Movie Review – I Confess (1953)
by NIR SHALEV
Alfred Hitchcock was an early master of horror but is currently most famously known as the master of suspense. He released one thriller after another, some more thrilling than others (North by Northwest (1959), The Birds (1963)), but his visual and thematic signatures were noticeable even from the start of his film career that dates back to the silent era. I Confess looks like a Hitchcock thriller, steeped in gorgeous black and white cinematography; however, unlike his usual psychological thrillers, it plays much more like a psychological drama.
Montgomery Clift plays Father Michael Logan, a young, handsome priest who receives a late visit one night from the church’s caretaker, Otto Keller (O.E. Hasse). Otto confesses to Michael that he’d just killed a man, a Monsieur Villette. Villette was a rich lawyer. Otto wanted to steal $2000 from him so that he and his wife Alma (Dolly Haas) could live handsomely; Otto hated seeing Alma work so hard and on a daily basis. The plot immediately kicks off with a moral dilemma that weighs heavily on Michael’s conscience: will he break his oath to God and reveal the murderer’s confession to the police or will he take all of the ramifications onto himself and, possibly, take the rap for the murder of Monsieur Villette?
This film is based on a play that Hitchcock had seen in the early 1930s and it struck him hard, on a spiritual level. He’d been dying to make a film version of it, fighting with the board of censors for years until an “appropriate” screenplay was finalized. His first and most masterful choice was to cast relative newcomer Clift, who brought an internalized performance to the film but also has such an expressive face that it made him ideal for a Hitchcock protagonist. Also, Hitchcock preferred to shoot faces and their expressions more than dialogue, so Clift, again, was perfect for the role. One can always tell what is going on inside Michael’s mind as he faces various spiritual and moral conflicts throughout the entirety of the film.
Ann Baxter plays Ruth Grandfort, Michael’s love interest before he became a priest and Karl Malden plays Inspector Larrue, one of the only interesting and competent cops in a Hitchcock film. Both performances are terrific and remind us why they lasted as long in the film industry as they did.
The film was almost entirely shot on location in Quebec and its old-school cobblestone streets add a layer of darkness to the overall tone of the film; I was reminded of Jack the Ripper’s Victorian England but one without all of the grime, filth, mass murders and corruption. This is a visually and thematically dark film, a sort of film noir that splashes shadows here and there, at night and during the day and one that uses Dutch angles only when they’re needed. We have low-angle shots of cathedrals, stone and brick houses, and buildings and we always feel a sort of dread knowing what Michael is bottling up inside.
What is interesting about the overall plot of the story is that Inspector Larrue begins to suspect that Michael is the killer because a priest was seen leaving the scene of the crime at the approximate time when the murder took place. Michael had entered his church at a very similar time of night but his clerical oath precludes his confessing what he knows. However the plot thickens when both he and Ruth refuse to divulge information about their relationship past and present, what they did, and where they were on the night of the murder. There is a perfect explanation for everything that happens and Hitchcock allows enough time to pass until the audience is let in on what’s truly been going on. Even though the story is heavily character centered, the plot eventually flows onto the third act, and the progression is seamless but complex at the same time. One can tell that a lot of thought went into writing the screenplay.
The cinematography and performances are excellent and the story is sound. So why did the film tank at the box office and why did it receive mostly unfavorable reviews (Clift was heavily criticized for lacking emotional depth and delivering a lackluster performance)? Critics from the French New Wave deemed I Confess one of the greatest films of its era and François Truffaut loved everything about it and praised it. Yet now it’s barely mentioned even by Hitchcock fans. Why is such an expertly made, thoughtful and meaningful, masterful film shunned so heavily?
I admit that I don’t know the answer but I have a feeling that it’s due to a lack of word of mouth. When initially viewing it, I hadn’t the faintest notion that it was a drama more than a thriller. But I accept it for what it is because it’s a damn good drama, one filled with outstanding performances and cinematography, and many of Hitchcock’s signature sequences. (To give one example: Michael looks at a photo, we cut to a point of view shot of the photo, and then we cut back to Michael’s reaction to seeing the photo.) It may not sound like a Hitchcock film and it is heavily spiritual in theme but it’s not a film about spirituality; it’s a film about what one particular man truly believes in. We follow him wherever he goes and note that all of his actions make sense in accordance with who he is and what he’s about. And the police also make sound decisions and that adds to the tensions that arise in the third act.
Who we are as individuals should not impact our overall perception of the film, for we have all watched the same film. And it’s neat to see Hitchcock use religious imagery, clouds, and random old structures as backdrops that represent Michael’s constantly shifting state of mind. When we see a church, it’s not about what it spiritually represents but rather what Michael is thinking at that exact moment. And the same goes for when we see vistas of clouds floating across endless skies.
This is an excellent film and an excellent Hitchcock film. Sadly, most people who read this review won’t have heard of it, and I’m glad to announce it to them. This film should not be missed.