Second-string Hitchcock: I Confess and Dial M For Murder

A number of Hitchcock fans rate I CONFESS (1953) as an underestimated masterpiece. I’m not one of them.

Set in Quebec, the film stars Montgomery Clift as Father Michael Logan. In an early scene, Michael takes confession from the church handyman, Otto (O.E. Hasse): he’s robbed and murdered Villette, a shady lawyer. Logan can’t tell the police (represented by detective Karl Malden) because what’s said in the confessional is between him, Otto and god.

Michael goes to check on Villette’s house but can’t explain to the police why he’s there. The police become more suspicious when witnesses report the killer was a priest (Otto disguised himself with a cassock). Ruth Grandfort (Anne Baxter), Michael’s old girlfriend, gives him an alibi but it’s too early for the time of death. In the end, Michael ends up in court.

Villette, it turns out, was blackmailing Ruth. While Michael, still a civilian, served in WW II, stress led him to stop writing home to Ruth. She lost hope and married her boss, but when Michael returned, they spent the day together … which turned into a chaste night together when they were caught in a storm. Even for a more conservative era this seems like a thin reed to blackmail someone with, but Ruth paid up. Michael, therefore had reason to kill Villette. He didn’t, but how can he prove it without compromising the seal of the confessional?

Everything eventually works itself out a little too conveniently for me. And not entirely happily; like Suspicion, Ruth’s marriage hardly looks healthy enough to provide a satisfying ending. It was apparently a personal film for Hitch, a devout Catholic, and the cinematography is great. But it still doesn’t work for me. “God, perhaps has forgiven me thanks to you — but the police never will.”

I’m not aware of anyone claiming 1954’s DIAL M FOR MURDER is an unsung masterpiece; according to Films of Alfred Hitchcock, the director picked it to wrap up his obligations to Warner Brothers, and because he needed something undemanding to work on while he recharged his batteries.

Ray Milland steals the show as Tony, an unctuous fortune-hunter married to Margot (Grace Kelly). whom he knows has fallen in love with Mark (Robert Cummings), an American mystery writer. Tony explains to a shady former acquaintance, Swann (Anthony Dawson) that he’s worried she’ll leave him and take her money with her; if she dies first, well, her will makes him the sole heir. Tony has it all worked out how Swann can break into the flat and kill Margot while Tony and Mark are out; instead, Margot kills Swann. Tony quickly sees how he can make it look as Swann was blackmailing her over her affair with Mark, and murdered him.

This is a competent staged play, but nothing more than that. The mystery element in the script wears thin by the climax, which revolves around multiple keys and which characters know where to find them. Still, if it let Hitchcock recharge and do Rear Window next, I can forgive its weaknesses. “They call police flat-footed, but heaven save us from the talented amateur.”

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