I CONFESS (1952) – Warner Brothers – ★★★
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
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.
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
the 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.
Performance: 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:
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.
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.
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.
Earlier, when the murderer Otto is becoming more bold in his plan to frame Father Logan, his face is obscured by the cross.
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 confesser to the priest, not the caretaker himself. Also, the priest is found guilty, and hung for the crime that he did not commit. This is certainly a much bleaker ending, and the ending that Hitchcock originally wanted.
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.