Via Correspondence: I Confess
I Confess (1953)
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay by: George Tabori & William Archibald (based on the play Nos Deux Consciences by Paul Anthelme
Starring: Montgomery Clift, Anne Baxter, Karl Malden, Brian Aherne and O.E. Hasse
The Story: In Quebec City, a shady lawyer is murdered by a poor German immigrant who then confesses his crime to Father Logan (Montgomery Clift). Logan is suspected of the murder and is unable to exonerate himself because his vows have forbidden him from revealing information told to him during a confession. Worse yet, he has an alibi, but it's with another man's wife. Logan must navigate his way through heartbreak, fear and the internal struggle that comes when faith is tested.
Isaac: I’m wild about Hitchcock’s movies like I’m sure anyone who’s watched his work is. I haven’t seen all of his work yet but everything I have seen is aces. Same goes for most of the episodes of the TV show Alfred Hitchcock Presents. So I didn’t think I Confess would be much of a gamble. It’s not one of the disliked Hitchcock movies like Topaz and it isn’t one of the legendary ones like Psycho or Vertigo. In fact, I Confess is hardly ever mentioned at all when people discuss Hitchcock. The man made over 50 films and most of them are good to great, a few little known gems were bound to be lost in the shuffle. I knew nothing about this one going in other than it starred Montgomery Clift. And I was more familiar with Clift from stories of his horrible car accident and that Clash song The Right Profile than his actual acting, so I went into this one pretty blind. And once again, the master of suspense didn’t let me down.
Hitchcock in the Great White North! I was completely surprised that this film took place (and was largely shot) in Quebec City, which is a beautiful city and the perfect setting for a film noir-ish Hitchcock murder mystery. He makes great use of long shadows and weird angles on the antiquated architecture and cobblestone streets.
While I wouldn’t place this among his stand out films, it’s a really solid effort. The story is engaging and full of classic Hitchcock mystery. Even though we find out who the killer is in the first five minutes of the film, the script managed to keep me guessing. And I loved the premise of the killer confessing to the priest, who is himself under suspicion but unable to tell the truth due to the sacramental seal; a real life rule that forbids priests from revealing anything they are told during a confession. It’s apparently stricter than the secrecy rules for lawyers, doctors or therapists. I think if it wasn’t a Hitchcock movie you might hear it mentioned more often.
So what did you think about this one, Jason?
Jason: I agree that the Quebec setting really took me for a loop. It made me wonder why it doesn't happen more often. It's like disaster movies that show everywhere in the world getting devastated but never Canada. It's as though Canada doesn't exist in the world of American propagated cinema. I remember Scott Pilgrim vs. the World coming out and retaining its Toronto setting, which actually surprised me at the time. I figured the studios would not sink that much money into a movie in Toronto unless it was doubling as New York.
I Confess did not do much for me. While it is definitely an interesting premise within the rules of the holy sacrament, the way the rule is constantly referenced "you can't say anything, it is your code!" and the way Keller almost cackles about his control over Clift's priest doesn't fit the overall established tone. I know it could be conceivable that Keller is this duplicitous, at least that's how he's written, but it would have been much more interesting to me if they had stuck with how he's introduced, as a poor immigrant just looking for a boost. Instead he comes off cartoon-like.
Likewise, the controversy at the centre of the film was never believable. The whole movie seems to be hedging its bets. It isn't subtle, it's half formed. Narratively, it's probably the weakest Hitchcock I've seen.
Isaac: I definitely enjoyed it a lot more than you, but you did touch on one of the complaints I also had. Keller's motivation is confusing. At first he accidentally murders the lawyer while trying to rob him. The crime is portrayed as an act of desperation. But eventually he becomes a full fledged bad guy. I agree that the poor immigrant who did what he had to do was a better angle. I read that Hitchcock had several rewrites done on the script due to troubles with the censors and I wonder if this is part of that fallout. As I'm sure you know, Hollywood movies made from the mid 30s to the late 50s often had to abandon any complexity in the villains because part of the film code was that criminals always paid for their crimes and villains were never allowed to be painted in shades of grey. These limitations result in flaws that probably Hitchcock himself was none too pleased about. I guess it's a matter of choice, but I choose to overlook the limitations of old movies rather than hold them to today's standards. So while Keller was a dud of a villain, I went with the lapses in logic because the true focus of the story and the rewarding factor is the struggle of Father Logan.
I thought Montgomery Clift was great. He really carried the picture for me. And the love triangle aspect was well played and daring for its day. I believed and felt the struggle of Logan who is torn in every conceivable direction and who tries to cling to the one thing he believes. He took his oaths because he meant them and although breaking them and saving himself the years in prison and stealing away the woman he loves would be as easy as opening his mouth and saying Keller's name, he doesn't do it, regardless of the loss. It's compelling and Clift sells it beautifully and subtly. I felt I could read the doubt and confusion all over his face. It was an interesting twist on the trope of a character whose every attempt to fix a problem only makes it worse. Logan knows the solution to his problem but knows that if he breaks his word he'll lose something bigger than his freedom.
Jason: Clift was great, I'll give you that. He did so much separate from his dialog. It was a behaviour-led performance and his struggles seem authentic and real. He has to walk a fine line every time he opens his mouth. It's telling because he can't simply tell Inspector Larrue (Karl Malden) that he cannot reveal what is told to him in confession because that would itself be revealing information.
And I really can't decide if I liked the Larrue role or not. Malden plays him as a foaming at the mouth detective who has his mind made up as soon as he sees Logan and Ruth Grandfort outside the murder scene. The theme of rumor mongering and jumping to conclusions, in a societal sense, is an intrinsically interesting one. A person can make a single mistake, or be perceived to, and no matter what happens people will have made a judgment. Logan, regardless of what follows, will forever have a cloud hanging over him in that community simply for being accused. It's like it's as much a crime to be suspected of ill doing as it is to have actually done it.
Because it's Hitchcock, it has a certain visual flair that will hook you. It's full of off-centre angles, and incredible lighting. And despite Keller's inconsistencies, he has some interesting moments in the final scenes of the movie, even if it is kind of ludicrous. It's very nice to look at, but it's also kind of hollow. The central relationship and misunderstanding leading to blackmail doesn't make any sense and could have been easily corrected. It again falls in line with the idea of perception dictating public belief, but even in its time I don't think it would have been too difficult to get out of the impending blackmail.
Isaac: I enjoyed the Larrue character. He struck me as a very Hitchcockian character, the eager ace inspector who is one step ahead of everyone. He reminded me of John Williams' character in Dial M For Murder or Jimmy Stewart in Rope, only Larrue's suspicions happen to be wrong. He could have had more to do but the focus of the story was Father Logan and Ruth Grandfort (played by Anne Baxter), so Hitchcock's usual quirky side characters took a back seat. I still thought there was enough colour added to these characters to make them interesting even if many of them are only briefly glimpsed.
I really liked his treatment of the crowd or as Ray Bradbury personifies it, The Crowd. Not just a collection of individuals but a malevolent force of nature. One that is quick to judgement and hungry for blood. I think today these themes could be explored in greater depth. Because of the religious overtones of the film, Hitchcock had a hard time with censors on this one. In the end of the play that this is based on, Father Logan takes his secret to the gallows. That ending would have packed a wallop. Also, in the play, Logan's affair with Ruth continued into his priesthood. That too was considered too offensive. As it stands, I still found their love story to be effective and moving. I agree that by Hitchcock standards this isn't a classic but there's enough to enjoy here and the main characters are believable enough that I went effortlessly along for the ride.
Jason: This brings us to a central conundrum. If an older movie does make these narrative concessions because of the fight with censors, should that wholly clear the film of being criticized for its narrative shortcomings? You suggest yes, while I don't agree. For the same reason I don't really connect with Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons (universally hailed), I am not fully connecting here. The story behind why the film tiptoed these lines and sacrificed certain details is interesting, but without them the story loses something essential. We can't base it on what the movie could have been, we have to look at it as it is. Context is important, but it can only take you so far.
The play sounds much more compelling because it is much more risque. Even now, the notion of a priest being involved in a romantic tryst with a married woman would be considered controversial. The States were slow at getting to a point realizing where depiction does not equal endorsement. As it is, though, it's suggested that there was nothing to their relationship other than a close friendship that had to be discarded because of what The Crowd would interpret.
There are a lot of interesting ideas at play, and its potential is there, but the film as it stands doesn't work for me.
Isaac: I agree with most of your criticisms but we disagree on how much it hurts the film. One of the biggest lapses in logic for me was how little evidence there actually was against Logan. It was all flimsy and circumstantial like the testimony of the two young girls who weren't even sure what they did or didn't see. I accepted it though because, like you said, it was trying to show how suspicion is as good as guilt in the eyes of the public.
Context matters to me, more so with older movies. I think, especially as time goes on, a movie is bigger than just the story on the screen. Movies are a reflection of their time and place. Within each film is a story of people working together to create. A story of sacrifice, compromise, and tenacity. Movies demonstrate social attitudes of their times. Since so many people have to be doing their job well to get a movie made I sometimes think it's a wonder that anything good is ever finished. The opposite worlds of art and commerce have to collide and coexist in order for a project to ever see completion. Knowing what I know about the Hollywood censors at the time gives me a greater appreciation for the fact that, neutered as it may be, a film about a priest who is suspected of murder and in love with another man's wife even got made. I can't fault it for having to maneuver around these limitations in order to see the light of day any more than I can fault archaic special effects in an era before CGI.
I think it all boils down to how you choose to view a movie. And maybe part of our reactions come from a place more primal than conscious choice. One of the wonderful things about art is that there are countless ways to appreciate it. The context surrounding a classic film often draws me in and gives me a richer viewing experience and my fondness for old movies allows me to overlook obvious flaws. But I didn't have to will myself to overlook very much with I Confess. As imperfect as it is, I had a great time with it.