Ventilating the Play


I made the below video essay, “How to Shoot a Film in One Room,” prior to ever starting this project. However, the impetus for the essay was an exchange between the two directors about Dial ‘M’ For Murder, one of my top-five favorite Hitchcock films. 

To my mind, Dial ‘M’ is a masterpiece, the example of how one should adapt the stage for the screen, using film language rather than merely filming a play. In the text, Hitchcock at first is reluctant to think of the film as anything more than one made to fill the studio coffers:

F.T.     Now, we come to 1953, the year in which you made Dial ‘M’ for Murder.

A.H.    There isn’t very much we can say about that one, is there? 

F.T.      I’m not so sure about that. 

Thank goodness for Truffaut. What ensues is a wonderful conversation about the art of adaptation, and how to make a play cinematic. My video essay explores films shot in a single room: Dial ‘M’ for Murder, Wait Until Dark, Rope, and The Hateful Eight. The first three were play (the first two plays were both written by Frederick Knott) and the last, according to Mr. Tarantino. was written to be eventually performed as a play.


F.T.       Was the picture very faithful to the play? 

A.H.      Yes. I’ve got a theory on the way they make pictures based on stage plays; they did it with silent pictures, too. Many film-makers would take a stage play and say, “I’m going to make this into a film.” Then they would begin to “open it up.” In other words, on the stage it was all confined to one set, and the idea was to do something that would take it away from the confined stage setting. 

F.T.       In France we call that “ventilating the play.” 

A.H.     Well, that whole operation boils down to very little. Let’s say that in the play one of the characters arrives in a cab. In the film they will show the arrival of the cab, the person getting out and paying the driver, coming up the stairs, knocking at the door and then coming into the room, and this serves to introduce the long scene that takes place in the room. Sometimes, if a stage character has mentioned something about a trip, the film will show the journey in a flashback. This technique overlooks the fact that the basic quality of any play is precisely its confinement within the proscenium. 

F.T.      As a matter of fact, that concentration is the most difficult thing to work out in a stage dramatization. And more often than not in the process of being transposed to the screen, the dramatic effectiveness of a play will be dissipated. 

A.H.    Well, this is where the film-makers often go wrong, and what they get is simply some dull footage that’s been added to the play artificially. Whereas in Dial ‘M’ for Murder, I did my best to avoid going outside. It happened only two of three times, when the inspector had to verify something, and then, very briefly. I even had the floor made of real tiles so as to get the sound of footsteps. In other words, what I did was to emphasize the theatrical aspects. 

(Chapter 11, Pages 209 – 212)