I Confess

Hitchcock films get mentioned and written about all the time, but it’s almost always the same dozen or so that receive all the attention and plaudits. A good many of his movies are really only spoken of in passing, often referred to as bridges between his major works and, while it’s rare to see them dismissed outright, it sometimes seems that the perceived flaws and (relative) lack of success is what draws most comment. I Confess (1953) probably belongs in this category, being regarded as a little too personal and flirting with inaccessibility as far as non-Catholics are concerned. Whatever the popular view might be, it’s a film I’m very fond of, and one which of course contains the now familiar wrong man theme.

The movie opens in a typically quirky and macabre fashion, a succession of street signs flashing before our eyes and leading inexorably to the scene of a murder. As the camera peers through the open window the corpse is laid out on the floor and the door is just closing on the exiting killer. We follow the murderer through the shadowy, cobbled streets, his silhouetted figure suggesting a clergyman. Then, as he casts off the soutane, it becomes apparent that the priestly garb was no more than a convenient disguise, no doubt inspired by the fact that this man earns his keep working for the church. When a man has committed the ultimate sin, has compromised his soul and is wracked with guilt and fear, then it’s not unnatural that he should seek solace and sanctuary in a holy place. The man in question is Otto Keller (O E Hasse) and his entering the church is witnessed by chance by one of the priests, Father Michael Logan (Montgomery Clift). Keller insists that Fr Logan hear his confession and the latter duly obliges. Much has been made of the fact that non-Catholics may have difficulty appreciating the seal of the confessional, the inability of a priest to ever reveal what he hears under such circumstances. I understand how there are those who might be unaware of this but the absolute confidentiality is made clear in the script so I think it’s not really reasonable to criticize the film on this score. Anyway, both the viewers and Fr Logan are aware of the identity of the murderer almost from the beginning, but further complications are to arise and cast official suspicion in a different direction. If all those signs in the opening sequence led us to a dead man, another set of pointers lead the police, headed up by the dogged and practical Inspector Larrue (Karl Malden), towards Fr Logan. The murderer’s literal cloak of convenience helps of course, but the priest’s connections with the victim, a blackmailing, shyster lawyer, fan the flames of suspicion. As the reasons for Logan’s seemingly odd behaviour are laid bare and the object of the blackmail becomes known, the priest’s refusal or inability to speak up damns him in the eyes of the law. With the wheels of blind justice now in motion, Logan finds himself morally trapped and apparently powerless to protect either himself or those he cares about.

Anyone who has ever read anything about Hitchcock will be aware of two facts: his Catholic upbringing, and the distrust he felt for the law and the institutions of justice. Both of these influences on the director’s life are very much to the fore in I Confess. Church dogma colors every aspect of Logan’s behaviour throughout, cutting down his options and, again through no fault of his own, leaving both him and those around him exposed to misguided moral outrage. And of course all this leaves him at the mercy of a justice system which is unsympathetic to what it’s unaware of. Essentially, Hitchcock is presenting us with an ethical conundrum, a true dilemma where betrayal (be it spiritual or emotional) lies in wait whichever path is chosen. Really, it’s a classic noir scenario, with fate seemingly laying a complex and delicate trap for the unsuspecting protagonist – every act, the noble and the innocent most of all, being misconstrued and misinterpreted. Robert Burks’ lighting and photography, particularly the night scenes, is bathed in expressionistic shadow and Hitchcock blends the tilted angles, telling close-ups, tracking shots and deep focus beautifully. You could say the symbolism is laid on a touch heavily at times – the allusion to the trek to Calvary springs to mind immediately – but it’s all so wonderfully composed that it sounds a little churlish to harp on it too much.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m not a fan of the Method approach to acting, finding it phony and distracting for the most part. However, there are always exceptions, and it’s nice to be able to highlight a positive example. Montgomery Clift was one of the first (perhaps the first?) practitioners of the Method on the big screen, and I feel he was generally very successful. I like internalized performances and I like subtlety, and Clift was a first-rate exponent of this. Great screen acting comes from the little things, the barely perceptible changes of mood and the altered thought processes which we sense as much as see. Clift had many blessings but among the most significant were his composure and his eyes. The early scene in the confession box is a marvelous bit of work with those eyes revealing so much. And the same can be said for every important plot development – the increasing desperation and hopelessness of the situation is perfectly conveyed but never exaggerated. At one time I felt that Anne Baxter was less than satisfactory as Clift’s former love, but I now feel she judged it well enough. Again, it’s a role that calls for as much to be held inside as freely expressed. The longish flashback which clarifies the nature of her relationship with Logan is told from her point of view and it’s probably here that she comes across best. Frankly, there are good performances all round: Malden’s probing and restless detective, Brian Aherne’s rakish prosecutor, O E Hasse as the craven yet pitiful killer, and of course Dolly Haas as his conscience-stricken wife.

A film like I Confess, one which is so heavily dependent on its visuals, needs to be seen in good quality. Fortunately, the Warner Brothers DVD offers a strong transfer that shows off the contrast between light and dark to good effect. It’s clean and acceptably sharp, a solid-looking presentation. The disc also has a “Making of” documentary included, which provides some analysis along with production and background information – a worthwhile extra in my opinion. The film continues to be underrated as far as I can tell, and that probably says more about the strength of Hitchcock’s body of work than it does about the movie itself. I reckon it accomplishes about all it sets out to do but others may disagree with that assertion. Either way, I’d urge people to give it a chance, or perhaps watch it again if they’re already acquainted with it – I believe there are plenty of positive aspects to  focus on.

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49 thoughts on “I Confess

    • I’m not sure either. I don’t really buy the angle that it’s too hard for non-Catholics to get into, although that may just be me.
      Perhaps it’s a matter of timing, coming hard on the heels of Strangers on a Train and just before his real purple patch.

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      • I don’t really buy the angle that it’s too hard for non-Catholics to get into

        I don’t buy it either. I was raised in the Church of Scotland, yet, when I first saw this as a teen or even pre-teen, I had no difficulties at all.

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        • I was brought up Catholic, John, and I used to wonder if maybe that did make a difference. However, I’ve known a number of people from other backgrounds down the years who have assured me that it’s not an obstacle – and, as I said, it is explained to the viewer anyway.

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  1. Great review Colin – it’s a film with a strong brooding power. Maybe it doesn’t have the celebrated set-piece moments that people came to expect but it feels much more powerful and uderstated as a result (though I still remember finding the flashbacks a bit trite). Have you ever seen Robert Lepage’s LE CONFESSIONAL, which is a terrific mystery movie set during the shooting of I CONFESS on Quebec? Not that easy to find unfortunately, but really, really good.

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    • Thanks, Sergio. “Brooding power” is a good summation if you ask me. There’s a lot of intensity on display, slightly broken by the flashback I suppose.
      The “Making of” docu does make the point that the flashback is essentially how Baxter saw and remembers things so I think the altered tone of that segment is understandable under the circumstances – it’s a romanticized idyll for her, and that’s basically what we see.

      And no, I haven’t seen Le Confessional but I’ve made a note of it now that you’ve mentioned it.

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      • I must watch this again, Colin – I take your point about the flashback but truth is, bit fuzzy on the details now. I agree about Clift, he is sensational here – easy to forget just how strong his performances were, especially before his crash.

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        • Yes, it’s such a natural performance, devoid of the kind of affectation which puts me off a lot of Method acting.
          It’s desperately sad the direction his life took when you consider how immensely talented he was.
          I’m not sure what way the wind blows now but I recall it had become kind of fashionable to trash A Place in the Sun yet I feel Clift was extraordinarily good in it.

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  2. I feel much the same, have watched it a bunch of times, and I like it a lot, even with the flaws. I never felt Baxter and Clift have the right chemistry but it never bothered me or took away from anything. I love the look of it, the noir feel, the acting, especially Clift’s. Hasse is one of my favourite villains, love the way Quebec is featured, and so on. It gets dumped on or ignored too often, and if it was by any other director it would get more respect. Glad you give it some love here.

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    • There is, I suppose, a bit of spark lacking between Clift and Baxter, although I’m not sure if that should be viewed as a negative. Given their characters’ respective positions, and the choices both have made in life, it’s maybe understandable.

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  3. Count me too as one who has always liked it and gone back to it many times (and happy to say I’ve seen some pristine studio prints projected thanks to living in L.A.). I don’t know why its reputation is not better–it has Hitchcock’s themes and certainly has suspense, especially in scenes between Clift and O.E. Hasse who is superb as the murderer. For me it’s better than some more celebrated films by Hitchcock, and if not quite in my own top tier of his movies, pretty close to it.

    I see that others have already mentioned the expressive handling of Quebec locations, and I feel that was a real strong point here. One of Hitchcock’s many great strengths as a director is his feeling for locations–think of San Francisco in VERTIGO for another example.

    Yes, the flashback is Anne Baxter’s character seeing that relationship as romantically as she still can and I like its contrasting feeling very much and really think it adds. Coincidentally, the last movie that I watched was Fritz Lang’s excellent THE BLUE GARDENIA made in this same year and also with Anne Baxter and she is first-rate in that too. Always a good actress for me, characteristically intense but not in a way that keeps her from being real.

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    • I really meant to say something about the location work so I’m glad you and Kristina have mentioned it and reminded me.
      Those Quebec locations give it something of an Old World feel which seems quite appropriate given the fact the past plays such a prominent role in the lives of the protagonists.
      There’s an almost Gothic atmosphere at times, suggestive of the persecution and intolerance of the Old World. It’s as though these elements of the past are reaching out to the characters, and Keller embodies something of that quality too, both representing the Old World himself while (as a refugee) simultaneously running from it.

      It’s been ages now since I saw The Blue Gardenia, a Lang film which often gets glossed over a bit.

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  4. I think there may be a generational thing that counts against this film these days. In 1953 most non-Catholics would have understood Fr Logan’s position. Even if they disagreed with Catholic teaching on this point they’d have accepted that a Catholic priest would have had to take the stance that Fr Logan takes and they’d have respected his decision.

    In our post-Christian world this is something that modern reviewers may simply not comprehend. People today are also likely to have less sympathy with a man who puts his duty to God ahead of his duty to the state. It’s a pity because the works of certain film-makers (like Hitchcock and Fritz Lang) can only be appreciated if you’re prepared to accept that their Catholicism had a huge impact on their movies. That doesn’t mean you have to be a Catholic (I’m not) but you do need to understand that that’s where the fiolm-maker is coming from.

    On the whole I think your review is spot on. It’s a very underrated movie and I also agree on Clift’s finely nuanced performance.

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    • You may be right that the effect of the motivation has less meaning for viewers nowadays, although I understand such concerns were voiced when the film first came out.
      While I don’t think it’s necessary to be aware of the background of these filmmakers to appreciate their work I do believe that such knowledge adds layers to the films.

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  5. I’m kinda ambivalent on I Confess. I liked the rather unusual plot point of using Quebec City as the setting; It makes the events seem somewhat other-worldy, if that makes any sense.

    I liked Otto Kruger as the killer in this, and Iliked the way Hitch gradually moves him from being wracked with guilt to actively trying to pass his crime off to Clift.

    I guess my quibble of the movie is that I thought it didn’t create enough dramatic tension. I never had the feeling that Clift would act to save himself because of his commitment to the sanctity of the confessional. I always saw that character as the most moral in the film, and I assumed he would take the fall rather than renounce his beliefs.

    @@@@@@ spoiler @@@@@@@

    I thought it was fairly easy to read how the killer would get tripped up, because the film hints all along that the wife is the one having the crisis.

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    • Jeff, I think all those points you refer to are where the tension originates – Clift’s faith is never in doubt so the viewer is left wondering how he can extricate himself from the situation without compromising his spiritual integrity.

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  6. As usual, Colin, one of your fine reviews generates much interest and comment.

    My personal film collection contains many (or most) of Hitch’s films from the under-rated “YOUNG AND INNOCENT” (innocent man accused and on the run!) to “FRENZY”. Oddly though, I see that I have to “confess” that I don’t have this film. I am not really sure why. The locations in Quebec are both unusual and effective, Dimitri Tiomkin’s score is good, the cinematography of Robert Burke is beautiful and Clift was never better. So why? Maybe I feel a certain lack of dramatic tension. I certainly don’t have a problem with the confessional concept here.

    I think I may be talking myself into needing to see it again for reassessment. It IS a fine movie but Hitch made so many terrific films that, for me so far anyway, this one fails to be among my favourites.

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    • Thanks, Jerry. Do give it another look if you get the chance.
      I think that the overall quality of Hitch’s work is such that it’s almost inevitable some titles get kind of lost in the mix, and this seems to be one of those.

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    • Cheers. Hitch, of course, just wanted to get movies made when he reached the shooting stage so actors like Clift who required more input as regards their motivation in certain scenes were always going to problematic for him. I think it’s a tribute to the artistry and professionalism of all concerned that the finished movie works so well, and that the performances, particularly that of Clift, are so strong.

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  7. I saw this not so long ago, but it has already faded in my mind so I’ll need to revisit.The main things I remember now are the scenery/brooding atmosphere and Clift’s performance. I wasn’t brought up Catholic and do agree with you that it is possible to enter into the character’s conflict without having that background.

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    • Judy, I think the well-realized atmosphere and Clift’s work are the highlights of the movie so I’m not the least bit surprised you recall those elements most vividly.
      I always had my doubts that the film’s theme was dependent on one’s background, so it’s good to see yourself and others bear that out.

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  8. Sorry Colin, I don’t know why but I didn’t get the mail advising that this had been done. Bloody technology. Anyway, great review of a movie that I, like you, feel has been genuinely underrated over the years and is well worth discussing. I found it to be almost unbearably tense as the noose around Clift’s character’s neck seems to tighten with every minute, with the disclosure of the confession being a great zinger both morally and in terms of suspense. I know what you mean also about the ‘Method’ but agree that Clift is brilliant.

    There was a British film made in 1994, Priest, which again pivoted on the moral choice faced by a priest when he hears something in confession. It’s a Jimmy McGovern screenplay that’s rarely on television, but a very good film.

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    • I think I’ve seen that ’94 film but I remember little about it now.

      I think the way the level of tension is maintained is one of the great strengths of this movie, and you honestly can’t see a way out for Clift’s character.

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  9. You’re right, it really isn’t celebrated at all. I like The Wrong Man, but I can see why it hasn’t gained much attention. I always thought it was more to do with the fact that Montgomery Clift had such a short career.

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  10. Not being a Monty Cliff fan I have avoided this one for years (decades in fact) but I will add it to the list off your and the others thumbs up. A nicely done write-up by the way.

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    • I hope you get something from it. Clift does fine in the role, using his strengths as an actor to very good effect. I’d recommend trying it out anyway – seeing another Hitchcock film is never really time lost, in my opinion.

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  11. LOL. I hope it is not a hanging offence if I say that besides REAR WINDOW and STRANGERS ON A TRAIN I am not a great fan of Hitchcock either. I will now go toss myself of the roof before the “birds” get me. LOL. I had the good fortune to see REAR WINDOW on the big screen here when it got a re-release some years ago and was floored by it. Great film!

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