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Back To The Future: How A Hitchcock Film Points The Way For 3D Film

From the rosy box-office numbers for new movies like Oz the Great and Powerful and G.I. Joe: Retaliation to the solid opening for Jurassic Park 3D, it’s been a strong few weeks for 3D movies, which reliably continue to attract audience members and vex most critics. But last week, I saw a 3D movie that gave me new hope for the possibilities of the technology — and I only had to go 57 years into the past to do it.

On Wednesday night, I went to New York City’s Film Forum to attend a limited engagement of Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder –- which was Alfred Hitchcock’s only 3D movie, though relatively few filmgoers got the chance to see it that way in 1964. I had seen Dial M for Murder several times on home video without giving much thought to the 3D effects; unlike modern 3D movies, watching it in 2D doesn’t make you feel like you’re missing anything. But watching Dial M for Murder as Hitchcock intended gives scenes like the attempted murder of Grace Kelly’s character a startling new texture and impact:

Plenty of critics have attacked the modern crop of 3D movies for their perceived blandness and lack of variety, but it’s not the variety of 3D movies that I’m concerned about. Yes, the vast majority of 3D movies are summer-y blockbusters and animated movies, from the relatively high highs of movies like The Avengers and Wreck-It Ralph to the extraordinarily low lows of movies like The Last Airbender and Mars Needs Moms. But there’s actually more variety in modern 3D movies than Hollywood gets credit for: sci-fi/action (Dredd), sci-fi/horror (Prometheus), horror/comedy (Fright Night), Oscar bait (Hugo and Life of Pi), illuminating documentaries (Pina and Cave of Forgotten Dreams), not-so-illuminating documentaries (Glee: The 3D Concert Movie and Katy Perry: Part of Me), garish-looking adaptations of the great American novel (The Great Gatsby).

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But given the dozens of movies that have been released in 3D since the technology’s comeback in 2005, it strikes me that not a single one has captured the effect that I admired so much about Dial M For Murder: claustrophobia. Most studios now rely on 3D to make their big movies feel even bigger; blockbuster characters like the Avengers or settings like Oz are supposed to pop off the screen in a way that adds an extra degree of spectacle (and an extra $5 to each ticket price).

But it’s just as possible for 3D to make a small movie feel even smaller. Hitchcock’s use of 3D in Dial M for Murder makes the apartment feel more cramped, as we see the action behind desks, lamps, and other assorted knickknacks, and the apartment in which the vast majority of the film takes place feels all the more claustrophobic for the jutting angles and closed-off corners that pop from the screen. It may be a single, relatively nondescript apartment, but thanks to Hitchcock’s deft use of 3D, it’s etched into my mind far more completely than the expensive, expansive blandness of something like Alice in Wonderland or John Carter.

So if any Hollywood studio is looking for a way to make 3D feel fresh again, I have a challenge: Make a 3D film that’s deliberately small in scope. As I look over all the movies released so far in 2013, I wouldn’t have picked a blockbuster like Oz the Great and Powerful or G.I. Joe: Retaliation for a 3D release; I would have gone for a small-scale, slow-burn thriller like Side Effects, which could have relied on the technology for an effect utterly unlike anything modern audiences have come to expect. Critics are quick to bag on 3D, but in the end, it’s just a tool — and a tool is only as effective as the way it’s wielded.