'I Confess' and 'Dial M for Murder'
The reason Hitchcock disowned this film—he told Francois Truffaut he regretted making it—is simple: the film lacks humor, a Hitchcock staple. He liked death to occur with irony, so as to double-hand dread with oddity. A good example is 1948’s Rope, which begins in medias res: two Leopold/Loeb-inspired men commit murder as an exercise in power. The more somber I Confess also begins with a murder, and like the former film reveals who has killed, and why. The goal isn’t to uncover a motive, but to see how far a priest will take confidentiality in confession. Otto Keller (O.E. Hasse), a rectory employee, confesses to Father Logan (Montgomery Clift) about his robbery-turned-murder. When the investigation gets underway, Logan remains silent, even though someone was spotted fleeing the scene in a priest’s cassock, and the victim is no stranger to Logan. We guess him to be more involved long before Hitchcock throws in his mid-narrative twist. Regrettably, it comes in an overlong flashback sequence.
In his best scenes, Clift lets guilt channel through his matinee idol looks, a brief reminder of his more powerful performance in George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun. When Otto confronts Logan, trying to maintain his trust, the film offers a new take on Hitchcock’s doubling motif, with dueling consciences being displayed onscreen. Yet, Hitchcock’s reported difficulty directing Clift is apparent throughout. A formalist who (as legend has it) planned out entire films through storyboarding, Hitchcock clashed with the actor’s improvised Method style, resulting in an awkward and stilted performance. The rising and falling cobblestone streets of Vieux Québec City provide an aesthetic austerity to this tale of religious tradition colliding with moral justice; lending an ancien regime look and feel to this outmoded religious parable. In 1956, Hitchcock would return to such territory with The Wrong Man, featuring a much more affecting performance from Henry Fonda. While not in Hitch’s trademark style, these films remain interesting as relatively straightforward commentaries on crime and punishment, morality and desire.
Dial M for Murder
Sometimes it is easy to forget that, auteur theory aside, Alfred Hitchcock was a studio director making film after film under contract. In interviews he refers to Dial M for Murder as a basic studio product, the kind of film that “requires no great creative effort,” that allows you to “keep your hand in,” “play it safe,” and make “an average movie.” “I could have phoned it in,” Hitchcock apparently said in a press conference about his “ordinary craftsmanship” here, a pun that is just too perfect for this film!
The movie is based on a successful stage play by British playwright Frederick Knott, who also wrote the script. Despite his protestations, Hitchcock made an enjoyable and economical film, while retaining the play’s sense of spatial confinement and the theatrical emphasis on exposition and dialogue. We start with a basic love triangle, consisting of rich heiress Margot (Grace Kelly in her first role with Hitchcock), her husband, former tennis star Tony (Ray Milland), and her lover, detective story writer Mark (Robert Cummings). Unbeknownst to Margot and Mark, Tony has known about their affair for a year and has used this time to hatch a plan for the perfect murder. It’s a cold-blooded plot, revolving around an old school friend he spots in a pub, who has made a new career out of swindling money from older ladies and occasionally killing them; a love letter from Mark that Tony manages to acquire after staging the “theft” of Margot’s handbag in a crowded train station; a phone call; and an innocuous-looking latch key. After luring conman Charles Swann (Anthony Dawson) to his apartment, Tony blackmails him into accepting the perfect plan: using Margot’s own key, Charles will enter the apartment the following night, Tony will call Margot from his club at 11 pm, she will come out of the bedroom to pick up the phone, and Charles will kill Margot and stage a routine-robbery-turned-accidental-murder in the apartment. Tony has a perfect alibi, and Charles’s payment will come in untraceable small bills that Tony has been saving for a whole year.
Plan A looks great, but Margot fights back, killing Charles with a pair of scissors while Tony is still on the phone. The turn in the film comes in the following scenes, as we watch Tony constructing Plan B in front of our eyes, planting evidence that will incriminate Margot and make it appear that she intentionally murdered Charles for blackmailing her. At first this plan works too, and Margot is imprisoned and sentenced to death, which would have been a new version of the perfect murder for Tony if other people hadn’t started seeing patterns. In a last-ditch effort to save Margot, Mark concocts what he thinks is a fictional explanation of the events, but one that comes too close to the truth, while Chief Inspector Hubbard (in a great performance by John Williams as the quintessential British policeman) notices that the murdered man had no key on him. Although all latch keys look alike, and nobody uses a key-ring in this film, there is a different level of perfection in how a key works in its proper lock. When Tony opens the door to his apartment using the key left by Charles under the carpet on the stairs outside, he finds that he has an audience, and that this simple action of opening the door finally reveals his role in the story. Cool as ever after this version of a grand entrance, he pours everyone a drink!
The film is quite insistently about certain kinds of storytelling, about how many explanations can fit the same physical facts, and whether these explanations are as interchangeable as the similar looking latch keys and the similar looking men’s raincoats that are also swapped in the film. All the questions of a classic mystery work well here: sometimes the truth sounds like fiction, sometimes explanations that fit perfectly do so because they are artificially designed to fit, and the question is whether the truth has a different propelling power or not, whether it fits even better. In fact, the mystery is solvable only because nobody made a copy of the two original keys, an option that occurs to Tony too late as he tries to enhance his first explanations. And although everyone is just so cool and modern about it, the whole lock and key metaphor has a provocative connection with the adultery subplot: we see Margot kissing her husband at the beginning of the film and kissing Mark only a few seconds later. Keys and locks have to be perfectly matched, but it’s different for people. It’s as if Margot’s infidelity has created the possibility that a different key can fit this lock, an option that the male characters have to render impossible, unacceptable, through the course of the film.
If the film traffics in the fantasy of the perfect murder, it fuels this fantasy through the implicit desire for a perfect monogamy. Or, the perfect murder is the only answer to the demise of a fantasy of perfect monogamy. Given that the film presents men’s clothes, keys and positions in the story as largely interchangeable, whereas Margot’s handbag, for example, is never lost or replaced by another similar object, one can see where the anxiety comes from. This motivating violence of a fundamental gender betrayal is brought to the foreground in the recent remake A Perfect Murder (Andrew Davis, 1998), starring Michael Douglas, Gwyneth Paltrow and Viggo Mortensen. More intense than its 1954 counterpart, the film seethes with a hidden rage about a promised but undelivered or compromised patriarchal order. Woman with Money? Men interchangeable? Unthinkable.
Dial M For Murder was shot in 3D, at the tail end of a short-lived fascination with the technology in the 1950s and it may strike contemporary viewers as an unconventional choice for this depth-making technology. The film is rarely screened in 3D today, so it is hard to appreciate what the mode does for this insistently interior story. In contrast to the contemporary tendency to use 3D for new worlds and huge visual spectacles, here we need to notice the creation of depth at choice narrative moments, rather than set-up or world-establishing moments. When Margot answers the phone the camera creates a slow half circle around her, the murderer comes into view, poised behind her and slowly extending his knotted scarf to strangle her. If this visual treatment activates depth, the background space, the moment when Margot reaches for the scissors in order to defend herself activates a break of the implicit fourth wall, the forward space, as her outstretched hand reaches straight through the screen towards us. In addition to using many unusual and overhead camera angles, and many objects in the extreme foreground, Hitchcock uses 3D to add dimension to a limited space—limited at first in its spatial footprint perhaps, but since when have stories been truly limited in their meanings by physical facts?