“I feel that both I Confess and The Wrong Man suffer from a lack of humor. The only question then is whether one should always have a sense of humor in dealing with a serious subject. It seems to me that some of my British films were too light and some of my American films were too heavy handed, but it’s the most difficult thing in the world to get just the right dosage. It’s only after the film is done that one can judge that properly. Aside from the public, many apparently felt that for a priest to guard a secret at the risk of his own life was absurd… If the basic idea is not acceptable to the public, it compromises the whole picture. And this brings up another generalization: To put a situation into a film because you yourself can vouch for its authenticity, either because you’ve experienced it or because you’ve heard of it, simply isn’t good enough. You may feel sure of yourself because you can always say, ‘This is true. I’ve seen it.’ You can argue as much as you like, but the public and critics still won’t accept it… That’s the trouble with I Confess. We Catholics know that a priest cannot disclose the secret of the confessional. But the Protestants, the atheists, and the agnostics all say, ‘Ridiculous! No man would remain silent and sacrifice himself for such a thing.”
In retrospect, the crisis of conscience potboiler, I Confess (1953) is an underrated Hitchcock masterpiece – a sort of preamble to the master of suspense’s spectacular decade of screen achievements, and one of the grotesquely overlooked and underrated films in his canon. Primarily of interest for Montgomery Clift's closeted pang re-channeled as the contrition of a Catholic priest, I Confess is teeming with delicious subtext, polished off by Robert Burks’ magnificent use of its Quebec City locations and a very solid story, coauthored by George Tabori and William Archibald. At just a little over an hour and a half, I Confess is a very tightly scripted and quick-paced movie. In retrospect, the picture is regrettably overshadowed by Hitchcock’s more flamboyant Technicolor '50s fare. In the wake of such classics as Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, and, North By Northwest (to name but only three), Hitch’s early spate of ‘50’s movies made for Warner Bros. (save Strangers on A Train 1951) is generally, and unfairly, dismissed as the proverbial poor relations. Yet, I Confess cannot be so easily discounted if only because it cuts deep to the bone of Hitchcock’s personal grappling with his Jesuit upbringing. Paul Anthelme’s 1902 play, ‘Nos Deux Consciences’ (Our Two Consciences), from whence Tabori and Archibald have derived their inspiration, questions one of the cornerstones of Catholicism. Should a priest tell the truth to expose a murderer when his religious education demands of him that he remain silent? Hitch adds intimate visual significance to this quandary via ‘pure cinema’; juxtaposing Clift’s internalized anxieties – both in character, and perhaps, a few holdovers from the actor’s own emotional baggage as a closeted homosexual – with concrete examples (literally, the iconic statuary bearing down on this milieu); an imperishable faith, unchallenged, and ready to pass immortal judgment.
The property was brought to Hitchcock’s attention by French playwright, Louis Verneuil, inevitably going through several permutations and screenwriters, including Victor Peers, Leslie Storm and Paul Vincent Carroll to evolve the finished shooting script. The movie is a far cry from these earliest incarnations on paper; in particular, Storm’s prose yielding to a much darker premise, involving an illegitimate child born from the affair Father Logan had with Ruth Grandfort before entering the priesthood. Also, the movie was to have ended with Logan discovering he is a father, before being unjustly convicted and hanged for the crime of murder; his innocence exposed only after his public execution. It remains unclear exactly who or what influenced these revisions, excluding the child and allowing Logan to be exonerated of the crime; although many suspect intervention by The Catholic League of Decency with its then imperious and all-powerful influence on the motion picture industry.
Even so, Hitchcock had already cast Swedish lovely, Anita Bjork to co-star; the actress arriving unknowingly in Hollywood with her lover and an illegitimate child in tow. Possibly, the League put the kibosh on Bjork, although, in hindsight it seems more than likely Jack Warner did not want even the whiff of impropriety associated with his studio; the tabloids still reeling and reveling in the illicit affair between Ingrid Bergman and Italian director, Roberto Rossellini. For certain, Anne Baxter’s casting in Bjork’s stead was an executive decision Hitchcock almost immediately detested. “I didn’t want Anne Baxter to play the lead,” Hitchcock would later confess to Francois Truffaut, “I wanted Anita Bjork, who had played Miss Julie. However, Warner Brothers sent Bjork back to her fiords, and I was informed by phone Anne Baxter had been assigned to the picture. I met her for the first time a week before the shooting…a pretty awkward substitution.”
I Confess is the story of Father Michael Logan (Montgomery Clift) a Catholic priest who, upon learning his gardener, Otto Keller (O.E. Hasse) has brutally murdered an unscrupulous lawyer, Monsieur Villette (Ovila Légaré) to conceal his own crime of theft, is nevertheless straightjacketed by his vow of silence; conflicted in withholding Keller’s confession from Police Inspector Larrue (Karl Malden). The situation is further complicated by the fact Villette was attempting to blackmail Logan and Ruth Grandfort (Anne Baxter), the wife of a high-ranking political official, Pierre (Roger Dann), over their torrid liaison shared briefly after the war; before Logan was resigned to becoming a priest. Villette’s death has freed the one-time lovers from their fear of reprisals, but not from the suspicion they had something to do with Villette’s murder. Indeed, Larrue is most convinced Logan has been at least complicit in the crime. He has, after all, the testimony from two young schoolgirls who just happened to be passing Villette’s on the night in question, in time to see someone in a priest’s cassock hurrying away from the house. It was, of course, Keller, borrowing one of the cassocks from the rectory as a disguise. Now, stained with Villette’s blood and hidden in the laundry, the cassock is Keller’s trump card to incriminate Logan, should the priest break his vow and tell Larrue everything.
As with the The Wrong Man, Hitchcock’s primary fascination with I Confess centers around the premise of how a good person can be betrayed by circumstances beyond his control, and how popular opinion may be corrupted, turning against even a priest on nothing more substantial than rumors. Larrue clearly believes he has more than mere speculation to go on; amassing a case, his dander raised when Logan appears somewhat confrontational in refusing to answer his more intimate questions. In fact, Logan is shielding Ruth, unaware Pierre already knows how deep his wife’s love for Logan remains, despite her marriage and the passage of the years. Hitchcock is empathic to Pierre – the dutiful and patient husband, unable to be rid of the passion he clearly feels for his wife, even as he fully comprehends it has never been reciprocated by the woman he adores. Ruth has no compunction about expressing her feelings for Logan.
There is, for example, maliciousness to the moment immediately following a grand house party in which Ruth learns from one of her guests, Crown Prosecutor, William Robertson (Brian Adherne) Logan will likely be arrested and charged for the crime of murder. For a few tense moments after these palatial rooms have emptied, the couple verbally spar; Ruth making no apologies for the torch that continues to burn brightly for Logan. She is rather heartless in suggesting Pierre spare his public reputation by divorcing her. “How easily you can say that,” he admits. And, indeed, Anne Baxter’s performance emanates a glacial despondency that Hitchcock juxtapositions with her clandestine and decidedly tender meetings with Logan aboard a ferry. It should be pointed out Anne Baxter’s strong suit was never playing the shrinking violet. For here is the gal who gave us the quintessence of a viper in All About Eve’s, Eve Harrington, her latter day career built upon variations of this fundamentally flawed character trait. To borrow a line later used to describe Grace Kelly’s Tracy Lord in High Society (1956), a woman without an understanding heart “might just as well be made of bronze”; a sort of virgin goddess to a high priest set upon his throne.
I Confess takes this literally; Ruth, having remained emotionally – if not physically – chaste and secure within her treasured and locked away affections for, and memories of Logan. Seemingly to spite her husband and marriage, she has endured the years with Pierre as a sacrifice, tantamount to Logan’s devoutness as a priest; his willful inability to reciprocate Ruth’s love in any meaningful way that might satisfy her womanly desires for him. It is the unattainable aspect of their never-to-be fulfilled passion that allows Hitchcock to create an excruciating friction apart from his centralized ‘wrong man accused’ scenario; this and a flashback inserted shortly thereafter (odd and uncharacteristic for Hitchcock to ‘go back’) to illustrate the pre-war grand amour between Logan and Ruth, ending badly when Villette discovers this ‘happy couple’ taking refuge in a pergola from a torrential rainstorm. Owing to the conventions of the time and Hollywood’s reigning code of censorship, we see very little of this supposed affair de Coeur; a few panged embraces and several antiseptic kisses; goofy smiles in the wee hours of the morning to suggest a pleasant, muddle-headed daydream or memory of some more obscenely raw exchange best left undisclosed, though clearly implied.
Hitchcock’s opinions of the priesthood (apart from Logan, whom he clearly admires and views as unnaturally harboring – or rather, suppressing – man’s innate virility, thus, never to be fully formed as the perfect cleric) is as a fellowship of emasculated capons; Father Benoit (Gilles Pelletier); a sage of sorts, but easily offended by the strong smell of fresh paint emanating from Father Logan’s renovations in the salon; Father Millars (Charles Andre), Logan’s contemporary, at least in years, little more than an awkward figure of fun, chiefly concerned over a suspected puncture in his bicycle tire. By contrast, one clearly senses Father Logan as a more worldly presence. He has come to the priesthood second best. Despite Logan’s protestations to Ruth, he has devoted his life to God, Monty Clift offers us concurrent gazes of self-loathing, and pitiable suffrage throughout, meant to suggest something more cryptic and yet, easily interpreted as the embers of desire. It really is a remarkable performance. Inexperienced as they are, neither Benoit nor Millars can comprehend the gravitas of Logan’s situation and, as a result, are helpless to stave off his mounting insecurities.
I Confess opens with a breathtaking approach by the St. Lawrence toward Quebec City’s famed Le Château Frontenac, the scene of the penultimate confrontation between Father Logan and Keller; backlit under the main titles by a blistering sunset and married to Dimitri Tiomkin’s deliberately syrupy love theme. From here we retreat under the cover of night to the winding labyrinth of deserted cobblestone streets in the old city center; superbly photographed by Robert Burks in the noir style; Hitchcock making his brief cameo, casually strolling between two buildings, his repeated use of the ‘one way’ direction signs leading us through an open window into Monsieur Villette’s front parlor; Villette already lying dead on the floor; a shadowy figure immerging onto the street and hurrying away. The man, Otto Keller, sheathed in a priest’s cassock, is spotted by two school girls (Carmen Gingras and Renée Hudon) before disappearing down a darkened alley on his way to St. Mary’s church. Spotted by Father Logan as he enters the chapel, Keller is confronted by Logan by candlelight after he refuses to respond to Logan’s repeated requests to identify himself in the dark. Interestingly, O.E. Hasse plays Keller in this early scene as contrite and self-pitying; a man truly torn by the wrong he has only just committed; begging for Father Logan to hear his confession after apologizing first for having betrayed his kindness. It seems Keller and his wife Alma (Dolly Haas) are refugees, taken in by the church and given wages and a place to live.
Logan is understandably taken aback by Keller’s confession, but quite unable to convince the caretaker he should turn himself in to the police. Retiring to his room in the rectory, Otto confesses to Alma; the two agreeing to keep the secret – fully aware, Logan is bound by the penitent/priest privilege. The next morning, Keller returns to the scene of the crime as it is Wednesday; the day he usually attends Villette’s garden. Logan’s conscience will not rest. And so he too makes an impromptu visit to Villette’s; surrounded by curious onlookers and swarming with police, including Inspectors Larrue and Murphy (Judson Pratt) and Det. Sgt. Farouche (Henry Corden). Logan lies about having an appointment with Villette to gain access to the crime scene. Keller is clearly unnerved to see him. But Logan keeps his vow of silence, incurring Larrue’s immediate suspicion, further aggravated when he witnesses Logan through an open window in cloistered talks with Ruth Grandfort just outside. Larrue begins to build his case, managing the two school girls for a little chat in the presence of Crown Prosecutor William Robertson. As they both clearly identify the man as a priest, owing to Keller’s clever camouflage, Larrue now makes a clean sweep of all the rectories in town to learn the whereabouts of every priest on the night of the murder. Only Logan cannot account for his whereabouts, claiming he went for a walk.
Logan’s awkward refusal to answer any personal questions regarding his brief encounter with Ruth Grandfort raises Larrue’s dander. Robertson, however, refuses to believe in any impropriety, having only just attended a cocktail party the night before at Ruth and Pierre Grandfort and considering both good friends. Behind closed doors we discover the Grandforts marriage has already begun to crumble. Ruth is still in love with Father Logan, whom she had an affair with long ago. She has no compunction about sharing these feelings with Pierre. He is bitter and yet sympathetic, despite her emotional betrayal. At this juncture, Larrue sends several detectives to shadow Ruth’s every move. It does not take long before she and Logan meet aboard the ferry to discuss their options. Now, Larrue calls Ruth in for questioning in Logan’s presence. He repeatedly implores her to remain silent. Buoyed by her determination to exonerate Logan of any implication in the murder, Ruth divulges the contents of her extra-marital affair and Villette’s discover of it, thus setting the blackmail plot into motion.
Meanwhile, the mood between Logan and Keller has turned insidious; Keller, devolved into a rather clichéd villain, goading Logan into silence, repeatedly reminding him of his vows. Believing he has quite enough for an indictment, Larrue charges Logan with Villette’s murder. At trial, Robertson does everything to discredit Logan’s reputation by suggesting his affair with a married woman has broken every priestly vow. Logan rightly points to the fact he was neither a priest, nor aware Ruth had married Pierre at the time he spent an entire day and evening with her, having only just returned from the war after nearly two years absence. Although the jury exonerates Logan, in the court of popular opinion he remains suspiciously guilty of some indiscretion, quite likely to lead to either a crisis of conscience or his defrocking. Exiting the courthouse under a police escort, Logan is ridiculed by the mob gathered outside; the spectacle witnessed by Larrue, Keller and Alma. Unable any longer to see an innocent man persecuted, Alma rushes to Logan’s side and begins to explain how her husband murdered Villette. Keller draws his gun and shoots Alma. In the ensuing chaos, Keller disappears into the crowd, taking refuge inside Le Château Frontenac.
To connect this action, Hitchcock had asked Montgomery Clift to look up from the steps of the courthouse in the direction of the hotel so he could insert a cutaway identifying the famous landmark for the next scene. When Clift, a Method actor, explained to Hitch’ he did not believe his character would have any good reason to do so, Hitchcock lowered the boom, reportedly saying “Well you better, because that’s where I’m going to cut!” In reality, Hitchcock did not have difficulties with Clift or vice versa. Although the pair would never work together again (each’s loss), Hitchcock not only tolerated the interventions of Clift’s drama coach, Mira Rostova - a formidable presence on the set to whom Clift more often than not turned to for approval over Hitchcock – but actually endeavored to make Rostova a part of his decision-making process, thereby striking a friendly détente that held together, however brittle, until the production wrapped. However, Hitchcock did remain rather perplexed by Clift’s total immersion in his character.
Larrue has the hotel surrounded. After fleeing through the bowels of the kitchen, Keller is cornered in the ballroom, threatening to shoot anyone who enters. Logan defies Keller, slowly approaching as Larrue, Murphy and a small band of officers follow at a safe distance. Keller is wild-eyed and thick with contempt; blaming Logan for his having to shoot Alma. He professes to having murdered Villette to steal money necessary to give Alma a better life. But Keller also threatens Logan, implying he is all alone now; his reputation in tatters, his ability to remain a priest likely destroyed. They are both dead men – hypothetically speaking, from within: Logan’s reputation mortally wounded and dying; Keller, literally having sacrificed his soul by needlessly murdering two people – Keller, as yet unaware Alma has died. As Keller appears he might draw his pistol to murder Logan, Murphy administers the fatal gunshot to put Keller down. Collapsing near the proscenium, they dying caretaker begs Logan for absolution; Logan, torn, but nevertheless administering the last rights as Keller quietly dies in his arms.
I Confess was a highly personal movie for Hitchcock; a way for the master of suspense to exercise his own Catholic guilt and make a truly remarkable – and arguably, never duplicated movie-going experience to cleverly challenge and iron out the wrinkles in the priest-penitent privilege. The film was neither a hit nor a flop when it premiered in the U.S., though proponents of the French New Wave were highly enthusiastic, placing I Confess at the top of their ‘ten best’ movies of all time. Clever lot - the French - as North American audiences have since – if ever so slowly – come around to regarding I Confess as an important work in Hitchcock’s canon. I Confess was one of the first major motion pictures to be entirely photographed on location; Hitchcock utilizing the claustrophobic cobble-stoned streets in Quebec City to create an overriding sense of psychological entrapment that genuinely heightened the quandary facing Father Logan. How can any man – much more one of the cloth - profess purity if he cannot even withstand the moral turpitude of his peers by exposing an obvious injustice. Alas, a priest has not this layman’s luxury; the sacred trust overriding manmade laws, and forcing a crisis of conscience. In this crushing Catch-22, Father Logan cannot release himself of the sin of omission without committing an even greater sin in the eyes of the church and God.
I Confess is unevenly paced, chiefly in its middle act – interrupted by the flashback. Nevertheless, it remains one of Hitchcock’s most affecting and serious thrillers. It must be stated, the flashback is problematic; shot with gauzy soft focus and underscored by Dimitri Tiomkin’s rather florid composition. The artificially romanticized effect is decidedly deliberate – perhaps too deliberate for all the seriousness that bookends it; Hitchcock aiming for the cinematic equivalent of a young woman’s ‘rose-colored’ daydreams, now having rewritten an imperfect past. I Confess is quite unlike any other picture in Hitchcock’s canon; meticulously laid out in its various set pieces – especially the introduction to Villette’s body lying cold and dead on the living room floor. Hitchcock illustrates, perhaps ironically – as he generally despised working outside the confines of a studio - his superb mastery of locations; the byways and landmarks of this ancient French-Canadian city adding immeasurable verisimilitude to these proceedings. George Tabori and William Archibald's screenplay keeps us guessing as to where Father Logan's loyalties reside while Robert Burke's noir-ish cinematography transforms Quebec City into a veritable labyrinth of deceit, lies and death. I Confess often gets overlooked as a bona fide classic in Hitchcock’s canon – a genuine pity. For one thing, it predates Hitchcock's extravagant use of locations on To Catch A Thief. Yet, in both cases, Hitchcock utilizes locations not simply for their aesthetic appeal, but to enhance the overall mood of his story. As such, and in hindsight, which is always 20/20, I Confess is a phenomenal artistic achievement.
Prepare to be dazzled, as Warner Archive’s I Confess on Blu-ray is a quantum leap ahead of the tired old DVD from Warner Home Video proper. Fine detail previously unseen emerges as the dominant difference herein, contrast superb without the weak crushed blacks prominently featured in standard def. Grey scale tonality is rich and absorbing; whites clean and never blooming, the darkest corners of the frame revealing minute amounts of information and a light smattering of indigenous grain. The 2.0 DTS audio is clean with consistently crisp dialogue and subtly nuanced ambience in underscore and SFX. Extras are limited – basically, Laurent Bouzereau’s 20 minute featurette on the making of the film, directly ported over from the original DVD and looking its age. There’s also barely a minute’s worth of newsreel footage showing the Canadian premiere, and a badly worn theatrical trailer. I won’t poo-poo the lack of extras, although an audio commentary would have been welcomed this time around.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)