d. Alfred Hitchcock / USA / 95 mins.
Note: The following review discusses key story differences between the film and the original source material.
The greatest temptation a critic has when discussing one of Alfred Hitchcock's lesser known films is to declare it "still better than most films," by virtue of the fact that it was directed by such a talented man who made many, many cinematic masterpieces. Often times it is the case that a "lesser Hitchcock" can't stand up to the director's touchstone motion pictures (and other times, regardless of the name attached, the film just isn't that good). But tagging something a "lesser Hitchcock" is unfair to both the film and the films to which the comparison is made. In the case of I Confess – a 1953 thriller about a priest who knows the identity of a murderer but is vowed to God not to release the details of the confession – the concept of "lesser" isn't even a right fit. This is an underrated movie in its own right and requires no comparison to anything but itself.
I Confess is Hitchcock's most outward exploration of religion. Those who are fans of his work know there is nary a film of his that doesn't explore morality in one way or another (shame, sin, and guilt factor into all of them), but direct appeals to religion aren't as prominent. Because of the film's Catholicism, it is often lumped in with the films tagged as the director's most personal, but as far as watching the film is concerned, it doesn't give that impression. It is true Hitchcock was fascinated by the Church and devoted to it. According to Patrick McGilligan, Hitchcock "found it amusing when the [priests] he met confessed their enjoyment for his sexiest, most violent films." McGilligan also writes that in 1962 Hitchcock donated $20,000 to build a chapel on the campus of his alma mater, St. Ignatius College, and he and his wife Alma were the benefactors to numerous chapels and churches in California.
It's not surprising that the intersection of Catholicism and Hitchockian themes in Paul Anthelme's 1902 French play Nos Deux Consciences would prove to be so alluring. In the play, as in the movie, a devout young priest hears the confession of a murderer, who is smart enough to realize the priest can't speak of what the murderer as told him. The killer then proceeds to redirect clues of the murder toward the priest, leading the police to accuse the priest wrongfully for the crime.
Adapting Anthelme's play had been on Hitchcock's radar as early as 1947, but the writing process had been slow and Warner Bros., afraid to wade out into Catholicism while holding Hitchcock's hand, eagerly embraced his alternative projects along the way, including Under Capricorn, Stage Fright, and Strangers on a Train. But Hitchcock's interest in the material wasn't slow to die, and he returned to the film with strong convictions and the studio allowed him to go forward.
The minutiae of logic in a script never interested Hitchcock, and I Confess might be the best example of that. Months after seeing the film for the first time, what I delight in the most is the idea of a priest who mustn't divulge the information he has and resolutely goes to trial, leaving himself in the hands of the jury – and in the hands of God. Undoubtedly, the same was true for the director, who had seen the original play in the 1930s, almost twenty years before he brought it to the screen. Furthermore, while the situation of the priest is no doubt arresting as far as the plot is concerned, it should also be noted that I Confess is a partial departure from the traditional blurred lines of Hitchcock morality, which might have also drawn him to the project. The young priest, Father Michael Logan (Montgomery Clift), is fundamentally a good person who is willing to risk death to obey the tenets of his profession; the lead investigator (Karl Malden) is a fundamentally good person who is interested in finding the culprit, whoever he may be, and not just satisfying the public by bringing someone to justice; the actual murderer (O.E. Hasse) is an unapologetic force of evil, willing to go as far as framing a priest for a crime. The blurred lines of morality are not entirely absent from the film, but compare I Confess to Hitchcock's previous film, Strangers on a Train, where the innocent Guy Haines is implicated by association to the murder committed by Bruno Anthony, or Rear Window (released the year after I Confess), where the innocent Jeff – and the audience, writ large – is guilty of voyeurism in a tantalizing way that often feels as disturbing as the actual murder across the way.
For adapting the script, Hitchcock made an overture to novelist Graham Greene, who politely declined in spite of his appreciation for the director; the job eventually went to William Archibald and Hungarian-born playwright George Tabori, who had fled Nazi Germany as a young man. Not surprisingly, the studio put Hitchcock's feet to the fire and he had to abandon many of the elements about Anthelme's play that most fascinated him – namely, the fact that in the play the priest has a love child and is eventually executed (or martyred, you could say, for refusing to break his vow of silence) for the crime he didn't commit. The Hollywood-friendly plot still contains the wrongfully accused storyline, though not the execution, and there is still a lover for the priest, although no child. Instead, the plot is tangled by an affair the priest and a young married woman had when he wasn't (yet!) a priest. It's not quite as scandalous as the original play (neither in 1953 nor today), and the machinations that tie up the plot at the film's end are a little transparent, but somehow it gets the job done.
The script isn't the star here, though, and the notion that it "gets the job done" shouldn't necessarily be taken as a full backhanded sleight against the production. Although Hitchcock could possess a rather callous opinion of actors, in an amazing way (that defies most of the director's films where the cast takes backseat to the theme) one of the chief assets to I Confess is its star, Clift. Trained in the method-style acting and bringing all those tools (as well as a drama coach) to fruition here, Clift's Fr. Logan is a cool and steel-jawed priest, who is at once simultaneously tortured by the injustices of man and pacified by the protection of God. There is something very affective about the performance – Clift is more than just another pretty face in a Hitchcock production – and the connection between the audience and Fr. Logan is strong and rarely broken during the running time. The phalanx of Oscar-winning actors that complete the starring cast, Malden as the inspector and Anne Baxter as Fr. Logan's former lover, don't exactly bring the same intensity as Clift does to the role.
The second asset of I Confess is its cinematographer, Robert Burks, who Hitchcock wisely retained time and time again after the cameraman's acclaimed work on Strangers on a Train. Hitchcock shot on location in Québec, and the old city chosen for the setting is captured with noirish intensity by Burks in superb black-and-white. The heavy focus on capturing as much religious imagery as possible in the frame gave the cameraman numerous opportunities to shoot in jarring high and low angles.
There's great irony in the fact that, for all the handwringing Warner Bros. did over I Confess from the first time Hitchcock discussed it until the film's actual pre-production phases, when it finally hit theaters – in March 1953, during Holy Week no less – there wasn't that much of a to-do. The film was slapped on the wrist by a few decency and standard boards, but there was no wholesale boycott. (Naturally, all of this is primarily due to the fact that Hitchcock was forced to censor the script.) Maybe if there had been some more controversy involved with its release we might be more remember more fondly this slow and methodical thriller, tinged with Catholic religiosity and morality, and stylized to be one of the director's brushes with noir. The film was an instant favorite of the Cahiers crowd of Hitchcock-devotees in France. It's time I Confess experiences a revival. Ignoring this underrated Hitchcock film – well, that'd truly be a sin.
09 December 2008
d. Alfred Hitchcock / USA / 95 mins.