As promised in my previous coverage of Dial M for Murder, here is a more detailed look at one specific sequence in the film. This is the sequence involving Tony Wendice’s conversation with Swann. This portion of the film corresponds to Act I, Scene ii in Frederick Knott’s original play. In Hitchcock’s movie, it is just over 22 minutes in length, comprising slightly more than 20% of the film’s total running time. So how does Alfred Hitchcock manage to sustain interest and suspense, for such a long period of time, with only 2 actors in one room? There are approximately 121 editorial cuts in this 22 minute sequence, averaging one cut every 11 seconds. This seems like a lot of editing for Alfred Hitchcock, but the specifics are much more interesting than mere mathematics. Of course, there is more to it than just the editing. Of equal importance in this scene is the set design. This is one of the most perfectly designed and decorated sets in any Hitchcock film, and we will see how important that is to the scene.
First off, Tony Wendice (played by Ray Milland) opens the door for Swan (Anthony Dawson), and they engage in introductory remarks. Wendice pours Swan a drink. This happens in one unbroken two-shot, lasting just under a minute. Both actors then take a seat, facing each other. Then Hitchcock goes into a very “standard” back and forth as Wendice and Swan converse. The camera is on Wendice, then Swan, then back to Wendice, etc. This back-and-forth cutting happens over 20 times in a couple of minutes. The camera is usually trained on the actor who is speaking, but not always. Occasionally the camera will cut to the listener, so we can read his reaction to what the other person is saying. This is one way of breaking the monotony of the standard “two-shot conversation” sequence. Then, just as the conversation is starting to take a turn, Hitchcock does something unique with the camera:
As Wendice joins Swan on the sofa, the camera pans left so that we are behind the sofa, and the actors, with a lamp in between the two. The camera has moved almost 90 degrees clockwise, and rather than cut to the new set-up, we observe the camera movement. This is slightly off-putting. Every time the viewer might start to get complacent, Hitchcock quickly changes the setup, keeping us off guard, and hopefully ensuring that we are paying attention to the very important dialogue. This camera angle puts the viewer in the role of a spy of sorts, peeking over the back of the sofa. After this dramatic camera movement, the scene continues in one uninterrupted take for about a 1 minute and 45 seconds. During this time, Tony Wendice will get up and sit down twice, all without cutting.
Wendice ends up where he began, opposite Swan, and after an establishing two-shot Hitchcock goes back to the standard “back-and-forth”, cutting between the two men as Wendice slowly reels in Swan. It is worth noting the Japanese porcelain figurine behind Tony Wendice in this photo. The figurine appears in various camera angles, and in a couple of instances appears to be staring directly at the camera, almost as if he is listening in on the conversation. This is not a random choice, in the figurine or its position. It is used as a framing object. (This is not the first time Hitchcock used a figurine as a participant in a scene. In The 39 Steps there is a statue pointing towards an open window, making the viewer aware of trouble to come.) After almost 3 minutes of rather standard back-and-forth cutting, Tony gets up and moves to the desk.
Look at him sitting on the edge of the desk, arms crossed, both confident and comfortable. He exudes power. By this time he knows that he has Swan, and he is charming as ever. Now the camera has moved to the opposite side of the room, near the fireplace. Our view has moved 180 degrees from where we were when the two men sat on the sofa together, with the lamp between them. Now the lamp is to the left of the frame, providing counterbalance to the figure of Wendice. Tony Wendice will move back to the other side of the room, sitting now in the deep chair to the right of the one he sat in previously.
This is an interesting camera angle; before we were looking at eye level, more or less. But now the camera is in a lower position, looking up at Wendice, whose body fills the frame. His position of strength has grown. His tennis trophies can be seen just above his head on the mantel. Now Tony stands up, and we are presented with an entirely new camera angle:
Now we can see bookshelves behind Tony. These shelves are opposite the door. Once again the camera has swung around the room. We are seeing furnishings that we haven’t seen before. But there is our familiar anchor, that green lamp, more or less dead center in the room. We’ve seen it center frame, left of frame, and now it is right of frame, providing balance in the scene’s composition. Tony walks back to the desk, to get Swan’s “carrot”, his money. As he walks, we see the only part of the living room that we have not yet seen:
There behind Tony’s head is a framed work of art, in between two bookshelves. As he walks to the right, we see the second bookshelf, as well as some sort of china cabinet in the corner of the room. Now we see the smaller, more ornate yellow lamp on the desk. It enters this scene frame right. Just as the Japanese figurine and the green lamp have been important elements of framing before, now the yellow lamp will fill the same role. Tony tosses the money across the room to Swan. This is as far apart physically as they will ever get in this 22 minute sequence. There is a gulf between them, as Swan appears to hesitate.
We can now see another ornate piece of furniture, and another art print on the wall. Note also the brandy bottle, perfectly centered in the frame. Alfred Hitchcock has made a complete circuit of the room, in a span of about 15 minutes, showing us every wall, every door, every unique furnishing. Most viewers will make no notice of this, because they will be focused on the dialogue between Wendice and Swan, but it is the constantly changing camera angles, and decor, that enhance the dialogue. One could say that the green lamp is the “fixed point” at center stage, around which the actors turn. But it is not just the actors, but the camera as well (and therefore the viewer) that have rotated around the room.
And Hitchcock is not done yet.
Swan moves to join Wendice at the desk, and at this point is is clear that they have reached an agreement.
Look at the perfect framing of this shot. The two men are not directly facing one another, but look at each other at a slightly oblique angle. The telephone, which is to be the instrument of murder, is dead center frame, and directly between the men. And the “new” lamp, which appears to be of Asian design as well, is now frame left.
Alfred Hitchcock leaves his best camera work for the end of the sequence. All of a sudden, as Wendice begins to give the specifics of the murder to Swan, the camera cuts to a high overhead angle.
I call this Hitchcock’s “God’s-eye view” shot. He employed it in a majority of his films, usually only for a matter of seconds, and usually at a moment of extremely heightened tension. (In Shadow of a Doubt, the camera pulls upward at the moment when niece Charlie discovers that her uncle’s gift of a ring came from a murdered woman. In the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much, the camera moves overhead when the McKennas are talking to their kidnapped child on the phone.) Removing the viewer from the action in this way is startling, because unexpected. It also makes the characters, and the viewers as well, feel more helpless. Hitchcock uses this angle a little differently here. We stay in this overhead shot for two-and-a-half minutes, as we observe the plotting of a murder. So why did Hitchcock employ this high angle here? Could it be as simple as the fact that he had already shown us the room from every other conceivable angle? I think there is a very specific reason that Hitchcock saved this camera angle for the end. It serves to ensure that the viewer is aware of the layout of the room, and exactly where everything is, so that when the murder comes we know exactly what is supposed to happen.
After this the camera returns to an eye-level two shot, and finally we fade to black over 22 minutes after the sequence began. The success of the film hangs on this sequence; not only is Wendice hooking Swan, but Hitchcock is hooking the audience, and the innovative camera movements, combined with the exquisite set design make this sequence wonderful, and a prime example of his masterful directorial eye.