Talking Hitchcock’s overlooked ‘I Confess’ (1953)

I Confess (1953)

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Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Starring: Montgomery Clift, Anne Baxter, Karl Malden, Brian Aherne

* Published specifically for The 4th Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon hosted by Maddy at Maddy Loves Her Classic Films *

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Having the opportunity to write about any Hitchcock film is as momentous as it is nerve-racking. After all, Sir Alfred is God-like in the cinematic world, boasting one of the most celebrated and varied filmographies of all time. He directed countless legendary actors and actresses as well as worked with leading authors and composers who helped shape his magic onto the big screen. Despite not always receiving great critical acclaim for his films, being involved in a Hitchcock production was always a very big deal. As the years have gone by, his oeuvres have garnered increased attention and praise from historians and audiences alike. Four of his popular Hollywood-era films – North by Northwest, Psycho, Rear Window & Vertigo – simultaneously appear on the AFI 100 and BFI Critics’ Top 100 lists. Unfortunately but sadly not surprisingly, Hitchcock never won a competitive Academy Award although he was nominated for Best Director a total of five times.

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Between 1940 & 1948, Hitchcock made eleven straight films that were primarily shot in the United States. Nearly all of these pictures were critical and box office successes and Hitchcock could seem to do no wrong as a filmmaker. This warm reception abruptly cooled in 1947 upon the release of The Paradine Case, a heavy film noir drama that was set and filmed in the United Kingdom. American audiences did not take to the story though some critics had quite a few words of praise to offer. The year after, Hitchcock would once again find himself in unchartered territory with the failure of Rope. It is likely that moviegoers were equally unsettled by the inventive filming methods as they were the controversial themes within the story. Nothing would prepare Hitchcock for the doom that lay ahead with 1949’s Under Capricorn; a picture that crashed and burned on many levels. Instead of giving up, Hitchcock pushed on though fared only slightly better with 1950’s Stage Fright. It was not until 1951 that he would have a bona fide hit on his hands with Strangers on a Train. Hitchcock was finally back on the right track and had nowhere to go but up… or did he?

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So this brings us to February 1953 as Hitchcock’s latest film I Confess was premiering in Québec, Canada. Having spent many years in pre-production as well as in the back of Hitchcock’s mind, it was certainly a relief to have the final print ready to be delivered to audiences. Well, at least that was the case for Warner Bros. Studio. I Confess had been a thorn in its side for far too long due to highly risky details of the story; elements that had attracted Hitchcock to the story in the first place but which were deemed immoral by the standards of Hays Code Hollywood. Without those pivotal plot points, the story held relatively little interest to Hitchcock who, if faced with the failure of one of his projects, preferred to forge ahead rather than look back. (This very attitude would jeopardise the completion of Marnie eleven years later after the director lost interest in the picture before filming had ended.) The cinematic rendition of I Confess ended up being a very warped and highly diluted version of Hungarian writer George Tabori’s screenplay. Before we go on with what exactly was altered in the script, let us look at the plot of the film.

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Story

In the city of Québec during a very late August evening, a murderer is seen hastily fleeing the scene of his crime. Not long after, the unknown individual arrives at Sainte Marie’s Church and quietly enters the nave through a side door but is spotted by Father Michael Logan (Montgomery Clift) from his private quarters. Father Logan goes down to see what is going on and discovers a church employee, Otto Keller, in a very nervous state and wishing to make a confession –– of murder. Keller confesses to killing an attorney by the name of Villette as a result of a robbery gone wrong. Having wanted to steal $2,000 in order to start a new life for himself and his wife Alma, Keller was surprised when Villette showed up at his office when he should have not been there. Although Father Logan is shocked about the events, there is little that he can do to intervene since Keller’s admission is protected through the Catholic Church’s Seal of Confession.

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The next day, Father Logan heads to Villette’s office and meets the police who have already questioned Keller. Rather quickly, head detective Inspector Larrue (Karl Malden) gets a hunch about Father Logan and decides to focus his attention on his movements. The priest is frequently seen in the company of a beautiful blonde woman, later identified as Ruth Grandfort (Anne Baxter), the wife of a member of the Parliament of Quebec. It is revealed through flashbacks that they had once been young lovers whose betrothal was put on hold when Michael went away to fight in the Second World War. After losing touch and being unsure of Michael’s fate, Ruth married a man for companionship rather than love. Eventually Michael returns from war service, delighting both him and Ruth to be reunited but also bringing heartache since they cannot be together romantically.

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After getting stuck in a rainstorm and seeking shelter anywhere they could, Michael and Ruth end up spending the night together under a gazebo. When morning comes, they are spotted by Villette as they happen to be on his property. Recognising that Ruth’s husband is a well-known politician, Villette uses this information as a wild card to try and blackmail her a few years later, after Michael has been ordained as a priest. It is because of these circumstances that Father Logan is able to be linked to Villette with a very strong motive for his murder.

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Now that the police have a case against Father Logan, they will proceed in trying him for murder in a court of law. This seems like an open-and-shut case, especially since Father Logan refuses to divulge any incriminating evidence that would exonerate him. Will Father Logan continue to be true to his oath of secrecy or will he try to save himself?

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I Confess starts out with what would become increasingly fashionable in Hitchcock’s films: cold-blooded murder. The audience is already on the edge of their seats only moments after the opening credits have rolled. Hitchcock’s tactic was rather brilliant because in witnessing such a ghastly act so early on in the film, you as a spectator are compelled to be a participant – an accomplice of sorts – in seeing the situation out. One of my biggest challenges was keeping this outlook throughout the entirety of the film as I lacked a total emotional attachment with the two leading characters, Father Logan and Ruth. While they did not deter from the overall story, I found myself far more interested in the secondary characters, namely the Kellers and Willy Robertson (Brian Aherne). I wanted to know more about the Kellers’ past in Germany and enjoyed seeing how Willy evolved in his position as a Prosecutor. When it came to Michael and Ruth, I failed to see any deviancy in their past relationship not to mention much passion that had once existed.

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These problems are unfortunately related to the modifications made to the screenplay re-writes, as mentioned above. In the work penned by George Tabori, there were more tantalising, taboo aspects to Michael and Ruth’s liaison including an illegitimate child and the ultimate execution of Father Logan. Some sources claim that the out-of-wedlock child was included in Frenchman Paul Anthelme Bourde’s original 1902 play from which the overall story is based but according to author Patrick McGilligan, it was “(Hitchcock) and Mrs. Hitchcock’s invention”*. Warner Bros. immediately opposed to these two details and also demanded that Hitchcock lessen up on using religious imagery in the film. From this standpoint, I Confess never really stood a chance at making a name for itself as a gripping tale of crime and passion, especially on a Hitchcockian level. The end result is a rather tepid story that is far too straightforward in its obvious, fast-moving plot that leaves little to the audience’s imagination. Unless, of course, you are dreaming about would-be back stories or searching for the slightest bit of innuendo that would suggest something else had indeed happened. Sadly, Hitchcock did not even get to be the slightest bit playful with colourful, double entendres or other cheeky satire. The farthest he got was the inclusion of a clumsy young priest named Father Benoît who always had trouble with his bicycle, the set-up for which was reminiscent of the Joseph and Herbie scenes in Shadow of a Doubt but without the trademark dark humour.

The publicity shots for I CONFESS were much steamier than anything that appeared on-screen. I love the ambiguity of these two shots although it makes me regret what could have been without the interference of censorship.

Upon my first viewing of this film, I was admittedly disappointed with the story. This is not an opinion that is easy for me to share because I revere Sir Alfred and like to think that everything he made was perfection, as if he had a Midas touch. However, as the saying goes: to err is human. Having watched I Confess a second time, I am able to better appreciate the quality of the performances from a top notch cast. Every player gave their all in this production whether they were suited for their specific role or not. Sure, Anne Baxter was the studio’s choice but she was a remarkable dramatic actress and did her best for the character of Ruth. Her knowing that Hitchcock did not approve of her casting must have been an extremely hard obstacle to overcome but she did so with flying colours. If there is anyone to blame for the shortcomings of this film, it is Warner Bros. for having insisted on so many stark changes to the screenplay. Although Hitchcock had his own difficulties with the picture, I admire him for going into the production with his hands literally tied behind his back and still managing to produce a quality film.

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Much has been said about Montgomery Clift’s casting in the role of Father Michael Logan. The majority of people seem to think he was miscast especially since up to this point he had primarily been known to the public as a romantic, leading man. (Details about his homosexuality were still private at this time.) In my opinion, Monty was an ideal choice for the part despite his reservations as a Method actor and the personal troubles he had on-set. It has been noted that Monty’s frequent eyes glazed over, blank stares were due to his alcoholism and subsequent hangovers. While he may have had physical ailments during filming, it is frankly not that noticeable on film. Father Logan was a person of unfailing calm and composure, even in the most stressful of circumstances. In fact, there is only one time in the film when he momentarily breaks down, only to recompose himself immediately afterwards. It is his job as a religious father figure to remain collected in order to support those who are in need of his aide/services. You can see that Father Logan is a man who is 100% dedicated to honouring and obeying the vows he took. Monty was playing the character as it was written and according to the puritanical re-workings of the script. He was certainly not playing it as Hitchcock had first imagined the character to be. If you pay attention to the scenes between Father Logan and Ruth when they are younger, you can see a difference in their bond even though it is not explicitly sexual.

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Hitchcock is a director whose works should never be dismissed or overlooked because there are always good things to take away from them. In fact, you may actually come to like a lesser known Hitchcock film better than his more famous ones. When you are a cinephile, media buzz and awards really do not mean all that much in the end. I myself was reminded of this lesson with I Confess; a film that I highly recommend to all of you.

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Sources:

* Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Light and Darkness by Patrick McGilligan, pg. 458

Confessions d’un tournage hitchockien par Olivier Parent pour Le Soleil

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5 thoughts on “Talking Hitchcock’s overlooked ‘I Confess’ (1953)

  1. Great piece on one of the most underrated Hitchcock films. I love the conflict regarding the seal of the confessional and whether it can be broken to save a life and correct a wrong. I think this is one of Hitch’s most interesting films, but for some reason it’s one that I admire rather than like and enjoy. I’ve only ever seen it a handful of times. I’ve never really been able to put my finger on what it is about the film that leaves me a bit cold. I’m glad I don’t seem to be alone in my reaction to this one.

    Thanks for helping me celebrate Hitch and films again, Erica.

    Like

  2. I’ve never seen this film all the way through because, like you mentioned early in your review, I find the supporting characters far more interesting. However, as you also pointed out, a viewer can always take away something from a Hitchcock film, and I’ll give this one another go.

    Like

  3. Roger Ebert once said you couldn’t make a bad movie with M. Emmet Walsh or Harry Dean Stanton in it. I think Karl Malden could be included in that as well, and this movie is a perfect example!

    Like

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