Update: In 2019, Warner Bros. released Dial M for Murder in 3-D on Blu-Ray, making it possible to watch this groundbreaking film at home in tight 3-D resolution that Hitchcock himself may not have enjoyed. The continuity errors discussed here are pulled from that edition and timestamped as follows:
13:38: A Chinese figurine faces outward 90 degrees from the wall. Its shadow is directly behind it.
The figurine in Richard Hannay's hallway in The 39 Steps all but sounds the alarm that an intruder has broken in.
That knack for imbuing ordinary props with extraordinary qualities served him well with Dial M for Murder, whose plot twists depend on such commonplace objects as telephones and keys. In fact, it was almost a necessity.For an auteur used to allowing his films many months' gestation, Hitchcock practically shot Dial M on the fly. Given a few scant weeks to assemble cast and crew, he had to settle for only minor adjustments in adapting Frederick Knott's hit play for the screen. Shooting covered a mere 36 days. On the plus side, he had basically one set to design and decorate: a single-bedroom flat in West London's tony Maida Vale district, occupied by Tony and Margot Wendice (Ray Milland and Grace Kelly). Citing "shocking taste" to his friend and one-time business partner Sydney Bernstein, he elbowed the set decorator George James Hopkins out of his way and took over that aspect of the production. A 1954 press release drawled that "because he is a man of taste and culture, Hitchcock hand-picked many of the props, including an original [lesbian artist] Rosa Bonheur oil painting, long hidden in Warners’ property gallery, and a pair of valuable Wedgewood vases." Donald Spoto adds that the director ordered "Staffordshire figurines for the mantel." (For the record, two vases sit on the mantel, along with an array of tennis trophies. The figurine mentioned by Spoto appears to have moved to a side table by the door, only to move again of its own volition during the film, as discussed below.)
The Wendices' upscale-bourgeois art collection runs a tastefully eclectic gamut between the classical and the exotic. Coffee table books about Da Vinci, Bellini and the French Impressionists lie casually about. Their well-appointed liquor stock ranges from special occasion brandy to "an indifferent Port." A Modern Primitive painting of a church inflects their home with the suggestion of religiosity. A taste for the exotic is hinted at by the abundance of Asian or Asian-inspired art objects, lamps and other furnishings, some of which may have been acquired during their travels in the Far East, where they encountered a "dreamy" Maharaja who owns "four Rolls Royces and enough jewels to sink a battleship when all he wants to do is bed women." Mixed in with personal photographs and as-yet disorganized press clippings, one senses that there's a story behind all these art objects. Perhaps they even browsed the bazaar in Morocco. Taken as a whole, their interest in Oriental exoticism and Christian religious art introduces a mystical element into an otherwise upscale bourgeois living space, creating a zone where the uncanny and magic can happen.
And it does. As in many Hitchcock movies, especially the tennis-themed Strangers on a Train, of which Dial M could almost be a sequel, doubles abound. There are the two jade lamps, two Wedgewood vases and a photo of Tony holding a pair of tennis rackets. Though it didn't make the final design, Hitch's notes also called for objects on the mantelpiece to be "visually doubled in number by the wall mirror behind them." There is the ornate pair of wooden chairs that resemble the chairs Johnnie gave to Lina in Suspicion. Tony's repeated whipping-shut of the curtains — an apparent continuity error (or is it?) — and the repeated high-angle shots tracing and retracing the steps of the crime all add to the film's uncanny atmosphere whose doubling and repetition, as Freud wrote, "force upon us the idea of something fateful and inescapable when otherwise we should have spoken only of 'chance.'"
This uncanny feeling is of a piece with the film's 3D experience itself, which Hitch used to help conjure up the feeling that the audience had been mystically transported into the film.
There's one piece in particular that merits special attention. But first, I haven't yet finished setting the stage. One of Dial M's primary themes has to do with watchfulness. Tony, as the mastermind behind the murder plot, must remain on the alert and on his toes throughout the movie. Yet, he is superseded by even more alert watchmen.
Tony acted in secret — or so he thought. But there was, it can be said, a watcher right inside his home, carefully hand picked by the director himself. The figurine of a Chinese woman (above) stands like an inscrutable sentinel, a partner in vigilance with the English bobby that patrols the street outside their home. She appears in dozens of shots, from every angle. In what may be a continuity error, but which is creepy nonetheless, the statuette seems to turn its head to follow the action, facing the audience head-on. I believe this is deliberate: from Blackmail to Psycho, Hitch's artwork often looks straight into the camera, to uncanny fourth-wall-breaking effect. Even more interestingly, this supposed "error" actually happens twice in the movie. Tony thought he was working in secret, but this Oriental statuette is a silent, unblinking witness to his committed devilry.
Though Dial M for Murder remains popular — and for good reason — it was not Hitch's most satisfying project. Years later, he claimed that he'd phoned his performance in, but that was just a canard from an old Cockney who couldn't resist a bad pun. The fact is, Hitch devoted his usual meticulous preplanning and research to the film, making sure that the Margot's hanging judge was wearing the appropriate powdered wig and instructing a remote crew to record London's traffic sounds, where another director might settle for stock street noise. He also said that he “had the floor [outside the apartment] made of real tiles so as to get the sound of the footsteps.” Though almost all of Hitch's films are models of cinematographic perfectionism, Dial M is uniquely masterful; each shot is a perfectly composed work of art. Yet, for all that, it is so fluidly shot and edited and the acting so natural — Ray Milland's suave performance gave Cary Grant a run for his money — that it goes down like a snifter of fine brandy — the good stuff. Wherever he went, Alfred Hitchcock was the smartest man in the room. People regularly called him a genius. In his more modest moments, perhaps he replied to such a charge as Tony did: “Not really, I've just had time to think things out, to put myself in your position.”
Hitch also acquired one valuable prize from the film: this was his first venture with Grace Kelly, whom he subsequently transformed into a movie star in Rear Window and To Catch a Thief, before she was scooped into the clouds and rechristened Princess Grace of Monaco. Sadly, under circumstances eerily reminiscent of scenes from the latter film, in 1982 she died in a car accident on the cliffside roads above Monte Carlo. I've been searching for her ever since.