, for tricks like squirting water out at the audience. And I think 3-D will be best when a movie is planned around these tricks instead of trying to fit them into a movie. I’d like to have a movie start this way: The screen is dark. There is no sound. All of a sudden a large hand reaches out and takes the audience by the throat. Think that would frighten you?” –Alfred Hitchcock (Prevue Magazine)

It is important to keep this particular quotation in context. When Prevue magazine asked Alfred Hitchcock for a quote about 3-D, he was in the midst of pre-production for Dial ‘M’ For Murder, which means that the master was in publicity mode. One doubts that the director would have been very enthusiastic about abandoning his usual technique, and those familiar with Hitchcock’s style might imagine the sound of worry in his voice when he announced that “the close-up, for instance, will have to be scraped completely.

As a matter of fact, this particular issue with the 3-D film worried many people in the industry. When Jack Warner viewed the dailies from Hondo (another 3-D picture), the lack of close-ups bothered him a great deal. Warner had invested quite a bit of money into the 3-D gimmick, and believed that this was the future of cinema. Robert Burks, the director of photography on Hondo would have disagreed with Warner on this particular issue.

Interestingly, Robert Burks was the photographer on Hondo. Alfred Hitchcock fans will remember that Burks was one of the director’s most important collaborators, and he would find himself working on Dial “M” for Murder using the same complicated 3-D cameras that were used for Hondo. Alfred Hitchcock would have to work hard to achieve his usual high standards, because these 3-D cameras had a lot of technical issues. It is fortunate that Hitchcock was never one to shy away from new challenges. As a matter of fact, he preferred to create creative and technical challenges for himself.

The wonderful thing about the 3-D in Dial “M” for Murder is that it wasn’t shot in the usual “gimmicky” manner. Instead, Hitchcock preferred to subtly compose his shots for depth. The 3-D effects merely enhanced his mise en scène. This is much more difficult than simply hurling items towards the lens, and it is more effective. The audience is never pulled out of the film. They are instead brought into the world of the film. The operatic attack on Grace Kelly makes magnificent use of the 3-D effect, but the action is integrated into the story in such a way that it never becomes distracting (even when the film is viewed flat).

3D

However, the process of actually shooting these things effectively in 3D was an enormous challenge. Even Grace Kelly (who wasn’t one to complain about such challenges) mentioned that the process was “like going into the boxing ring with your hands tied behind your back.” While the director never lost patience on the set, he felt that his hands were tied as well. He described what he called the “tremendous new challenges” of shooting in 3D in trade articles.

“It’s a big, gross, hulking monster. It’s heavy and immobile and frightening. Why–for one of my best scenes–where one of the leading players falls on a pair of scissors and kills himself–I couldn’t even get this–this–thing under the scissors to create the illusion of the audience falling on those scissors itself. But we licked it. We built a big hole right under the stage and submerged the camera–so even though there will be no rocks thrown out of the screen, I don’t think anybody will go home disappointed.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Trade Interview)

There were other challenges as well. Extreme close-ups were impossible to shoot, and in order to get certain shots (such as a finger dialing a telephone and a close shot of a wrist watch), giant replicas had to be built. He had used this giant prop technique before in Spellbound. Alfred Hitchcock had always found creative ways to get the shots that he desired. He wasn’t one to settle.

Unfortunately, it turned out that these technical challenges were unnecessary. By the time that Dial ‘M’ for Murder was released, the public (and exhibitors) had become disenchanted with the 3D process. In the end, exhibitors were given a choice between the 2D and 3D prints, while marketing merchandise allowed the “3D copy to be eliminated.” The flat version of the film became much more popular, and the 3D version was soon pulled altogether.

Marketing Announcement

However, the popular claim that Dial ‘M’ for Murder wasn’t released in its original 3D version is absolutely untrue. There is all kinds of documentation to prove that this version of the film did receive a short lived theatrical release. As a matter of fact, most of the critics commented on the 3D elements in their reviews for the film.

Variety mentioned the 3D elements in their less than enthusiastic review, but didn’t comment on the quality of these elements.

“The melodramatics in Frederick Knott’s legit hit, Dial ‘M’ for Murder, have been transferred to the screen virtually intact, but they are not as impressive on film. Dial ‘M’ remains more of a filmed play than a motion picture, unfortunately revealed as a conversation piece about murder which talks up much more suspense than it actually delivers. The 3-D camera’s probing eye also discloses that there’s very little that’s new in the Knott plotting…

…There are a number of basic weaknesses in the setup that keep the picture from being a good suspense show for any but the most gullible. Via the performances and several suspense tricks expected of Hitchcock, the weaknesses are glossed over but not enough to rate the film a cinch winner.” –Variety (December 31, 1953)

The Hollywood Reporter was more receptive, and praised Hitchcock’s masterful use of 3D.

“…one of the few films in which 3D is a decided asset, even though not a single audience-participation gimmick is used. The extra-dimension, coupled with the way Hitchcock uses the camera, gives the impression that one is sitting in a theatre watching a stage play.” – Hollywood Reporter (April 27, 1954)

Time magazine’s review also focused on these aspects of the film.

Dial M for Murder (Warner) started out in 1952 as a British television drama, moved on to long, successful runs on the London stage and Broadway, and has now been made into a first-rate movie. Director Alfred Hitchcock, by shooting the film in three-dimensional WarnerColor, avoids the static quality common to many stage plays when transferred to the screen. The 3-D is used not so much for its shock value as to bring alive for moviegoers much of the theater’s intimacy and depth of movement.” -Time (May 24, 1954)

Interestingly, Bosley Crowther’s rave review for the New York Times doesn’t mention 3D at all, and one imagines that this is due to the fact that it was written a few months later than those previously discussed. One imagines that the 3D version had been pulled by this time.

“The planting and raising of goose-pimples requires a certain theatrical skill which makes no demands whatsoever upon the season of the year… And so we attach no significance to the fact that there happen to be two varieties of goose-pimple bushes blooming brightly hereabouts this June…

More standard and conventional of the bushes, now sprouting on the Paramount’s screen, is Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial ‘M’ for Murder, cultivated on an ample cutting from the play. As a matter of fact, so similar is it to the popular melodrama of Frederick Knott that it might almost be suspected as a straight transplant from the stage. But the fine hand of Mr. Hitchcock as the goose-pimple horticulturist in the garden of motion pictures is evident all over it…

…The thing is that Mr. Hitchcock brings his crop of goose-pimples to flower when he’s building up to that murder and then switching the tables in the clutch. This is when the audience is made to break out in chilly bumps and the tension is drawn so tightly that one can almost feel it in the throat. It’s an ugly, gory encounter, one of the toughest Mr. H has ever staged. The rest of the picture is exciting, but entirely because of plot.

Credit the veteran director with keeping the whole thing on the move, without letting interest slacken, within the confines of virtually one room. He tried once before, in Rope, to build up a whole continuous drama in one set. He wasn’t as successful in that venture. Dial ‘M’ has all the space it needs, Ray Milland, Grace Kelly and John Williams — the latter, especially, in the role of a sharp-nosed detective — play it capably. Color adds lots of style.” -Bosley Crowther (New York Times, June 13, 1954)

One would think that the London Times would embrace this film adaptation of a London stage play, but the paper published one of the films more negative reviews.

“Mr. Frederick Knott’s thriller Dial ‘M’ for Murder, written for television and afterwards adapted for the stage, has now reached the screen and is to be seen at the Warner Cinema. In each transition it seems to have undergone the minimum of alteration for a different medium. For this there is one main reason: the ingenious plot is necessarily tied down to a single room and to long passages of verbal duelling between any two or three of the five characters who are virtually the entire cast. Even in the cinema there are very few opportunities for the action to get out and about, and the dependence of the film on words makes it unusually difficult for Mr. Alfred Hitchcock to give the production as a whole his characteristic subtle touch.

How satisfactory it would have been if Mr. Hitchcock had created that sense of claustrophobia which would have enabled the audience to share the mixture of exhilaration and fear in the criminal on the alert which is one of the curious pleasures to be had from watching detective films. The use of colour, too, hardly helps; the bright interior simply refuses to brood. But the real difficulty with which Mr. Hitchcock has to deal is only apparent in the final scene. What made Dial “M” for Murder the most successful play of its kind since Ten Minute Alibi 20 years ago was the ingenuity of the puzzle we are invited to solve; at what point has the homicidal husband (Mr. Ray Milland) made his fateful mistake? In the cinema the director’s problem is how to preserve the puzzle in all its ingenuity and how to serve at the same time, as far as possible, the peculiar requirements of the film. It may be that there is no perfect reconciliation of the two; that a kind of exercise in applied mathematics and the emotional tension of the chase are fundamentally incompatible; and that the best that may be hoped for is a compromise. At all events Mr. Hitchcock’s many admirers will be disappointed to find that in his care to be lucid he has merely become obvious and thus weakened the crowning effect of the tension so carefully built up in the rest of the film. Mr. Robert Cummings is the writer of crime stories, and Mr. John Williams the all-important police-inspector, a policeman in whom, for once, one can believe.” -The Times (July 19, 1954)

I think that it is safe to say that The Times has been proven wrong by the most important critic of all: the test of time. A viewing of this film in 3D reminds one that there is no such thing as “minor Hitchcock.”

Screenshot 1

The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

The disc is protected in a standard Blu-ray case with film related artwork, and the case is protected by a special slip cover with the same artwork rendered in 3D. It is an extremely attractive cover (much better than the covers for Universal’s Hitchcock Blu-ray releases).

The menus utilize the same attractive artwork and are easy to navigate. The telephone sounds that play over the menu aren’t necessary, but this is a minor complaint.

Dial M Menu 1

All of this makes the presentation slightly superior to what one would usually expect from a Blu-ray release.

Screenshot 2

Picture Quality:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Warner Brothers has given Dial ‘M’ for Murder a well-deserved 4K restoration using the film’s original camera negative, and this transfer is the result of these efforts. There were massive obstacles that had to be overcome in their efforts to restore the film properly. One must remember while judging that the film’s original elements weren’t error free, and that various players will give different results that vary in quality. All in all, Warner Brothers has done a fantastic job on the transfer. However, it should be said that it is far from perfect. The trouble is the fault of the source elements, but people are still bound to be a bit disappointed.

The color is faithfully (if not perfectly) represented here, and there seems to be no DNR issues. Instead, the transfer has opted to retain the film’s grain structure. Any ghosting that one might experience is likely due to the player and not to the actual image transfer. There was only a brief moment of ghosting when it was viewed on my player. There is some minor haloing in some of the higher contrast shots, but this is never distracting. Both the 3D and flat versions of this film exhibit much better image quality than the previous DVD release, especially when it comes to the film’s color palette.

The 1.78:1 aspect ratio used for this transfer will probably bother a lot of people. Previous DVD editions carried a 1.33:1 transfer that claimed to preserve its “original theatrical” ratio. This is untrue. Dial ‘M’ For Murder had the misfortune of being released during a transitional period in cinema history.

Academy Ratio

“Dial ‘M’ For Murder” was released during a transitional period in film history. Some theaters were not equipped to project the film in the intended 1.85:1 widescreen ratio, and these theaters projected the film in the Academy 1.37:1 ratio. Previous Home Video transfers were presented in 1.33:1, which is an approximation of this ratio.

Blu-ray Ratio

High end theaters were able to project the film in 1.85:1 widescreen format, which was the ratio that the studio intended. This Blu-ray transfer is presented in 1.78:1 ratio (the size of widescreen television sets). This ratio falls somewhere between the film’s two theatrical ratios.

Warner Brothers began releasing their films in 1.85:1 widescreen on May 07, 1953. However, studios were aware that some theaters hadn’t yet converted to the wider screens. Because of this, shots were composed for both 1.85:1 and 1.37:1 ratios. In other words, Dial “M” for Murder was screened in both 1.85:1 and 1.37:1.

The Blu-ray presents the film in 1.78:1, which falls somewhere in between these two ratios. It would be impossible to release the film in any definitive aspect ratio for the simple reason that there isn’t one.

Screenshot 3.jpg

Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

The DTS-HD Master Audio Mono mix is free of any of the age related anomalies that often pop up in classic films and the tracks dynamic range allows the various sounds a lot of space to breath. It is a dialogue heavy track that showcases each and every voice quite clearly. Sound effects are accurately rendered, and the music is accurately rendered. It isn’t a particularly dynamic track, but it serves the film admirably.

Robert Cummings.jpg

Special Features:

3 of 5 MacGuffins

It seems rather ridiculous that this Blu-ray should exclude 3D: A Brief History, which was included on the DVD release. After all, this Blu-ray is the first time that this film has been made available in the 3D format! Doesn’t it seem like a rather fitting supplement for this disc? Luckily, Warner Brothers didn’t forget to include the other two supplements from that release.

Hitchcock and Dial M – (SD) – (21:37)

Laurent Bouzereau’s documentaries for Alfred Hitchcock’s Universal catalog were usually stellar, and extremely comprehensive. Unfortunately, the quality of his work seems to have diminished by the time he created the “making of” supplements for the director’s Warner Brothers catalog.

Hitchcock and Dial M is far from comprehensive. The interview participants include Patricia Hitchcock, Peter Bogdanovich, Robert Osborne, M. Night Shyamalan, Richard Franklin, Richard Schickel, and Nat Benchley. None of these people have any real first-hand knowledge about the production (except for perhaps Patricia Hitchcock), so the viewer is treated to various historians and critics spewing conjecture while providing the rare grain of trivia. This is a far cry from Bouzereau’s in-depth documentaries for many of the Universal films. Perhaps this was unavoidable. After all, the principal cast members of Dial “M” for Murder had all passed away by the time this program was produced. It is just too bad that the participants didn’t provide a more in-depth account of the production based on research (since first-hand accounts were out of the question). Hitchcock and Dial M is certainly worth watching, and it is an entertaining conversation about the film. It is simply a little anemic.

Theatrical Trailer – (SD) – (2:38)

The theatrical trailer for Dial M” for Murder is exactly what one might expect from trailers of this period. It isn’t as interesting as some of the director’s other trailers, but it is quite nice to see how this film was marketed.

Screenshot 5

Final Words:

It is nice that Dial “M” For Murder has finally seen a 3-D release on home video. Fans of the director should certainly want to own it.

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Blu-ray Review: Saboteur

sab cover

 Distributor: Universal Studios

Release Date: May 07, 2013

Region: Region Free

Length: 109 min

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: English Mono DTS-HD Master Audio

Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish

Ratio: 1.36:1

Notes: This title has had a number of DVD releases and is also available on Blu-ray as part of a boxed set entitled The Masterpiece Collection. The transfer used for the boxed set is the same one that is included here and the disc includes the same special features. The artwork on the actual disc is the only thing different about this release.

ss1

Saboteur was not successful to my mind, because I don’t think Cummings was right. He was too un-dramatic. He had what I call a ‘comedy face,’ and half the time you don’t believe the situations. Think of the difference between that and Robert Donat in The Thirty-Nine Steps… But what annoyed me most was the casting of the heavy, Otto Kruger. I had a concept: fascists in those days were middle-westerners, America-Firsters, and I wanted Harry Carey, western style, a rich rancher. His wife came to see me and she said, ‘I couldn’t let my husband play a role like that, when all the youth in America look up to him.’ So I couldn’t get him, and Kruger was all wrong. I also tried to get Barbara Stanwyck, but I had to take Priscilla Lane. I wanted Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper to lift the picture up.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Interview with Peter Bogdanovich, 1963)

It is difficult not to agree with Hitchcock’s opinion that casting was one of the major faults with Saboteur. The same script shot with Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck would have been an altogether different experience. The film is essentially an American re-imagining of The 39 Steps, but with more overt political undertones (or overtones).

According to Leonard J. Leff in Hitchcock & Selznick, story editor Val Lewton advised Selznick against making yet another “chase film.”

“…but while Selznick could have forced Hitchcock to choose a property from the studio hopper, he deferred to him on story selection. Hitchcock worked best when he enjoyed at least the illusion of control. Against Lewton’s advice and his own better judgment, Selznick gave Hitchcock permission to develop an original narrative about sabotage…

…Hitchcock, along with Joan Harrison and Michael Hogan, developed a treatment for the Selznick picture. Their tale about a California munitions worker falsely charged with sabotage resembled The 39 Steps; the hero’s search for the actual turncoat included a love interest, several humorous and suspenseful episodes, and the dynamiting of a new dam to be opened by the president of the United States.

Whether Hitchcock dazzle could camouflage routine mechanics seemed questionable. Selznick read the story, noted the brittle plot devices, then called the stenographers up to Santa Barbra. He advised Hitchcock to ‘try to get something instead of [a] dam being blown up. This is not very new for a picture catastrophe.’ He also impelled him to address the weak human dimension, the characters’ ‘heart and emotional relationships.’

The brevity and tone of the memoranda suggested that Selznick lacked the concentration for sustained work and perhaps intended to sell both director and treatment to the highest bidder…” -Leonard J. Leff (Hitchcock & Selznick: The Rich and Strange Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick In Hollywood)

While one cannot argue that there are flaws in the film’s construction, these flaws weren’t helped by the writers that Selznick chose to help Hitchcock fix these issues.

“…Selznick assigned John Houseman to supervise the development of the screenplay and young Peter Viertel to write it. Neither choice benefited Saboteur… One Selznick reader called [the script] synthetic and ‘loosely strung together,’ the work of ‘an inferior Hitchcock imitator.’ Never a Hitchcock fan, Val Lewton found it ‘the sort that every studio rejects after a cursory reading.’” -Leonard J. Leff (Hitchcock & Selznick: The Rich and Strange Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick In Hollywood)

Selznick was both unimpressed, and uninterested in making the film. However, he knew that he could make a nice profit by selling it to another studio. It was up to Alfred Hitchcock to sell the project if he wanted to make the film, and after being rejected by several studios (including Twentieth Century Fox and RKO), independent producer Frank Lloyd bought it. Hitchcock was glad to be away from Selznick, and Selznick was satisfied with his 300 percent profit. Apparently, it is quite lucrative to be a Hollywood talent-pimp.

“Hitchcock roared through the making of Saboteur. He exceeded the budget by only $3,000 and completed both script and principal photography in less than fifteen weeks, faster than any of his four American pictures to date…Yet to his chagrin; reviewers criticized Saboteur just as Selznick had months before… Harsh notices sent the director into a deep funk, his secretary recalled.” -Leonard J. Leff (Hitchcock & Selznick: The Rich and Strange Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick In Hollywood)

Leff paints a slightly more negative critical reception than the film actually received. Most critics found plenty of things to admire in Saboteur, but laced their compliments with negative reservations. One could best describe reception of the film as “mixed.” On April 29, 1942, Variety wrote a review of the film that set the tone for reviews to come.

“All the typical Alfred Hitchcock cinematic wrinkles are present in his newest picture, Saboteur, which he has made on a Selznick loan out for Universal release. It is violently typical Hitchcock. It has the same basic elements of chase melodrama, the romantic couple beset by sinister forces they only partly see and dimly understand, the complicated plot, fantastic situations, colorful minor characters, sardonic comedy touches and sudden, wild climax. It’s expert and enormously effective. It’ll get rave reviews, play holdover engagements and clean up at the box-office.

As Hitchcock continues to turn out pictures his methods become increasingly familiar and recognizable. For he is a vivid stylist whose stamp is unmistakably on every film he makes. It doesn’t matter at what studio or with whom he works. If Hitchcock directs it, it’s a Hitchcock picture.

In a way, that’s a supreme compliment, for nearly every film he’s made in recent years, whether in England or Hollywood, has been an outstanding critical and box office success. Nevertheless, it indicates a lack of versatility, since all his pictures tend to be similar, not only in type of story, but in the technical tricks by which he gets his effects, in the unvarying expression of his creative personality.

Saboteur is a little too self-consciously Hitchcock. Its succession of incredible climaxes, its mounting tautness and suspense, its mood of terror and impending doom could have been achieved by no one else. That is a great tribute to a brilliant director. But it would be a greater tribute to a finer director if he didn’t let the spectator see the wheels go ’round, didn’t let him spot the tricks — and thus shatter the illusion, however momentarily…” -Variety (April 29, 1942)

Of course a great deal of criticism came from the pretentious plausibility seekers that have no appreciation for Hitchcock’s special kind of fantasy. Bosley Crowther was always such a critic, and his review for The New York Times followed suit (even if it was veiled in condescending praise).

“…To put it mildly, Mr. Hitchcock and his writers have really let themselves go. Melodramatic action is their forte, but they scoff at speed limits this trip. All the old master’s experience at milking thrills has been called upon. As a consequence—and according to Hitchcock custom—Saboteur is a swift, high-tension film which throws itself forward so rapidly that it permits slight opportunity for looking back. And it hurtles the holes and bumps which plague it with a speed that forcefully tries to cover them up.

In the style of some of his earlier British pictures, Mr. Hitchcock has filmed one long, relentless ‘chase’ in which an aircraft worker from a California plant races all the way across the country in vague pursuit of a hatchet-faced rat who attempted to set fire to the factory…

…So fast, indeed, is the action and so abundant the breathless events that one might forget, in the hubbub, that there is no logic in this wild-goose chase. Actually, there is no reason for the hero undertaking his mad pursuit, since the obvious and sensible method would be to have it conducted by the FBI. Consequently, one wonders—if one stops to wonder at all—why the hero is in such a dither as to his personal relations with the police, why—at any juncture—he shouldn’t hand the job over to the cops.

This possible intrusion of one’s reason might therefore tend to drain some of the harrowing tension from many of the tricky episodes. Particularly in the one sequence, where the hero and heroine seem to be coerced to silence at a party of innocent folk, one wonders why a word to a near-by general or admiral wouldn’t do to put an end to their peril. And how was a bomb ever set in the navy yard.

As usual, Mr. Hitchcock and his writers have contrived excuses. But their casual presentation of the FBI as a bunch of bungling dolts, their general disregard of authorized agents and their slur on the navy yard police somewhat vitiates the patriotic implications which they have tried to emphasize in the film. One gathers that the nation’s safety depends entirely on civilian amateurs.

It goes almost without saying that some of the ‘Hitchcock touches’ are exceedingly clever, withal. The sequence with the circus freaks is a bit of capital satire, and the smashing, conclusive adventure should terrify a steeplejack… Apparently Mr. Hitchcock has endeavored to imitate his own The 39 Steps. But the going is not so even. He trips too often in his headlong ascent.” -Bosley Crowther (New York Times, May 8, 1942)

Readers might notice a pattern of reserved praise in the reviews of Saboteur. This pattern continues in a review published in The Times. Everything in the review expresses admiration, but this is only after announcing to the reader that Hitchcock is repeating himself.

“Mr. Alfred Hitchcock does not attempt anything startlingly original in Saboteur. He is content to take the old counters in the game of sabotage, flight and pursuit, and his interest, and that of the audience, lies in the cinematic pattern he makes of them.

Mr. Hitchcock has always been at his best in his suggestion of suspense. His silences are charged with meaning, with the feeling that menace is crouching in the corner ready to spring, and he is never afraid of keeping his camera immobile and working on the audience’s feelings by his prolonged concentration on one significant detail. Here the seconds the camera spends recording the gradual spread of a tear in a coat are the most effective in the film and other incidents, the sudden ringing of a telephone in a deserted shack, for instance, help to keep the adventure moving imaginatively as well as dramatically…” -The Times (May, 28 1942)

Today Saboteur is seen as “second-tier” Hitchcock, and this reviewer is very much in agreement with this opinion. However, the film is not inferior because it is another “chase film.” There were a number of unfortunate handicaps placed upon the production, as Donald Spoto relates in his essay about the film.

“It’s hard to deny that there’s a certain flatness to this film; there are moments when it looks so cheap you may think it was stitched together by an admirer of Hitchcock. This is at least partially explained by film budget restrictions in early 1942… that economy was invoked by a number of cheap background shots, painted backdrops, miniatures, and rear projections.” –Donald Spoto (The Art of Alfred Hitchcock)

Since the government placed budget and set constraints upon the production, a number of cheaper B-movie alternatives were used to get Saboteur over this hurdle. It is also likely that Selznick’s apathy towards the project in the production’s earliest stages damaged the script’s development. In fact, final analysis finds this reviewer disagreeing with Hitchcock’s claim that “the picture was overloaded with too many ideas.” The real issue was that these ideas were not developed and executed as well as some of his other features.

Screenshot: Robert Cummings as Barry Kane

The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

This disc is available as part of The Masterpiece Collection boxed set and as an individual disc.

Collection Page

The Masterpiece Collection is given a tasteful book-style presentation with a page for each film that includes a folder for each disc. Some might prefer that each disc come in its own standard Blu-ray case. These folder style compartments do not always protect the discs and very often cause scratches. There have even been reports of glue adhering to the actual disc, and rendering them unplayable.

The individual release presents the disc in a standard Blu-ray case with film related artwork.

The menu on the disc contains footage from the film accompanied by music in the same style as other Universal Blu-rays.

Screenshot: Otto Kruger

Picture Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Saboteur’s 1080p image transfer is one of the best offered in Universal’s Hitchcock catalog. One might be alarmed at a bit of noise and film damage during the opening credits, but these issues disappear after this sequence. The rest of the film is beautifully rendered, and Joseph Valentine’s photography shines with fine detail that was never seen in DVD transfers of the film. While brightness occasionally fluctuates, this is inherent in the aged film prints. The transfer is only as good as the source prints, and this fluctuation is never distracting. Blacks are deep and inky, and enhance an image that already contains excellent contrast without losing any detail. Mid-range grays are perfectly gorgeous, and balance the image nicely. A fine layer of grain betrays the film’s celluloid source and provides a cinematic atmosphere. This is the best that the film has looked on home video.

Screenshot: Priscilla Lane

Sound Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

This two-channel DTS-HD Mono track should please the purist, and impress audiophiles that respect fidelity to a film’s original soundtrack. Saboteur has never sounded as clean and clear as it does here. Distractions such as hiss never become an issue on this transfer, and dialogue is always intelligible. One can hear sounds that weren’t quite clear in DVD issues of the film. It is nice to see that the audio was given the same amount of respect that was afforded to the image.

Screenshot

Special Features:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Saboteur: A Closer Look – (SD) – (35 min)

This excellent documentary short directed by Laurent Bouzereau was originally included on Saboteur’s first DVD release. This was back in the day when special features offered audiences more than short pieces of fluff that do not amount to anything more than a waste of the viewer’s time.

The documentary offers the viewer a glimpse at the film’s production, relying heavily on two interview participants. The first of these participants is Norman Lloyd (actor), and the second is Robert Boyle. Patricia Hitchcock is also here as a secondary source to fill in a few holes, and archive footage of John Houseman allows him to make an appearance. This program isn’t quite as comprehensive as Bouzereau’s excellent feature length documentaries about Psycho and The Birds, but it is a significant look at the film that renders additional supplements almost gratuitous. It would be very difficult to add anything significant to what is relayed in this piece.

Theatrical Trailer – (SD) – (2 min)

Saboteur’s trailer is actually rather interesting. While it is not as creative as those for Hitchcock’s later features, it is more than a mere series of clips from the film. Barry Kane (Robert Cummings) hosts the trailer in much the same manner that James Stewart hosts the trailer for The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). It is very nice to have this included in the collection.

Storyboards – (SD) – (4 min)

Universal has also seen fit to provide viewers with a gallery of storyboard drawings for the Statue of Liberty sequence. This should delight fans and film students.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Sketches – (SD) – (1 min)

A selection of drawings and storyboards by Alfred Hitchcock were used to help Robert Boyle in the production design, and some of these are included on this disc. They make an excellent companion to the other storyboards included here.

Production Photographs – (SD) – (8 min)

This photo gallery includes movie posters, vintage ads, and production photos. These images are often a very interesting glimpse at the marketing of the film.

Screenshot

Final Words:

Saboteur is “second-tier” Hitchcock, but it is also first-rate entertainment. While casual fans may not wish to add this film to their collection, it should certainly be worth a rental for anyone who hasn’t seen the film. Those who do wish to add this Hitchcock film to their collection can rest easy in the knowledge that the disc exhibits an excellent picture and sound transfer.

Review by: Devon Powell

Source Materials:

 Review (Variety, April 29, 1942)

Bosley Crowther Review (New York Times, May 8, 1942)

 Review (The Times, May, 28 1942)

Alfred Hitchcock Interview with Peter Bogdanovich (1963)

Hitchcock/Truffaut (1966)

Donald Spoto (The Art of Alfred Hitchcock)

Leonard J. Leff (Hitchcock & Selznick: The Rich and Strange Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick In Hollywood)