I Confess a Lovely Little Murder Mystery Thriller
By Kristin Battestella
I’m not sure why the 1953 Alfred Hitchcock noir treat I Confess seems so unloved. Bias alert! I love Montgomery Clift, I love Alfred Hitchcock, and despite their trouble behind the scenes, this Catholic infused and French flavored thriller feels like a match made in heaven.
Father Michael Logan (Montgomery Clift) is alone in his Quebec City rectory one night and finds handyman Otto Keller (O.E. Hasse) distressed. Father Logan hears Otto’s confession, and it is indeed a confession – to murder. Soon enough, Inspector Larrue (Karl Malden) is investigating the crime, and each clue leads him to suspect Father Logan –who is increasingly wracked with guilt over this truth he cannot reveal as Keller pressures him and further implicates Father Logan to the police. The distraught priest turns to his pre-war flame Ruth Grandfort (Anne Baxter), but their friendship is more a hindrance than a help for Father Logan. Not only is he a priest, but Ruth is married to a high profile politician. To keep her past romance with Father Logan from becoming public scandal she was being blackmailed – by Keller’s victim.
I Confess has a very interesting premise and plot from writers George Tabori (Thunder in the East) and William Archibald’s (The Innocents) adaptation of Paul Anthelme’s original play. The crime preys upon our religious securities and sanctities at a time when the church was absolute- further heavies were excised from the first draft due to the studio’s fifties sensibilities. This is sacred stuff- even a murder heard in confession – and the dark filming, lighting tricks and shadow works, and claustrophobic designs add to the atmospheric dilemma. Director Hitchcock (no reference needed) films in cramped confessional booths with extreme angles and lighting thru gratings and objects. Backs are turned in the frame, faces are hidden, and strategic shadows overwhelm the background. Camera shots on the conflicted Clift are up close, tight, and intense like his inner turmoil or wide extremes of the tiny robed man in the big city or crowd, overwhelmed by the situation. By contrast, Law offices and court proceedings are traditionally shot bright and revealing sequences – each visual is used to reflect the mood at hand perfectly. Flashbacks are used to tell the crime itself or past happiness, and the recountings work because these memories and viewpoints are shaded, distorted, and unreliable testimonials. The audience knows who the killer is, yet the pace, story, and cast deliver the suspense, scandal, blackmail, and twists.
Considering his Old Hollywood movie star looks, it seems odd to say Montgomery Clift (From Here to Eternity, A Place in the Sun) looks the part of a priest, but his method works are simply on form. Father Logan is humble in his robes, delicate about setting the alter, and unassuming of all else. Any other day, he seems like he would be a likeable, dutiful, good, believing, and God-fearing man. Clift quickly ingrains this history before the titular confession, pursuit, and lost romance slowly unravels both the man and the priest. Everything Father Logan is withholding is to help others at the expense of himself; it’s a willingly martyrdom because it is the right, by the rules thing to do, yet Father Logan has been given too much to handle and unwilling carries this secret. He could walk away, make it easy for himself – but he doesn’t. Father Logan’s conviction is both admirable and undoing him. So, let’s add what looks to be an affair on top of that turmoil! Despite my Monty love, I can see how his obsessive not breaking character routine – especially for a character that’s so priestly calm on the outside and boiling inside – would drive Hitchcock insane. However, I must say the behind the scenes antagonism probably added to Clift and his character in knots portrayal. It’s a pity star and director didn’t get along, as I would have liked to see this push and pull collaboration again. I Confess gets more intense as it goes on, and this is one of those films where you find yourself getting closer to the TV and shouting. Halfway thru I’m always yelling, “Just tell them! Tell! God will forgive you just this one time if you tell!”
Where classic film aficionados may argue for and against Clift and Hitchcock, I think it is universally agreed that Anne Baxter is the weakest point of I Confess. Certainly that old time censorship was already touchy over relations between a married woman and a priest, but Baxter (All About Eve, The Ten Commandments) is too clingy and over the top compared to Clift’s decidedly subdued style. They don’t have a lot of chemistry; in fact, they seem rather awkward – especially when Ruth is adorned with pigtails in the romancey flashback. Normally I love Baxter in her feisty, sassy, tough roles, but Ruth is too fearful and jittery for someone who is supposed to be an upscale politician’s wife. She’s made up to look so golden and wholesome, yet Ruth is also portrayed as a scandalous, illicit housewife. Perhaps one woman could be both, but that balance isn’t happening in this love story offshoot. Of course, if Ruth appeared less, it wouldn’t be so bad, but her narration of said romancey flashback drags down the interrogation in the middle of the film and forces an unnecessary female element into I Confess. The man alone inside/out priest conflicts, O.E. Hasse (Betrayed) and his crazy desperation wild eyes, and Dolly Haas (Broken Blossoms) as Keller’s haggard, fraught wife are far more interesting than any decades old love lost.
Fortunately, Karl Malden (A Streetcar Named Desire, The Streets of San Francisco) as Inspector Larrue proves a worthy chest player for Clift’s Father Logan. Their interrogation scenes are great – what begins as supposedly casual and open, helpful conversations repeatedly wear and rise into angry, difficult, intrusive trial drama. The viewer dislikes Larrue because he is wrongly pursuing Father Logan. Yet as fellow puzzle piecing players, we like his rough, go to techniques and want to see him find the truth and catch the real killer. Despite their fundamental impasse, both men do want the same thing. What first time viewers won’t know is how far Larrue is going to take his incrimination of Father Logan. Technically both sides have every rule abiding reason to take their respective courses of action – but only one can be the victor and justice must be done.
The Quebec City scenery itself also lends unique support to I Confess. The outdoor filming and lovely church iconography add a distinctly foreign and ecclesiastic flavor, and these elements standout among Hitchcock’s repertoire. Likewise, multiple Hitch composer and Oscar winner Dimitri Tiomkin’s (High Noon) score accents the highs and lows perfectly as the intensity of I Confess escalates. Granted, some of the mid century Canadian legal practices might be confusing to those accustomed to today’s typical and oft seen American law dramas. However, the courtroom elements and any French references don’t hinder the plot at hand. Subtitles are essential to hear some of the soft voices, and the Turner Classic Movies Hitchcock Thrillers Collection DVD set offers a behind the scenes short and vintage newsreel treats. Of course, I own this set I Confess shares with Suspicion, Strangers on a Train, and The Wrong Man, and yet I can’t help but watch every time it comes on television. You think you know it by heart and can just casually have it on in the background, but no. I Confess draws you into its secrets.
Longtime Hitchcock fans have probably already dissected I Confess, but budding Sir Alfred fans, lovers of mysteries and suspense, fans of the cast, and classic film connoisseurs should definitely give this little conflicted church gem their undivided attention.