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.