I Confess (1953): Hitchcock’s Morality Tale Starring Montgomery Clift as Tormented Priest, Anne Baxter, Karl Malden

I Confess, made by Hitchcock in 1953, right after the superb thriller, “Strangers on a Train,” is a second-tier work by the maestro director.

Grade: B-

I Confess

Theatrical release poster

But a second-tier Hitchcock is still worth seeing–and better than what most directors make at the peak of their careers.

Loosely based on the turn-of-the-century play, ”Our Two Consciences,” (“Nos Deux Consciences,” in 1902), by Paul Anthelme, the scenario is credited to George Tabori, William Archibald, and Hitchcock, who set the tale in Quebec (a rare site for American movies at the time).

Montgomery Clift, then at the height of his career—in the same year he made Zinnemann’s Oscar-winner From Here to Eternity— plays a priest, Father Michael Logan, who hears the confession of church sexton, a German refugee named Otto Keller (O.E. Hasse), who whispers in close-up, “I…killed…a man.” He then admits to murdering the lawyer Vilette (Legare). However, bound by the laws of the Confessional, Logan is unable to turn Hasse over to the police.

Meanwhile, police-inspector Larrue (Karl Malden) begins to suspect who the guilty person is, despite the fact that the evidence points to Logan. Two children saw a man in priest’s garb leaving Villette’s house.

It seems that the dead man had been blackmailing Ruth Grandfort (Anne Baxter), who was once in a factually innocent, but seemingly exploitable compromising position with Logan. Tried for murder, Logan is released due to lack of evidence, but he is ruined in the eyes of the community. Unfortunately, Hasse’s makes one fatal error, which cannot be revealed here.

The premise of a young, moralistic Catholic priest who cannot divulge information heard in the confessional, even if it’s relevant to the possible solution of a criminal case, is intriguing. But unfortunately, there is no room for Hitchcock’s usual humor, or any light tones, in such a tale. There is also not much suspense, because the audience is always ahead of the story.

Clift’s performance gets better once Father Logan is brought to trial and is faced with the dilemma of choosing between the sanctity of the confessional and saving his own life. Karl Malden, a solid character actor, gives a bland performance as the police inspector, but he doesn’t get much of a chance to shine. Ditto for Aherne as the prosecutor, hampered by having to do an abrupt change of allegiance.

“I Confess” is often dismissed as a lesser Hitchcock picture, due mainly to the strange performance of Montgomery Clift. Clift didn’t get along with his director, who was known for his aversion of Method Acting. The distinguished Hitchcock scholar and critic, Robin Wood, might have been too harsh when he described the film as earnest, distinguished, very interesting, but on the whole a failure.”

I side with Donald Spoto and other critics, who see the movie as flawed but not a total failure. Hitchcock himself has said that the final result was too heavy-handed, and lacking in humor

For years relegated to the status of a minor work, the film has been reevaluated and now considered to be a decent film leading to Hitchcock’s most productive era, from 1954 to 1963, during which he made numerous masterpieces.

Spoto has pointed out several interesting themes tackled by Hitchcock: The treatment of character with precision and subtlety, the structure of the film is interesting, with crucial flashbacks inserted into the narrative, and the contrast between idealism and romantic fantasy.

If memory serves, “I Confess” features one of the longest flashbacks in Hitchcock’s work, during which Ruth relates her love affair with Logan. The novelty here is that she is lying, and as viewers, we are conditioned to the notion of flashbacks as sequences that always explain or reveal the truth.

Hitchcock emphasizes the strict Roman Catholic canonical code. The church forbids a priest to reveal what he hears from a penitent in the privacy of ritual confession, be it public crime or private sin. It also forbids the priest to allude thereafter to the penitent himself what he was once told.

Spoiler Alert

The truth is revealed, when Keller’s wife (Dolly Hass) turns against her own husband. In an upsetting scene, amid crowds outside the court, Keller shoots her and after a chase is brought down by the police at the ballroom stage of the Chateau Frontenac Hotel. His final confession to Logan ends the film on a sour note.

Visually, the movie opens like many other Hitchcock stories, with the camera moving from exteriors of the city, through open door or window, to an interior scene, Villette’s home, where the drama begins. The striking black-and-white cinematography of Robert Burks (the brilliant lenser who had a long fruitful collaboration with Hitchcock) shows street scenes of Quebec, in sharp cutting and from odd, unsettling angles.

Significantly, the story occurs in Quebec, an old-world city strong in the tradition of French Catholicism. This fact makes more rational and understandable the outrage that a priest would have a romantic affair, or that his acquittal would arouse righteous anger.

In short, “I Confess” is less than great, but still an intriguing work, and a must-see for Hitchcock’s aficionados.

Detailed Synopsis

Returning to the church late that night, and taking off the blood-stained cassock he wore, Keller confesses to young Father Michael Logan. Coincidentally, Logan’s former girl, Ruth Grandfort was being blackmailed by Villette. Father Logan cannot provide adequate alibi and so the evidence is strong against him. Bound by his priestly commitment not to reveal the killer’s identity, and unwilling to embarrass his former girl, who’s now married but still in love with him, Logan maintains silence during the trial. He is acquitted but reviled by the citizenry due to the verdict of “reasonable doubt.”

Commercial Appeal

The movie was not popular at the box-office. However, it did not damage the reputation of Clift as an actor, who later that year would score big in Zinnemann’s From Here to Eternity, for which he would earn another Best Actor Oscar nomination.

Cast

Father Michael Logan (Montgomery Clift)
Ruth Grandfort (Anne Baxter)
Inspector Larrue (Karl Malden)
Will Robertson (Brian Aherne)
Otto Keller (O.E. Hasse)
Alma Keller (Dolly Haas)
Pierre Grandfort (Roger Dann)

Credits:

Directed, produced by Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay by George Tabori and William Archibald, based on Nos deux consciences, 1902 play by Paul Anthelme
Cinematography Robert Burks
Edited by Rudi Fehr
Music by Dimitri Tiomkin

Production company: Transatlantic Pictures

Distributed by Warner Bros.

Release date: February 12, 1953 (Quebec City)

Running time: 95 minutes
Box office $2 million (US)

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