I CONFESS (1952): “You can’t tell them, as long as you’re a priest. Can you?”

I CONFESS (1952) – Warner Brothers – ★★★1/2

Black and White – 91 minutes – 1.37:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Principal cast:  Montgomery Clift (Father Michael William Logan), Anne Baxter (Ruth Grandfort), Karl Malden (Inspector Larrue), Brian Aherne (Willy Robertson), O.E. Hasse (Otto Keller), Dolly Haas (Alma Keller).

Screenplay by George Tabori, William Archibald

based on the play Our Two Consciences by Paul Anthelme

Cinematography by Robert Burks

Edited by Rudi Fehr

Music by Dimitri Tiomkin

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In 1947, while still finishing production on The Paradine Case, Alfred Hitchcock acquired the rights to an obscure 1902 play called “Our Two Consciences.”  Hitchcock had seen the play at some point in the 1930’s, and the subject matter (and inexpensive price for purchasing the rights) appealed to him.  This play would eventually become the movie I Confess.  It would take several years, and multiple screenwriters, before the film would come to fruition.   Hitchcock kept the idea simmering on the back burner, while he made four other films.  Warner Brothers did not mind, because the subject matter made the studio uneasy.   Finally he convinced the studio that he could make the movie and appease the censors.

The studio had reason to be concerned.   The screenplay that Hitchcock submitted involved a priest who hears a late-night confession to a murder.  Over time, the priest becomes the prime suspect in the killing.  But he cannot tell the police that he knows who the killer is without breaking the seal of the confessional.  Ultimately the priest is convicted of murder, and hanged for the crime!  This was too much for Jack Warner, who insisted that the ending be changed, and the priest’s innocence revealed.    So once again we have Hitchcock’s favorite theme:  the innocent man, falsely accused.  Let’s look at how he went about making this film.

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The Hitchcock touch:  One thing that Hitchcock always did well is opening sequences.  He loved to set the story visually, and creatively, often without dialogue.  This movie begins with wide shots of the city of Quebec.  The shots begin to zoom in, highlighting some of the gorgeous architecture of the city.  Tighter and tighter the shots get, until we see a street sign:  “Direction” written on an arrow, pointing to the right.  Now we cut to another direction sign, seen in a tighter close-up.  Finally, one                                                                                  last direction arrow, filling the screen, and a pan to an open window.  As

Iconfess8the camera moves through the window, we see a body lying on the floor.  We realize now that this montage of street signs has been pointing the way to a murder.   This is one of Hitchcock’s most clever opening sequences.  Following is a sequence of the presumed murderer leaving the scene of the crime, and being observed by two young girls.  This section of the film is very expressionistic in tone;  lots of long shadows on cobblestone streets.

Finally, we meet Father Logan, played by Montgomery Clift.  He sees and hears someone in his parish church, and goes to investigate.  It is Otto Keller, who is a caretaker at the church.  Distraught, Otto asks Father Logan to hear his confession.   He claims that he was planning to steal money from an attorney named Villette, but was caught in the act, and killed the man.

As the next day passes, Otto (played by the German O.E. Hasse) is worried that Father Logan will tell the police what he knows;  but he comes to realize that Logan will not tell, so he becomes more enboldened, actually going out of his way to frame Father Logan for the murder.  And Logan is the prime suspect, because Otto was wearing a priest’s cassock when he committed the crime.  And also because the dead man, Villette, was the keeper of a secret involving Father Logan and a woman named Ruth, played by Anne Baxter.   We meet Inspector Larrue, who is investigating the murder.  Larrue (played wonderfully by Karl Malden) soon questions both Father Logan, and then Ruth.

Flashback failure:  The next section of the movie is the weakest by far.    It involves Ruth narrating the backstory that she shares with Father Logan.  It is told in flashback, with voiceover narrative.  Flashback is not a technique that Hitchcock employed frequently, and when does use it (e.g. Vertigo, Spellbound) it often weakens the narrative, rather than strengthens it.   Why is this?  Personally I believe it is because Hitchcock was always interested in advancing the narrative, moving the story, and he didn’t believe in going backwards to go forwards.   At any rate, this flashback sequence opens with some very dreamlike, expressionistic shots that tell us that Logan and Ruth were in love.   The rest of the sequence is one of the most conventional in Hitchcock’s entire career.  We learn that Logan, prior to becoming a priest, was in love with Ruth.  He went off to war, she married another man.  When he returned,  they spent a night together.  They insist that they did not sleep together, but they were observed together by Villette, who was going to use this information to bribe Ruth.  So Villette’s death was very convenient for both Ruth and Father Logan.  How could Hitchcock have introduced all of this (necessary) expository dialogue without employing flashback?  Perhaps he couldn’t, but there is no denying that the story lags during this sequence.

The final third of the movie, which involves the trial of Father Logan, and the aftermath, is always powerful, and often brilliant.  Logan is found innocent of murder by a court of law, but the people outside the courthouse reject him, because of his association with a woman (even though he was not a priest when it happened!)  Well, Jack Warner got the ending he wanted;  Otto, the true murderer, is killed in the end, even dying in the arms of Father Logan.

Performaiconfess11nce:   Hitchcock was not generally fond of method actors;  he was much more interested in an actor standing where he wanted him to stand, and looking where he wanted him to look, than he was in the character’s “motivation”.  And although they did have some minor differences, Montgomery Clift gives an outstanding performance, one of the best that Hitchcock would ever get from a leading man.  Clift does not have a lot of dialogue in this movie;  most of his performance is in his magnificent, expressive eyes.  And he so clearly shows his emotions, as he battles with the knowledge he has, and his obligation to the church, even though his silence could mean his life.  Anne Baxter (not Hitchcock’s first choice) comes off rather cold, and although her performance is adequate, one gets the feeling that Hitchcock was not enamored of her.  As a matter of fact, Dolly Haas, who plays the wife of the killer, comes off as a much more sympathetic female character. She almost steals every scene she is in.   And Hithcock cuts to her frequently in the trial sequence.  Karl Malden, fresh off of his Oscar-winning performance in A Streetcar Named Desire, is superbly cast as the police inspector.  Brian Aherne makes the most of a small part;  one gets the sense that Hitchcock liked him, because Aherne is the center of attention in his few scenes.

Hitchcock and Catholicism:   This movie, along with the 1956 film The Wrong Man, are what I refer to as Hitchcock’s Catholic double-feature.  Hitchcock’s faith imbued every scene of this, his most Catholic film.   The movie is redolent with rich religious imagery, and it is not only visually stirring, but is central to the story as well.

As Clift’s character is walking around the city, debating whether to disclose the information he learned in confession, we get this spectacular shot:

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A statue of one of the stations of the cross is in the foreground.  In the background, between the arm of the cross and the tip of the Roman soldier’s spear, can be seen Montgomery Clift.  He is walking slowly, head forward, shoulders slumped, bearing his own emotional and spiritual cross.

Later, when he is being questioned in court, he has an opportunity to tell what he knows, and save himself.  But there on the wall, behind him, is a reminder of the higher law to which he must hold firm.

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Later, the judge gives his instructions to the jury.  There is a 13th member of the jury box, however, unmistakable on the wall above the box.

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And finally, when the jury finds Father Logan not guilty of the crime of murder, we get this shot of the jury foreman issuing the verdict.   The jury, and more importantly Christ on the cross, are giving Father Logan their benediction.

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Earlier, when the murderer Otto is becoming more bold in his plan to frame Father Logan, his face is obscured by the cross.

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As you can see, this movie is replete with religious symbolism, and none of it appears by accident;  rather, it is all part of a deliberate visual scheme on the part of Alfred Hitchcock.

Source material:  This film is based on the original play “Our Two Consciences”, by French author Paul Bourde (written under the pseudonym Paul Anthelme).  The play, now over 100 years old, just does not hold up very well.  In the original play, it is the wife of the caretaker who confesses to the priest, not the caretaker himself.  Also, the priest is found guilty, and only spared the gallows at the very last second.   The play is very much a morality play, without much character development.

Where is Hitch?  Hitchcock’s cameo comes very early in the proceedings, at about the one minute 33 second mark.  His unmistakable form can be seen, in long shot, walking right to left, at the top of a flight of stairs.

What Hitch said:  When discussing this movie with Truffaut, Hitchcock said “the final result was rather heavy-handed.  The whole treatment was lacking in humor and subtlety.  I don’t mean that the film itself should have been humorous, but my own approach should have been more ironic…The only question then is whether one should always have a sense of humor in dealing with a serious subject.”  Hitchcock actually asks Truffaut “Do you feel that there’s a connection between my Jesuit upbringing and the heavy-handedness of I Confess?”  Unfortunately, Hitchcock himself dances around this subject.

Definitive edition:  Warner Brothers finally released this movie on blu ray in 2016, and the film looks and sounds quite good.  Included with the movie are a twenty-minute making-of documentary, the original theatrical trailer, and a one-minute newsreel clip from the film’s premiere in Quebec City.

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THE WRONG MAN (1956): “My son, I beg you to pray”

THE WRONG MAN (1956) – Warner Brothers – Rating:  ★★★1/2

Black and White – 105 minutes – 1.85:1 aspect ratio

Principal cast:  Henry Fonda (Christopher Emmanuel “Manny” Balestrero), Vera Miles (Rose Balestrero),  Anthony Quayle (Frank O’Connor), Harold J. Stone (Jack Lee), Charles Cooper (Detective Matthews), Nehemiah Persoff (Gene Conforti).

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Screenplay by Maxwell Anderson and Angus MacPhail

Cinematography by Robert Burks

Edited by George Tomasini

Music by Bernard Herrmann
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In the mid 1950’s Alfred Hitchcock was a creative juggernaut, with more ideas for movies than there was time to make them.  Upon completion of The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1956, he had another four potential projects lined up.  Two of them, Vertigo and North by Northwest, were nothing more than ideas at this point, and not ready to begin production.  Another, Flamingo Feather,  never got past the pre-production phase.  And the last was The Wrong Man.  

Warner Brothers already owned the rights to this story, based on a case of mistaken identity involving a New York musician named Manny Balestrero.   Hitchcock had his sights on this movie for a couple of reasons;  in the first place, the subject matter was right up his alley, with themes that he had used multiple times, and would use again.  He also still owed Warner Brothers a movie from his previous tenure at that studio, which ended in early 1954.  How badly did Hitchcock want to make this movie?  When Warners vacillated on whether to give him the property to direct, he offered to wave his fee!  This was unheard of in Hollywood in general, and certainly by a director of his stature.

Source material:   Manny Balestrero’s story was originally publicized in a 1953 Life magazine article titled “A Case of Identity”, by Herbert Brean.   This article details how musician Manny Balestrero went to the offices of a life insurance company to see about borrowing on his wife’s policy.  While there, he was mistakenly identified as a man who had robbed the same office twice previously.  He was arrested, booked, and appeared in court.  His first trial ended in a mistrial, and while he was waiting to be retried the actual robber was caught, and confessed.  So Manny’s name was cleared, but at the expense of his wife Rose’s mental health.  She suffered a breakdown, and spent time in a mental health facility.   Maxwell Anderson adapted the Life magazine story into a film treatment, and Anderson wrote the screenplay with Angus MacPhail.  The screenplay stays very true to the facts of the original case.

Hitchcock and Italian neorealism?   Alfred Hitchcock frequently screened movies at his home, and one of the movies he watched in the early 50’s was Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief.   Although Hitchcock was somewhat disparaging of the Italian neorealism movement in general, he was quite fond of The Bicycle Thief.  He once described it in an interview as the perfect double chase – physical and psychological.   No wonder he liked it; that sounds like a description of several of Hitchcock’s own movies.   The difference is that Hitchcock’s other “wrong man” movies, (e.g. The 39 Steps, Saboteur, North by Northwest) featured dashing leading men, caught in international intrigue, chasing and being chased from one exciting locale to the next.   In The Wrong Man, Hitchcock is definitely taking a cue from The Bicycle Thief.  His protagonist is a member of the working class, struggling to support his family;  the setting ranges from the average (New York apartment flats) to the sordid (liquor stores and prison cells).  Hitchcock went so far as to shoot as many scenes as possible on location, in the actual places where the events occurred.   He even used some of the original participants as supporting characters.

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Hitchcock and Catholicism:    This movie, along with Hitchcock’s 1952 film I Confess, contains overt religious symbolism.  It is no accident that these two movies are also very similar in tone.  They both lack the trademark moments of dark humor that appear even in Hitchcock’s most sinister films.  I refer to them as Hitchcock’s Catholic double feature.  Alfred Hitchcock was raised in a Catholic household, and attended St. Ignatius College in London.  But his Catholicism didn’t end in childhood.  He was married in Brompton Oratory, also known as the Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.  Even when he was at the peak of his popularity, in the 1950’s and 60’s, he would often drive from his Bel Air home to Sunday mass at the Church of the Good Shepherd.   Is it possible that Alfred Hitchcock did not want a vein of humor in these movies because he felt it would be sacrilegious?  Certainly the religious overtones in The Wrong Man are not accidental.

We first see Henry Fonda’s rosary when he is being booked in the police station, and all the items in his pockets are confiscated.  It is seen in a long shot, and would be of no consequence, except the booking officer tells him that he may keep it.   We next see the rosary when Fonda’s character is seated in the courtroom.  He is holding it in his hands, under the table, and the cross visibly hangs down.  This shot is a little closer.  The final time we see the rosary, it is a cut to a close up ( the picture seen above.)  The implication here is that the rosary, or more specifically what the rosary symbolizes, is taking a more prominent role.

When Henry Fonda is released from jail, and his mother is attempting to provide solace, her advice is to pray.  And he does so, visibly, right there at the kitchen table with his mother.  This is a very moving scene, unlike anything Hitchcock has ever shown before.

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Shortly after, Fonda’s character will move into his room, where he will pray even more.    This time he is praying directly to an iconograhic painting of Jesus, (which very much resembles the one that hung on my grandmother’s wall when I was a child.)

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It is at this moment that the “miracle” occurs.  While Henry Fonda is praying, his lips silently moving, Hitchcock employs one his most masterful shots.   Two images are superimposed, one over the other.  The first is Henry Fonda, praying in close up.  The other is a man walking on a city street.  That man walks until his head is perfectly superimposed over the head of Henry Fonda, and we realize this other man is the real robber.

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Hitchcock then cuts to the robber, who is captured in an attempted robbery.  That capture is portrayed exactly how it happened in reality.   But there is certainly no record that Manny was praying at that time, or at any time.  It could just be a cinematic touch, but Hitchcock did very little by accident.  This is not intended as a mere coincidence or cinematic flourish; this is a deus ex machina, and Fonda’s faith is instrumental in his receiving justice.

Hitchcock may have been reticent to discuss his faith in interviews;  I think this movie says quite a bit.

Hitchcock and the subjective:   Just as he did so effectively in Rear Window, Hitchcock employs a lot of subjective camera work in this movie.  But unlike the thrilling things that James Stewart was watching, in this movie Fonda is looking at detectives, jury members, and the bars of a cell.  The viewer feels the oppressive nature of every aspect of Manny’s ordeal, from first being picked up for questioning, to being put in a cell.  The scenes in the prison cell are shot masterfully, with some unique camera movements showing the confining space, and how Fonda is reacting to it.   The idea of the innocent man falsely accused may have been Hitchcock’s favorite theme, and it is portrayed in the most realistic way in this movie.

Performances:  Henry Fonda is perfectly cast as the titular wrong man.   Fonda had the “everyman” quality that this role required, leaving the audience to believe in and empathize with the character’s travails.  Anthony Quayle is solid, as always, in the role of Manny’s lawyer.  The real standout performance in this movie, however, belongs to Vera Miles.  Vera aptly captures the fragile emotional state of Manny’s wife, Rose.  Her collapse, and committal to a mental hospital, are very touching scenes, some of the most touching in the entire Hitchcock catalog.  One of Hitchcock’s favorite themes is the idea of guilt, and guilt transference.  Rose feels guilty in many ways for Manny’s ordeal,  and it is her inability to deal with this guilt which causes her mental instability.  Vera Miles could not have done a better job portraying this on screen.

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Recurring players:  Vera Miles would later appear in Psycho.  Doreen Lang would have a couple of nice cameos in North by Northwest and The Birds.  Henry Beckman also appears in Marnie.  Paul Bryar also had uncredited cameos in Notorious and Vertigo.  Alexander Lockwood was also in Saboteur, North by Northwest, and Family Plot.  Clarence Straight also had an uncredited cameo in Spellbound.

Where’s Hitch?   Alfred Hitchcock initially shot one of his typical cameos for this movie.  In the scene where Henry Fonda’s Manny is sipping coffee in a cafe, Hitch was visible in the background.  However, Hitchcock felt that his visibility in the movie would destroy the documentary feel of the subject matter.  So he cut that shot out, and replaced it with an introduction to the movie.  As the film begins, Hitchcock appears on a movie soundstage, in silhouette, and sets up the story for the audience.

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What Hitch said:  When speaking with Truffaut, Hitchcock said that The Wrong Man “suffers from a lack of humor.”  When Truffaut asked Hitch if he was satisfied with the film, he replied “that faithfulness to the original story resulted in some deficiencies in the film’s construction.  The first weakness was the long interruption in the man’s story in order to show how the wife was gradually losing her mind.  By the time we got to the trial, it had become anticlimactic.  Then, the trial ended abruptly, as it did in real life.  It’s possible I was too concerned with veracity to take sufficient dramatic license.”  Finally, Hitch said “Well, let’s file The Wrong Man among the indifferent Hitchcocks.”

Definitive edition:  Warner Bros. finally released this on blu-ray in 2016, as part of their Archive Collection.    The film looks better than ever.   Included with the movie are a 20-minute documentary, and the original theatrical trailer.