What’s it all about, Alfie? The master of suspense goes in an unusual direction with this murder mystery with a Catholic background. And foreground. Actually, it’s a regular guidebook for proper priest deportment, and it’s so complex that we wonder if Hitchcock himself had a full grip on it. Montgomery Clift is extremely good atop a top-rank cast that includes Anne Baxter and Karl Malden. Rated less exciting by audiences, this is really one of Hitch’s best.
Warner Archive Collection
1953 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 94 min. / Street Date February 16, 2016 / available through the WBshop / 17.95
Starring Montgomery Clift, Anne Baxter, Karl Malden, Brian Aherne,
Roger Dann, Dolly Haas, Charles Andre, O.E. Hasse.
Cinematography Robert Burks
Art Direction Edward S. Haworth
Film Editor Rudi Fehr
Original Music Dimitri Tiomkin
Written by George Tabori, William Archibald from a play by Paul Anthelme
Produced and Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Explaining what’s good about Alfred Hitchcock can sometimes seem pointless, as many of the benchmarks for directing excellence seem to have been drafted from his example. How many times can one praise Psycho or Vertigo and come up with anything interesting to say?
I Confess is far from perfect and this is what makes it one of the more fascinating Hitchcock movies to discuss. It goes in a number of directions that seem at odds with the director’s narrative strengths. Some of Hitchcock’s miscalculations are so awkward that we find scenes being redeemed by an actor’s performance… not something typical of a Hitchcock movie. I know it’s a device used by literary analysts, but analyzing the weak links in Alfred Hitchcock’s repertoire is perhaps the best way to understand his art.
This may be Hitchcock’s most sober film. Owing to the Seal of the Confessional, Father Michael Logan (Montgomery Clift) cannot divulge the confession of a murderer to the police even by inference or suggestion. This puts him in a sticky position, as the murder victim was blackmailing a woman from Logan’s past. Before taking the cloth Logan had a sweethearts affair with Ruth (Anne Baxter). She married while Michael was away at war, a detail she withheld from him when he returned. The blackmailer seized on this relationship for profit. Ruth (now Ruth Grandfort, wife of a respected public official) thinks that Father Logan has murdered to protect her, an opinion shared by police inspector Larrue (Karl Malden). That’s what everyone seems to think. Logan’s priestly code leaves him helpless to defend himself.
I Confess is a serious picture by a serious Catholic director, a fact immediately pounced upon by French critics that rank the film high in Hitchcock’s body of work. The Master of Suspense liked to work with McGuffins, essentially meaningless objects or gimmicks that set his plots in motion yet didn’t burden him with unnecessary exposition or deep meanings. “Keep it light” was his motto, even in serious films. By disposing with plot details, it left him more time to concentrate on whatever theme or narrative twist he had in mind.
But the sanctity of a Priest’s confessional is not a disposable MacGuffin. The average viewer may not know about this rule much less care about it, so it’s a tough sell. Hitchcock is fond of mocking institutions, and he continues to do so in this film with a continuous string of unfunny comic barbs about the prosecutor. But he plays the Catholic rule book straight, creating a movie about faith that’s not a happy match with a romantic murder thriller.
Hitchcock’s films work on rational logic and cause and effect, rarely acknowledging faith except as something for a quaint chuckle: perhaps I Confess is the revenge of the churchman snubbed by Guy Haines at the end of Strangers on a Train? Father Logan is the opposite of Mister Memory from The 39 Steps. Instead of compelling him to talk, Logan’s professional code makes him stay silent. By remaining true to his code Father Logan throws a city into chaos and puts innocent lives in danger. Logan doesn’t shoot the victims of the final hotel siege but he’s at least partly responsible for them. It’s difficult for non-Catholics to fully approve of Logan remaining silent while other people are suffering.
Hitchcock called himself a ‘simplifier’ instead of a ‘complicator,’ but the issues in I Confess are not easily simplified. The legal code and the code of the Church are incompatible; Logan is trapped in the middle. Hitchcock’s patented silent-movie ‘semaphore’ technique doesn’t help here. Anti-church types like to read literary symbolism into the young priest’s ‘unstable’ bicycle, and into the fact that the priests are repainting the rectory … what are they covering up? Is this subtext ultra-subtle Hitchcock subversion? Logan’s superior is an intelligent bureaucrat while a rather nerdy novice would seem incapable of taking on the kind of moral mess that Logan almost welcomes as a test of his faith. Father Logan takes the responsibility for his problems entirely on himself. We’re surprised that the Catholic advisers didn’t insist that he consult with another priest before submitting himself to this ordeal.
[ Religious-oriented film reviews interest me because I tend to (over) moralize about story and character elements in movies. At ‘Christian Answers’ I found this delightful statement about the central dilemma of I Confess by Brett Willis:
“I believe that the “privileged communication” laws of Canada and of all states of the United States are fairly uniform in giving priests and ministers immunity from having to disclose to the civil authorities any information received in ministerial-related confessions or counseling. I’ve never personally known of a case where a minister had to withhold information from a criminal investigation. But I’ve known one or two ministers who have kept complete silence about certain matters even when they were being slandered by others and could easily have cleared themselves by just telling what they knew. That follows the example of Jesus (Isa. 53:7; Matt. 27:12-14). Then again, I’ve known some ministers who couldn’t hold a secret if it was super-glued to their hand.” ]
The Catholic ideologues behind the Production Code office surely wanted to make certain that Hitchcock didn’t exercise his wicked sense of humor at Father Logan’s expense. But the director seems entirely sincere. Although I Confess was in the works for years, I have to think that he saw and was deeply moved by Bresson’s austere Diary of a Country Priest (1951). Father Logan doesn’t seek to literally emulate Christ as does Bresson’s Priest of Ambricourt, but he has a lot in common with him. Each suffers in silence, cut off from meaningful communication with others. Each is diagnosed by laypeople as being foolish, stubborn and guilty of something. Father Logan is in a particularly tough Catch-22, as even Karl Malden’s sympathetic policeman interprets his lack of cooperation as hidden guilt.
The romantic murder thriller format encumbers I Confess with a tangle of problems that Hitchcock does not solve. Any 1953 movie about a priest merely suspected of a love affair would face tough censorship scrutiny. In interviews Hitchcock said that the church ‘adviser’ nixed any suggestion that Father Logan might implicate the real killer. Father Logan’s principled position forces him to become an involuntary accessory to a cover-up. To remain loyal to his oath, he can’t even privately harass the real killer to give himself up.
The Unreliable Flashback
The big mess in I Confess is Ruth Grandfort’s deliriously beautiful romantic flashback. Through the alternate-reality of Ruth’s romantic memories, we are shown her subjective fantasy about the past. Hitchcock thus compounds the error he made in Stage Fright, where audiences soundly rejected a ‘lying flashback’ as an unpardonable narrative cheat. The reality of flashbacks is that earlier events can be shown through a character’s memories, but the visual representation of those memories will read as narrative events equally ‘real’ as those in the framing story.
Hitchcock runs up against a wall of conventional audience perceptions. If we had stayed on Ruth in the present, and only heard her testimony, all of it would remain suspect until corroborated by others. In a murder mystery like this, we expect witnesses to lie. But we tend to believe what we see with our own eyes. Ruth Grandfort’s flashback begins with the idealized, gauzy reverie of Anne Baxter descending the stairs to her lover. Hitch must think that this stylization will tell the audience that Ruth is a fuzzy-minded romantic — and that all of her subsequent testimony will be just as unreliable. My ‘read’ is that viewers will just take the tilted camera and gauze as a ‘pretty picture,’ a romantic effect of the moment. They will also be distracted by Dimitri Tiomkin’s impossibly romantic music cue, and assume that the murder thriller is taking a ‘romance break.’ Hitchcock’s visual grammar may be consistent, but he miscalculates how in-tune the audience is with his visual clues.
Hitchcock repeatedly pushed the edge of the envelope for visual grammar, experimenting with long takes (Rope, Under Capricorn), spatial claustrophobia (Lifeboat), subjective viewpoints & voyeurism (Rear Window) and even 3-D (Dial M for Murder). But his attempts to stretch the function of the flashback only frustrate the audience. It’s a difficult convention to work with. People readily accept clever flashbacks that ‘don’t tell the truth.’ In the opening of Singin’ in the Rain, the flashback visuals tell the truth, contradicting Don Lockwood’s false narration. In I Confess the saccharine staircase shot is no different than visuals in normal romances, so our suspicions aren’t aroused as to the unreliability of Ruth’s story.
So what does Ruth’s flashback tell us? Mostly that she’s a meddling romantic fool. When Ruth pictures herself in giant tearful close-ups, even she admits that all her actions are selfish. Then Ruth offhandedly tells us that, after a few missed letters from Michael, she went and married another man. As this happens across about ten seconds of screen time, it usually makes audiences laugh out loud. Perhaps Htich means it to reveal the shallowness of her commitment to Michael, but it comes off as a storytelling stumble. The first time we hear any of Michael Logan’s side of the story is later, during the trial. Ruth says that ‘he changed,’ and he may have just outgrown her at the same time his war experience drew him to the priesthood. Perhaps his affair with Ruth was a ‘time-off’ from a planned commitment to the church. Ruth’s account may be hogwash, painting smiles of love on Michael’s face that make him seem eager to ‘make hay’ with her out in the Canadian countryside.
The Anne Baxter character Ruth has therefore fed us a bundle of romantic illusions. Perhaps she’s in denial, and has protected her feelings with exaggerated fantasies of a gloriously tragic love affair — an affair now rekindled by the exciting notion that her dream lover has killed on her behalf. Logan is as paternalistically silent with her as he is with the killer Otto Keller. Ruth is even more dangerous during the investigation and the trial, indulging herself in dramatics while further implicating Father Logan. Had she kept her mouth shut, all Inspector Larrue would have against Michael is the testimony of two little girls who saw ‘someone like a priest.’
Hitchcock tries to imply that there may have been an illicit relationship as well, through the moment that Karl Malden’s inspector witnesses on the street outside Villette’s house. The declaration We’re free! does suggest that they have other sins to hide.
[ Talk about something to hide. This gets more complicated in light of screenwriter George Tabori’s original ending, in which it is revealed that Michael did father an illegitimate child with Ruth. To protect her as well as keep his vows, Logan emulates Christ to the end, is convicted and hangs for a murder he didn’t commit. In a real-life twist, the film’s casting was affected by the same conservative anxiety that mandated that the ending be changed. Anne Baxter was hired because at the last minute Warners rejected Hitchcock’s original choice for Ruth, new Swedish star Anita Björk of the art-house hit Miss Julie. The unmarried actress reportedly arrived at the Quebec location with her lover and their child in tow. As the tabloid stoning of Ingrid Bergman/Roberto Rossellini was still going strong in 1952, a detrimental scandal would have been unavoidable. ]
Even with the scrambling of the original storyline, Hitchcock manages to end on a beautifully ironic note. But Ruth Grandfort still comes off as a total jerk. In in the middle of the life-or-death pistol showdown, she discovers that her dream Romeo did it all for Christ, and not for love of her. Finally accepting that the murder was unrelated to her romantic fantasies (Duh), Ruth withdraws with her cuckolded husband. She doesn’t even wait to see if Michael lives or dies. What a maroon! This is one of the strongest put-downs of womanhood on film. The unintended side-message of I Confess is that romance is immature nonsense compared to Logan’s holy commitment. Logan’s loyalty to the cloth is the only real value. I’ll bet the Catholic advisers purred in contentment over that one.
This narrative misalignment — Hitchcock’s fundamental miscalculation — makes his other directorial touches stand out in naked relief. Those gags poking fun at Brian Aherne’s frivolous prosecutor — playing party games, etc. – mock the authority and wisdom of the law. Elbowing the police is of course a consistent theme in Hitchcock, but in this context his point seems to be to make us reassign our trust to the film’s other representatives of authority, the ‘unchanging, incontestable’ wisdom of the Church.
Does any other Hitchcock film have so much somber symbolic imagery? I Confess is filled with Quebec architecture, suggesting a unity between the timeless buildings, the rightness of Logan’s faith and the infallibility of Catholcism. The images of the Mass and other priestly functions are respectfully realistic. But every time Father Logan steps outside the bombastic Tiomkin music score makes his moves seem monumental, epic. He becomes a Will Kane of the cloth, walking lonely streets to a High Noon showdown with destiny. As if looking for a sign that God will intervene, Michael gazes upward at dramatic skies and stately stonework facades. Logan is a man alone, misunderstood by all; he can only trust that greater powers are on his side.
Audiences also react when Hitchcock composes Logan in a shot that parallels him with Christ carrying the cross. This has to be the most blunt use of symbolism in Hitchcock’s whole career. Well, Marnie‘s flashing red psycho klaxon is at least as bad.
Away from these issues, Hitchcock is as brilliant as ever. O.E. Hasse’s character begins as truly sincere, and only slowly turns from being pathetic, to a genuine menace. The person to watch in I Confess is Dolly Haas’ Alma, the wife of the killer. Poor Alma is a footnote victim, collateral damage from the onslaught of everyone else’s collective sins: her husband’s greed and cowardice, Ruth’s selfish vanity and even Father Logan’s ‘noble’ self-sacrifice. But at least Hitchcock seems to care about her.
Another irony is that Alma literally usurps Logan’s role. In an instant of instinctual action she takes a bullet for Father Logan, and achieves his goal of martyrdom. Logan aspires to the role of Christ, but instead this meek woman dies to save him. Luis Buñuel’s acid Nazarin wears this ‘failure to emulate Christ’ theme on the surface, whereas Hitchcock places his subversive counterargument behind a screen. At the fadeout Hitchcock suggests that justice has been served and that the moral balance has been recovered. But we know that Hitchcock was prevented from presenting Father Logan as a more complicated (read: humanly compromised) character.
Logan never explains himself. He’s a blank, and Montgomery Clift is the one to bring meaning to his stoic silences. The performance is arguably one of the actor’s best, as he communicates so much through facial mannerisms. He’s the most believable tortured priest in the movies. Hitchcock doubtlessly was impressed, even if the shooting was problematical — method icon Clift wasn’t a ‘stand here and look there’ kind of actor, and they reportedly didn’t get along very well.
Anne Baxter’s opportunity to star opposite Clift became a pitfall when the movie makes her character look like a ninny. After repeated viewings Ruth seems less a victim than an idiot whose selfishness brings misery to others. If Baxter the actress suffers it’s because confused viewers think it’s her performance that is at fault instead of the cinematics.
The awkward plot puts considerable strain on some of the peripheral characters. We wonder why Karl Malden’s honest cop doesn’t guess the reason why Logan isn’t talking: gee, now what reason might a priest have for remaining silent about something? At the end we fully expect Malden to start slapping Father Logan around, shouting “You let all this slaughter happen for WHAT?!” Hitchcock usually loves his villains but O.E. Hasse is thoroughly unlikeable — he soon capitalizes on the confessional as a Get Out Of Jail card. In real life, Dolly Haas was the wife of the wonderful cartoonist Al Hirshfeld, profiled in The Line King. Hers is the character we ought to sympathize with the most. When self-important people start acting on the basis of higher religious and political principles, ordinary folk tend to be the ones that do the suffering. Alma represents us all.
The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of I Confess is a great improvement over their visually murky 2004 DVD. It had a distorted soundtrack that dulled Dimitri Tiomkin’s impressive music score, which by itself is a reason I re-watch the show every couple of years. Cinematographer Robert Burks first worked with Hitchcock on Strangers on a Train, and his images here are just as rich and precise. Originally an effects cameraman, Burks was a perfect match for Hitchcock, as he could give the director exactly the images he wanted. This HD transfer shows off Burks’ great work on location — the Quebec castle behind the main title is no longer a dark smudge.
Laurent Bouzereau’s making-of featurette has been carried over from the older DVD. The trailer tries to implicate Clift as the cause of the scandal. One shot in the trailer appears to be an outtake of the “carrying the cross” scene, with Montgomery Clift strolling back to his initial position. A newsreel shows Hitchcock and Anne Baxter premiering the film in Canada. The local actor Roger Dann follows meekly in their wake. The cover art is from a great-looking original ad showing Clift holding Baxter in a hammerlock. It matches James Cagney’s grip on Virginia Mayo in White Heat. It completely misrepresents the film … in the best way possible.
Bottom line — understanding Alfred Hitchcock requires seeing the films that challenged his talent and abilities. It’s very tiring to hear I Confess continually described as something to see ‘if all the other Hitchcocks are checked out.’ That’s nonsense — it deserves to be listed among Hitchcock’s best films.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Supplements: featurette, newsreel, trailer
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 22, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson