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Alfred Hitchcock's I Confess (1958)
Otto Kellar and his wife Alma work as caretaker and housekeeper at a Catholic church in Quebec. Whilst robbing a house where he sometimes works as a gardener, Otto is caught and kills the owner. Racked with guilt he heads back to the church where Father Michael Logan is working late. Otto confesses his crime, but when the police begin to suspect Father Logan he cannot reveal what he has been told in the confession.
Montgomery Clift ... Fr. Michael William Logan
Anne Baxter ... Ruth Grandfort
Karl Malden ... Inspector Larrue
Brian Aherne ... Willy Robertson
Roger Dann ... Pierre Grandfort
Dolly Haas ... Alma Keller
Charles Andre ... Fr. Millars
O.E. Hasse ... Otto Keller
Judson Pratt ... Det. Murphy
Ovila Légaré ... Villette
Gilles Pelletier ... Fr. Benoit
If the transfer of culpability was a basic theme in Hitchcock's "Strangers on a Train," it furnished the provocative dilemma to "I Confess."
A German refugee, Keller (O.E. Hasse), murders a lawyer named Vilette (Ovila Legare) when he is caught stealing... Keller thereupon confesses his crime to Father Michael Logan (Montgomery Clift), a priest at the Quebec church where he is a sexton...
Vilette was blackmailing Ruth Grandfort (Anne Baxter), who was in love with Logan before he was ordained and who continues to love him in spite of his religious vows and her subsequent marriage to Pierre Granfort (Roger Dann).
Keller wore a cassock when he committed the crime and Father Logan is unable to supply an alibi for the time of the murder - a series of coincidences which eventually find the priest on trial for murder...
The dilemma of "I Confess" relates to Catholic church law which specifically forbids the clergy from disclosing those sins exposed in the privacy of the confessional... Thus forced into complicity with the murderer, Father Logan behaves as though he is guilty despite his innocence in much the same way Guy Haines takes on some of Bruno's guilt in Hitchcock's "Strangers on a Train." The film's tension derives from the audience's knowledge of the cleric's ethical problem and its desire to see him break his vows to save his own life...
Montgomery Clift makes the clergyman's inner torment apparent simply by the anguished expression in his eyes, and creates sympathy for a man who could be an object of mockery by maintaining his dignity...
Compassionate, grave, and restrained, Clift delineates the priest's conflicting emotions with the distinguished nuances of expression... His face, vulnerable but brighter by discerning yet kind eyes, reveals his suffering with eloquent intensity...
While a determined Karl Malden looks for every scrap of information to clear the murder, an embarrassing crown prosecutor (Brian Aherne) is in despair to establish a motive for the murder...
With moody atmosphere, set against the background of picturesque Quebec photographed in black and white, "I Confess" is solemn and entertaining, never getting out of control, with an overpowering sense of doom and enough amount of suspense in the manhunt of a killer...
It's never been satisfactorily explained why this wasn't a commercial success. It's not a bad film. Nor is it good in an inaccessible way. Hitchcock's explanations for its failure aren't at all convincing... Non-Catholics don't know about the seal of confession, he said; they can't believe that a priest will sacrifice his freedom and career just to keep a secret. Rubbish. They can and they do. EVERYONE knows about the seal of confession, and Montgomery Clift makes Father Logan's sacrifice perfectly plausible. (Besides, I've never had much time for the objection that a lead character is "too good".) The one thing some people don't know about the seal of confession is that the priest can't mention the sin even to the guilty party, but this is made clear enough in the film in one of the confrontations between Keller and Logan. (All such confrontations are excellent, by the way.) Hitchcock also complains that audiences missed the point by hoping for Logan to tell the police what he knows, a complaint which betrays a misunderstanding of audience psychology. We NEVER hope that the hero will "get out of jail" by doing something dishonourable or morally wrong; so long as there is some other way for the plot to be resolved, THAT'S what we're hoping for. Besides, it's obvious that Logan will never break his vows. Another reviewer says that Logan should simply say to the police: "The seal of confession prevents me from answering your questions"; but the film makes it clear he can't say even this. It would put the police on Keller's scent, and Logan feels - rightly or wrongly, but at any rate plausibly - that his vows force him to be genuinely silent, not nudge-nudge wink-wink silent. I'm on his side here. It's hard to feel much sympathy for the "I won't say who did it, but I WILL drop a hint" attitude adopted by the priests of modern police dramas.
So what IS wrong with "I Confess"? Too much "Teutonic[?] gravity", as some have alleged? "Not enough humour"? Please. those imposing shots of stony Quebec MAKE the film. And let's face it: Hitchcock isn't funny. Give me this kind of thing over the leaden levity of "North by Northwest" any day. No: the short answer is that there's NOTHING, or nothing to speak of, wrong with "I Confess"; certainly nothing that explains its unpopularity.
A few things weaken it a little. If Montgomery Clift plays one of Hitchcock's most likeable characters, Anne Baxter plays one of the least likeable ones; I found it hard not to hope that Ruth would fall into the sea, or walk in front of a bus, or induce a casual passer-by to strangle her. This is okay: the fact that she's irritating helps the story. All the same, her explanatory flashback DOES tend to drag, and one wishes her scenes could be speeded up a little. Then there's Dmitri Timokin's score. It's a fine score, in its way, but it DRONES. Tiomkin is never allowed to get a crescendo out of the orchestra; instead, the sound engineer turns up the volume every so often.
Not that any of this matters much. Overall it's one of Hitchcock's more engaging films. The worst that can be said of it is that it's not a masterpiece, nor is it among his very best. Try it if you think that all the critical carrying-on over such films as "Foreign Correspondent", "Notorious", "Strangers on a Train" and "North by Northwest" is a bit much, and you long for something that isn't so theory-driven.
"I Confess" is merely an average entry in Alfred Hitchcock's filmography, but it is a pretty good film by any other standard. It has some basic weaknesses, but also some major strengths that make it worthwhile. The basic story is established early: Catholic priest Father Logan (Montgomery Clift) hears a confession from the church caretaker, who has just killed a man. Circumstantial evidence leads to Father Logan himself being suspected, but he is bound by the seal of the confessional and is unable to clear himself, putting him in serious danger of being wrongly convicted.
Two basic weaknesses keep "I Confess" from being one of Hitchcock's better works. First, too much of the plot hinges on the priest's confessional responsibility. In itself, this is an interesting plot device, leading to an interesting twist on one of Hitchcock's favorite themes, the wrongly accused man. But there are not enough other significant plot elements, and this one point cannot bear the load that it has to carry. In particular, a non-Catholic viewer, without an intuitive sense of the importance of confessional, will find it difficult to remember just how impossible it is for Father Logan to clear himself. This could have been established somehow earlier in the film - Hitchcock could be very creative when demonstrating things like this - but as it is, it is assumed that we already appreciate its importance.
The two leads also are less than ideal in their roles, making it harder for the audience to develop the deep identification with them that makes Hitchcock's best movies such exciting experiences. The ever-brooding Clift is very believable as a priest, but his acting range is too limited to make us fully appreciate his dilemma, nor can he make the romance angle as compelling as it could have been. Anne Baxter is also too melodramatic as Logan's old friend who wants to clear him. Baxter is a good actress in the right part - for example, her breathlessness is ideal in "All About Eve" - but her character here really called for something different.
Yet there are some strengths to "I Confess". One that stands out is the wonderful black-and-white photography. The film was made on location in Quebec, and Hitchcock masterfully uses a careful selection of shots throughout the picture that establish Quebec's distinctiveness and its stark beauty. It is one of Hitchcock's best pieces of location filming, rivaling the French Riviera scenery of "To Catch a Thief", although of course with a much different tone. In both films, the location nicely complements the story.
Karl Malden is good as the inspector assigned to the case. Malden must accept the usual role of a Hitchcock policeman - hard-working, honest, and earnest, but not very perceptive. Malden makes what could have been a bland character come to life.
There is also a fine climactic sequence: Father Logan is finally put on trial, and the verdict sparks public outrage and a carefully filmed and suspenseful chain of events. The climax is perhaps less satisfying than those of Hitchcock's best films, but that is mainly because we never learned to identify very much with the characters; it is not a fault of the ending itself. There are some fine Hitchcock touches here that you have to catch on repeat viewings.
* Director Cameo: [Alfred Hitchcock] crossing the top of a staircase during the opening credits.
* In the original play, the priest was hung. This scene had to be eliminated and replaced with another scene to avoid the wrath of the censor.
* Walking through the town, priest Logan pass in front of a cinema which is showing The Enforcer (1951).
* In his interview with François Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock said he was so impressed with the performance of Anita Björk in Fröken Julie (1951) that he hired her for this movie. However, when she arrived in Hollywood, Bjork brought her lover, writer Stig Dagerman, and their baby daughter. Since they were not married, Warner Bros. insisted that Hitchcock find another actress for the role of Ruth Grandfort, in this case Anne Baxter.
* In the 1953 French-dubbed version, the Montgomery Clift character is called 'Marcel' instead of 'Michael'.