I Confess (1953)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

1129cc6This week, Rod and I learned that someone we knew from our past affiliations with the New York Times Film Form and Third Eye Film Society, Wade Ehle, died at the age of 48. Wade was a vocal and volatile film buff, a New Yorker by choice, an out and proud homosexual in a long-term relationship, a graphic designer, and despite his evil temper, a gentle soul. I had not been in touch with Wade for some years, as in one of his foul moods, he made me a target, a situation I could no longer abide. But I still remember fondly a lovely New Year’s Eve spent with Wade and his partner Scott drinking champagne in my living room as they stopped in on their way back from their yearly car trip to Minnesota to visit Scott’s family for the holidays. In his way, Wade was an important piece in the puzzle of my life, and I feel the need to honor and remember him in the way that brought us together—talking about film.

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Wade’s favorite actor was Montgomery Clift. Clift was a handsome avatar whom Wade’s partner resembles, but there are other qualities he had that I think must have spoken to Wade. Clift’s emotional vulnerability and homosexuality formed a mirror for Wade, and his anger and tenderness integral parts of Wade’s personality. Clift also had a certain type of passive determination, a holding back, that Wade might have wished for himself. I don’t know which of Clift’s films Wade held most dear, but I have to imagine that I Confess, in which director Alfred Hitchcock fetishizes Monty’s beautiful face almost as much as he did any of his blonde muses, must have been on the list.

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Apart from its wrong man theme, I Confess is as atypical a Hitchcock film as I can think of. Based on a 1902 French play, Nos Deux Consciences, I Confess retains a French flavor with its setting in Quebec City in Canada and the casual use of French character names and dialog. The screenplay cowritten by George Tabori capitalizes on the writer’s own familial experiences as the son of a Jewish journalist who perished at Auschwitz and turns Clift’s character, Father Michael Logan, into a World War II veteran who throws over his prewar sweetheart, Ruth (Anne Baxter), for the priesthood. The themes of many 1950s films are in evidence here—the plight of refugees, the effects of the war on the nonprofessional soldiers who fought in it, a certain dread and distrust of authority, and justice served up through the courts. I would go so far as to suggest that I Confess is the most fully realized noir film Alfred Hitchcock ever made, with much credit for that going to his regular cinematographer Robert Burks, whose inspired shooting on location in Quebec City is both less showy and more emotionally nuanced than one usually associates with Hitchcock films, pushing I Confess out of genre suspense and into something that more closely resembles Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949).

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Father Logan is in a similar predicament to Holly Martins—a man he likes and wants to help has done a terrible thing. Otto Keller (O. E. Hasse), a German refugee who with his wife Alma (Dolly Haas) Logan and the other clerics at St. Marie’s have taken in as servants, has killed Monsieur Villette (Ovila Légaré), whose garden Keller tends, in the course of a burglary. Logan takes Keller’s late-night confession right after the murder during which Otto claims it was an accident and that he only wanted money to free his played-out wife from a life of serving others. Bound by the sanctity of the confessional, Logan can reveal nothing of what he has heard to others, and like Holly Martins, risks becoming a victim of his friend. Keller finds a way to raise suspicions against the priest and justifies his desperation to remain free by the suffering he and Alma underwent during the war—as Jew or Nazi sympathizer is never made clear, further complicating our emotional response to his despicable actions.

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During the course of the investigation led by Inspector Larrue (Karl Malden), Ruth’s past love affair with and still burning love for Logan come out, giving him a motive for killing Villette, who was blackmailing the married woman with his knowledge of a night they spent together at his country cottage. Although Larrue compelled her confession of the relationship, yet another of Logan’s intimates has tightened the knot around his neck. Logan’s murder trial comprises the final act of the film.

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Burks and Hitchcock make good use of the Quebec locale to disorient the audience. French signs for “One Way” are labeled “Direction” and point the way through the streets to an open window and the body of Villette laying on the floor with a lead pipe lying near his cracked skull. Dimitri Tiomkin’s slightly off-kilter opening music crescendos at the reveal. The camera pans to some hanging beads swinging in the doorway to the study and then cuts through the wall to the street, where a man in a long garment—a cassock, it turns out—hurries out the door. The camera shifts to a side view of the street as the man descends down a steep hill, with two girls following casually behind. The darkness, the skewed angles provided by the locale itself, the juxtaposition of the guilty man with the innocence of the two girls, and the deep shadows of Keller on the street provide cause and psychological effect. This taut opening economically sets the stage and provides visual markers for the rest of the film, one in which Keller will always be going down or viewed from above by people of more moral fiber than he has, particularly Logan.

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Being who she is, Anne Baxter smolders in every frame, her hair colored Hitchcock blonde. Yet, the script offers her a certain demureness, particularly in protesting the need to reveal the details of her romance with Logan, that also sets this film outside the usual Hollywood framework. Putting her in a dirndl during the flashback sequence was a misguided and unnecessary choice, however, as Baxter’s straightforward honesty with her husband, Logan, and the investigators signals all we need to know about her innocence at all stages of her relationship with Logan. She really did a fine job.

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Of course, it is Clift who occupies our concern and the majority of the screen time. We wonder why he ends every question that could point to Keller’s guilt with “I can’t say.” Not even a word that he took a confession that night escapes his lips. With his life at risk, his dedication to his duty and his faith communicates volumes about why he chose priesthood over matrimony and helps put his relationship with Ruth into a believable, much less tawdry context than would be the norm. While Clift is smoking hot in I Confess, he does not play the flirtatious games that, for example, Jean-Paul Belmondo does in Leon Morin, Priest. His fear of death expresses itself in prayer, but his trust in God also drives him to turn himself into Larrue. His contained performance is a bit frustrating to the audience, who know he’s innocent, but absolutely true to his character. His ardor in his prewar scenes with Ruth also communicates his innate passion: “He was always so serious about everything, even love,” she says ruefully.

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The trial is a fascinating piece of filmmaking, with proceedings quite decorous and, therefore, alien to the sensational standards for such scenes set by Hollywood films. I was so enamored of the judiciousness of the proceedings and the editorial comments of the jury regarding their verdict—no simple “guilty” or “not guilty” here—I would have been content to watch the trial for the entire film. The film devolves in its last few minutes due to studio interference, and Hitchcock punts to his more theatrical genre instincts to pull it off, but the sense of the community’s betrayal lingered with me and put me in mind not only of recent scandals in the Catholic Church, but also of the Cy Endfield noir Try and Get Me (1950). Interestingly, Hitchcock meant for this film to be an indictment of capital punishment, but it serves as a portrait of the dangers of mob mentality almost as urgent as Endfield filmed. In straying from pure genre filmmaking, Hitchcock made a film less susceptible to his personal stamp, but more rich and engaging than anyone might have expected.

  • Donna Hill spoke:
    30th/03/2013 to 5:18 pm

    What a wonderful tribute to your friend and great examination of I Confess. Beautifully written.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    30th/03/2013 to 5:29 pm

    Thanks, Donna. The ones from the heart usually come out the best.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    31st/03/2013 to 6:38 pm

    I am practically a New Yorker Marilyn, and I envy your beautiful friendship with Wade, while simultaneously mourning his untimely passing. Your deep feeling resonates throughout this great essay. Your deep feeling segues from the memory of this special person to a consideration of one of the most intense actors to ever work in the American cinema, and one of the two films (the other being THE HEIRESS) where I felt his work was most extraordinary. I CONFESS, a powerful film about religious obligation (you expertly frame it as the “sanctity of the confessional”) that contains some searing images and the centerpiece performance by Clift that leaves one shaken.

    Beautiful work here Marilyn.

  • Kirk spoke:
    31st/03/2013 to 6:59 pm

    Sorry for the loss of your friend.

    Good film, underrated even, though I read somewhere, maybe in a biography of Clift, that Hitchcock thought it didn’t do that well at the box office because audiences refused to buy a priest giving up his life for the sanctity of the confessional.

    Didn’t know Hitchcock was against the death penalty, but it makes sense now that I think about it, seeing as how often people are accused of crimes they didn’t commit in his films.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    31st/03/2013 to 10:42 pm

    Sam and Kirk – Thanks for your sympathies. Wade was a difficult person, but while I cut myself off from him to protect myself, I never stopped caring about him. He was just that kind of a person.

    I do think this is underrated because it is not what people expect from a Hitchcock film, and I like the idea that the auteur theory gets yanked by the shank when a director is dealing with material that isn’t entirely his or her style. After all, auteurism might just as easily by typecasting for a director as it is for an actor. Seeing what Hitchcock does with a film like this helps highlight the contributions of other members of the ensemble, particularly Burks, who are so usually overshadowed by the big man. It’s a most unusual and fine film.

  • Roderick spoke:
    31st/03/2013 to 11:07 pm

    Actually, I Confess was considered an ultimate Hitchcock film in auteurist reading by the Cahiers du Cinema crowd because of its zeroing in on guilt, innocence, and Catholicism.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    31st/03/2013 to 11:15 pm

    Rod – I know the Cahiers crowd revered this film, but honestly, this doesn’t seem to track with his style to any great degree in my opinion, and I always associate auteurism with substance AND style. That’s my amateur take on the theory, of course.

  • Casey spoke:
    1st/04/2013 to 4:12 pm

    I saw I Confess again last year, and I have to say I think it’s one of Hitchcock’s best. I also think it’s one of his most personal films. While the visual style is more sober and restrained than much of Hitchcock’s work, it takes an incredibly direct, rigorous approach to his central theme, which is guilt. And yes, Robert Burks’ work is fantastic. I can understand why the film isn’t more popular, but it deserves more attention than it’s gotten.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    1st/04/2013 to 4:25 pm

    Casey – Thanks for your comment, and I completely agree. I don’t think we see this level of intimacy in most of Hitchcock’s films, which makes it a highly interesting aberration.

  • Frank Gibbons spoke:
    11th/06/2014 to 11:08 pm

    I think this is a beautiful film and have a hard time classifying it as “minor” Hitchcock . I love Dimitri Tiomkin’s haunting theme, “Love, Look What You’ve Done to Me”. The location shots are great and are used effectively. Beside the superior work of Clift (for me, his best) I admired the acting of O.E. Hasse and Dolly Hass. They remind me of Bernard Miles and Brenda de Banzie in “The Man Who Knew Too Much” where the woman is conflicted about her husband’s depravity.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    12th/06/2014 to 10:29 am

    Frank – I agree on every point and really enjoy the specificity of the film as to its location and people. It deepens the drama for me.

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