October 25, 2010

10 I Confess (1953)

Country: US
Director: Alfred Hitchcock

The nine years between Strangers on a Train in 1951 and Psycho in 1960 mark the most fecund period of Alfred Hitchcock's career: five outright masterpieces (Strangers, Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest, and Psycho), three near-masterpieces (To Catch a Thief, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and The Wrong Man), and three lesser but still quite good movies (I Confess, Dial M for Murder, and The Trouble with Harry). I Confess has never been considered one of Hitchcock's great works (although San Francisco Chronicle movie critic Mick LaSalle once named it Hitchcock's most underrated). The quality and artistry of Hitchcock's films did create extraordinarily high expectations, though, so even if I Confess doesn't sustain the level of brilliance of his best pictures, it is still by any standards a good film. And in its best moments, it manages to reach the heights his greatest films more consistently achieve.

It's clear why I Confess appealed to Hitchcock, for it centers on a variation of the theme of the falsely accused man that he returned to time and again, from The 39 Steps (1935) to Frenzy (1972). This time around, the man falsely accused of murder is a Roman Catholic priest, Father Michael Logan (Montgomery Clift), who lives in Quebec City in Canada. Another interesting variation on the typical Hitchcock movie of this type is that the identity of the real killer is known from the beginning. He is Otto Keller, the handyman at the parish house where Father Logan lives, and the victim is a shady lawyer named Villette, for whom Keller worked as a gardener. When he arrives back at the cathedral after the murder and sees Father Logan, he insists that Father Logan hear his confession. Since Keller is quite an unscrupulous schemer, it's not clear whether he is really seeking absolution for his crime or using the sanctity of the confessional as a way to silence the only witness to his late-night return after the killing. When it turns out the murdered lawyer was also blackmailing Ruth Grandfort (Anne Baxter), the wife of a prominent politician, because of a secret relationship between her and Father Logan, the priest becomes implicated in the murder. Father Logan then finds himself in the difficult position of being obligated to follow his vows and remain silent about Keller's confession even though it means he might very well be hanged for the murder himself.

The first hour or so of the movie concentrates on the question of what is the exact nature of the relationship between Mme Grandfort and Father Logan and why they are taking such pains to conceal it. The police inspector investigating the murder, Inspector Larrue (Karl Malden), is immediately suspicious of Father Logan and believes the worst—that he and Ruth are having an affair—and won't let up until he winkles the truth out of Mme Grandfort. When she finally does tell him the truth, believing she is exonerating Father Logan, she is in fact unintentionally giving the Crown Prosecutor (Brian Aherne) the evidence he needs to try the priest for murder. The rest of the movie focuses on Father Logan's conflict between his vows and his instinct for self-preservation and on the question of whether he will remain true to his religious beliefs or reveal that Keller is the murderer. Keller complicates matters even more by planting false evidence and by telling bald-faced lies on the witness stand that further implicate the priest.

I Confess was actually based on a play, but this is never apparent, so thoroughly does Hitchcock cinematize the screenplay by shooting so much of it outdoors (he makes excellent use of the Canadian locations), by making the interiors far more varied than they must have been in the original play, and by generally re-conceiving the play in cinematic terms. Nowhere is this more evident than in the crucial sequence that acts as the bridge between the two parts of the movie, an extended flashback during which Ruth explains the history between herself and Father Logan to Inspector Larrue, her husband, and the Crown Prosecutor. The ten-minute long sequence is both the dramatic centerpiece and the cinematic high point of I Confess and in its own understated way ranks with the best set pieces Hitchcock ever filmed. In the play this scene must have been a long monologue delivered by Mme Grandfort, but in the movie it is presented as an intricate interweaving of the present and a prolonged flashback narrated by Baxter.

As Mme Grandfort begins her story, the camera starts a pan to the right that segues into a dissolve to the past, with Baxter's dialogue continuing in voice-over. After a few moments, the camera begins another pan to the right, and the scene dissolves back to the present, where Ruth is still speaking to the other people in the room. A few seconds later another pan to the right leads to another dissolve to the past. This process, shifting back and forth between the present and the past with pans and dissolves, is repeated no fewer than fourteen times during the sequence. Taken together, the flashbacks tell the entire backstory of Ruth and Father Logan, the whole brilliantly staged, photographed, edited, and acted in pantomime by Clift and Baxter. The sequence constitutes a virtual movie-within-a-movie, its first section, underscored by Dimitri Tiomkin's ethereal music, as lyrically romantic as any love sequence Hitchcock ever made, before the mood turns more menacing and sinister. Spatially, the series of pans and dissolves forms a sort of 360-degree cinematic panorama, a continuous narrative circle spanning past and present that begins and ends at the same point. It is an astounding sequence even for this director and alone makes the film a must for any fan of Hitchcock. Here is the lead-in to the sequence and its beginning, which starts at about the 3:00 point:

Besides that tour de force sequence, I Confess has many smaller but also memorable moments containing images that continue to resonate long after the movie is over. The film opens with a montage of scenes of the city's empty streets late at night, interspersed with street signs that read "DIRECTION" with an arrow pointing to the right, almost as if we are being led into a labyrinth and directed to the scene of the crime. As Keller returns through these same streets after committing the murder, Hitchcock and cinematographer Robert Burks (he worked on twelve of Hitchcock's films, winning an Oscar for To Catch a Thief) go for an expressionistic, film noir look with raked camera angles and harsh, horizontal, low-level lighting. When we first meet Inspector Larrue, he is interviewing Villette's servant, his face obscured by the back of the servant's head. Malden slowly moves to the side until the right half of his face emerges as he stares at something that has caught his attention, which we then see in a reverse shot through the window is Father Logan meeting Ruth on the sidewalk across the street. Already Larrue's suspicions of the two have been aroused. During a sequence where Father Logan is wandering the streets of Quebec while the police search for him, he stops and gazes at a man's suit displayed in a store window, and you can see him thinking how much easier everything would have been for him and Ruth—or could be even now—if he were wearing that suit and not a priest's cassock. Over and over we see staircases, both inside and especially outside as people traverse the hilly city (Hitchcock makes his signature appearance on such an outdoor stairway in the very first scene), and Father Logan, photographed from low down, seems to be constantly peering up to the sky as though looking for some sign or reminding himself of his priestly vocation and duty to remain silent about Keller's confession.

It might seem strange that after praising so many individual elements of I Confess, I don't give it a higher overall rating. The answer to that is actually pretty simple. Almost everything I've singled out for attention occurs in the first hour. The rest of the film simply does not maintain the level of visual or dramatic interest of that first hour, and I can't help wondering if this reflects a tapering off of enthusiasm on Hitchcock's part after the first section of the narrative is over. That part is dominated by the mystery, not of who the culprit is, but of what is the relationship between Father Logan and Ruth and what it is they're hiding, a mystery that engages us by focusing on the characters' emotions and by teasing us with isolated details without revealing the whole story. Once the true nature of the history between these two is disclosed, there is no way the courtroom scenes and outcome of the trial which come after can involve us in the way the more personal story of the first part did. It is all too clear that Father Logan will not divulge Keller's guilt even to save himself, and the movie becomes a conventional courtroom drama, its imagery limited to the routine by the familiar nature of the plot, its dramatic focus limited to a rather abstract and not terribly suspenseful ethical dilemma.

Still, I Confess is certainly a movie worth watching. It might lose momentum part way through, yet despite its unevenness, it is plainly the work of a master craftsman whose amazing skills do a great deal to make up for the relative flaccidity of the movie's concluding section.


  1. A very thoughtful and perceptive review of I Confess. I agree there are elements (as perhaps there are in all Hitchcock films) that work beautifully and are memorable, but the totality just does not work. Or does not work in comparison with the director's many masterpieces. But worth watching. Montgomery Clift is an extremely interesting actor, and I do think he is one of the stronger elements in the film. Though I don't think he and Anne Baxter are particularly well teamed. I completely agree that I Confess starts out strongly...in my case, about midway through my attention tends to wander...

  2. Eve, thank you for your kind comments, which pretty much echo my sentiments. I too like Clift very much. He seems a more honest and less affected actor than Brando, with whom he is often compared. He's especially good in intense, sensitive roles like this one. (Check out notstarring.com for an interesting list of the roles he turned down.) His lack of overt mannerisms seems to interiorize his conflict well. It's really sad that car crash pretty much destroyed him. He apparently sank deeply into booze, pills, and depression. It's interesting that this film was released the same year as "From Here to Eternity," which has my own favorite performance by Clift. As for Baxter, I responded more favorably to her here than you apparently did. (She wasn't Hitch's first choice. The Swedish actress Anita Bjork was. You can read why she was replaced at IMDb.) I do have mixed feelings about her otherwise, though. With the right director and material she can be very good, but in other circumstances mediocre--she seems to be trying too hard and doesn't normally project a naturally sympathetic personality like most Hitckcock heroines do. I thought this was one of her better performances.

  3. Add me to the Clift band wagon. I recently recorded Kazan's WILD RIVER which I have not seen in years, a film that contains two of my favorite actors, Clift and Lee Remick. Like you his role of Prewitt in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY is one of my favorite roles of his and in fact one of my favorite roles of all time.

    I have not seen I CONFESS in a long, long time so it is difficult to comment though I am sure Hitchcock's Catholic guilt was an attractive theme for his making this picture. As usual thoroughly enjoyed your excellent thoughts and review.

  4. John, while watching this film I couldn't help thinking of Hitchcock's Catholic boyhood and the anecdotes he told that suggested his recurrent interest in the themes of guilt and punishment might have something to do with being educated in Jesuit schools. After seeing that special on Kazan recently, I'm really eager to see both "Wild River" and "America, America," neither of which I've ever seen. Hope Netflix adds them or TCM shows them when the Kazan box set is released next month. As always, thanks for your comments.

  5. Great review of an under-appreciated, but always interesting, Hitchcock film. Glad you highlighted the Canadian locale, because it's my favorite part of the movie. Hitch makes great use of the local architecture; he allegedly hated shooting outside because he couldn't control the elements. My picks, though, most underrated Hitch flicks would be MARNIE and STAGE FRIGHT.

  6. Rick, I also thought the Quebecois locations added a lot of atmosphere to the movie. Hitch was such a master of seamlessly combining location shots with studio shots using back projection of the same locales, often mixed together in the same sequence. Process shots can look awfully obvious, but Hitch was so good at them that sometimes you don't notice them until you've watched a scene several times. My own pick for his most underrated film is "The Wrong Man." Most of us have an idea of the "typical" Hitchcock film (something like "North by Northwest," my own favorite), but he actually liked to experiment with new approaches more often than he is given credit for. Movies like "Lifeboat," "Rope," the almost docunoir "The Wrong Man," "Mr. and Mrs. Smith," even "Psycho" are pretty far from what one normally considers typical Hitchcock.

  7. It has a little documentary which is enjoyable, if you can stand Peter Bogdanovich doing his Hitchcock impersonation. Hitchcock's daughter is also in the documentary. It's amazing how she seems to not really understand what her father was up to sub-textually, but she continues to enjoy his success.

  8. I seem to be a bit in the minority, but I have always thought I Confess is a compelling story from beginning to end. Your article is extremely interesting and in-depth, particularly in your description of the 360 degree technique of Baxter's flashback story. I didn't put that together, and is very much like the Vertigo flashback scene from James Stewart's point of view during the love scene after Novak is transformed.
    I experienced a a different take on two things discussed by you and some comments. When Clift is walking the streets before he turns himself in, and then is drawn to the regular man's suit in the store, it struck me that he was thinking how easy it might be to buy that suit and escape from this horrible situation, not that he was thinking about Baxter at all. I didn't think that he was regretting his choice to be a priest, but fighting against his natural fears vs. his difficult duty as a priest.
    The second thing has to do with Hitchcock's possible motivations about the movie. I don't sense any Catholic guilt, rather admiration for a good priest who lives his vows with courage. Two scenes stand out in depicting this. The first was when Keller torments the priest with his helplessness in the face of his vow to keep confession secret. Clift says nothing, but his eyes were mesmerizing and full of everything he was feeling as he looks at the awful man who holds his life in his hands. The second was at the end, when despite Keller's open confession in front of police and everyone involved that he did the crime, Clift still does not in any way divulge that he already knew from the confessional. He shows compassion for the man, and absolves Keller as he dies realizing his sin. The looks of incredulity from the police and the others as they realize what has happened to this good priest was a powerful statement of admiration, from Hitchcock as well.
    Maybe it is because I am Catholic myself, and in recent times the spotlight is on the bad ones who betrayed their vows, whom the Church must acknowledge and weed out publicly. I am happy to see a portrayal of the vast majority of priests who live their faith and vows and deserve our admiration.
    My congratulations of one of the best critiques I have ever read. It's ability to engender serious discussion is the mark of a such a piece of writing. If this article had been done within the time period for CiMBA awards this year, it would be a formidable nominee!

  9. Free movie, I noticed the documentary you mention as an extra on the DVD, but I recorded this off TCM and wasn't able to watch the documentary because I wanted to post before the LAMBs in the Director's Chair event on Hitchcock. I'm still curious about it, though.

    Becky, thank you so much for your thoughtful comments. You pinpointed some scenes that are definitely worth attention. I certainly agree that Father Logan was an unequivocally admirable character who clearly had strong commitment to his faith to follow his vows even though it was to his own detriment and he knew Keller was manipulating him by using those vows to set him up. Also that Clift conveys this very subtly. About that scene with the suit. I didn't mean to imply that he had regrets about his vocation, but only that universal feeling we all get at times--if only I'd made a different choice, everything would be different and I wouldn't be in this situation (and in his case, I wouldn't be responsible for bringing all this grief to Ruth). It's interesting that he chose to become a priest only after he learned Ruth was unavailable. On the other hand, there is the implication that his breaking off communication with Ruth during the war indicates his war experiences might already have directed his thoughts towards the priesthood. And I did think about his using the suit as a disguise to escape, a possibility he clearly rejects by not acting on it. It seemed that he had his feelings for Ruth under control and wanted to do everything he could to protect her reputation, so I don't think he was contemplating resuming their relationship or running away with her or anything like that. As for the guilt thing, I think guilt-ridden people often feel guilt about things they have no responsibility for, and it's possible he felt guilty about getting Ruth in this situation by trying to protect her from Villette. I'm not Catholic, but as I understand it, part of the psychology of the confessional is for the priest to act as a vessel for the sins of the person confessing, an emulation of the way Christ accepted the sins of mankind and suffered for them by proxy, so to speak. As in all Hitchcock films of this type, the guilt is an element by its absence and by others' belief that it exists. The twist is that in other films, the main character spends the movie trying to prove his innocence and find the culprit, whereas here he has to resist proving his innocence and must actually protect the culprit. An interesting inversion of the conventional Hitchcock formula. Thank you for your kind praise (always appreciated!). Also for for bringing up issues that allow me to pursue ideas that occur to me but would be off-topic with my preferred tight writing style. That's my favorite thing about reader comments. Thanks again.

  10. Very interesting remarks about what you describe quite correctly as the priest's function in the confessional and how it must affect him. I am impressed by your description of the difference between this film and Hitchcock's other films regarding trying to prove innocence vs. having to protect the culprit! That reminds me of Hitchcock's own explanation about Vertigo, in that James Stewart has the woman do a reverse striptease, dressing her up completely as opposed to having her undress. What an incredible man Hitchcock was! Obviously, I am a rabid Hitchcock fan....