I Confess 1953 U.S. Warner Brothers/First National (94 minutes) directed by Alfred Hitchcock; written by George Tabori and William Archibald from a play by Paul Anthelme; director of photography, Robert Burks; music composed and directed by Dmitri Tiomkin.
AlfredHitchcock’s ‘I Confess’ is set amid Québec’s grand medieval-looking architecture and long shadows that can make it feel eerie as Prague at night, a natural fit with the Jacques Becker-Jean-Pierre Melville-Jules Dassin French crime dramas of the postwar era.
After the opening credits, we see Hitchcock stroll right to left across the screen, along the top of a staircase. A series of four ‘DIRECTION’ signs then point in a direction opposite to Hitchcock’s. They take us through town to a crime scene. A bead curtain swings. A man in a cassock exits into a night street. A man confesses a murder to a priest. The police arrive at the crime scene.
The circumstantial evidence points to Abbe Michael Logan (Montgomery Clift). The watchful Inspector Larrue (Karl Malden) spots Father Logan in the morning crowd at the crime scene.
Clift was the first major ‘method’ actor. His Logan is convincing as a priest and returning combat veteran, and he photographs beautifully in black & white. But Clift’s personal life was beset with demons—perhaps not unlike Logan’s.Father Logan has hired German refugees Otto Keller (O.E. Hasse) and his wife Alma (Dolly Haas) as church custodial staff. Keller also tends the garden of a Monsieur Villette (Ovila Légaré) in town. But he murders Villette and soon afterward confesses his crime to Father Logan in the confessional. Thereafter, the paranoid murderer and his wife, fearful that Logan will turn Keller in, stalk the priest around the rectory like creepy shadows.
Villette is presented as a sleazy lawyer. Keller apparently murdered him when the latter surprised him rifling a cashbox in Villette’s home. Keller tells his wife that the death was accidental. But he had disguised himself as a priest at least to rob Villette. Witnesses saw a priest leave the crime scene, and police later find Villette’s blood type on a cassock that Keller plants in Logan’s trunk. Nothing appears to have been stolen, and no trace evidence such as fingerprints is found at the crime scene; the ‘blunt instrument’ was wiped clean.
The backstory is related in a statement given to police by Ruth Grandfort (Anne Baxter). Ruth grew up with Mike Logan in the same Québec neighborhood before World War II. They were in love. Mike was among the first to enlist when the war started. He told Ruth he did not want to marry ‘because the war already has made too many widows’, nor should she wait for him. After a time overseas, he stopped writing to her. Ruth eventually married Pierre Grandfort (Roger Dann), a Canadian member of parliament. But she met Logan the day his unit returned to Québec after the war.Baxter was not Hitchcock’s first casting pick for Ruth, but she is ideal in this role and photographs beautifully in black & white. A natural blonde, Baxter said that Hitchcock wanted her hair even lighter. Light to platinum blonde hair is ideal for black & white film under studio lighting, exactly the kind of detail that would have interested Hitchcock.
Viewers may notice that Ruth’s testimony is shot in a slow, soft romantic glow. Logan says little about himself throughout the film. According to the narrative, the war ‘changed’ him to the extent that he decided to become a Roman Catholic priest. But the detail that a québécois joined a unit based far to the west in Saskatchewan could signal an even earlier desire to change his life.
Ruth tells police that the day after Logan got back from overseas, they spent an afternoon in the country. They took shelter in a gazebo when a storm blew up—a naturalistic scene shot al fresco. They missed the last ferry and spent the night clothed and damp in the gazebo. In the morning, the gazebo owner—Villette—discovered them there. Villette recognized Mme. Grandfort and made insinuating comments. Logan knocked Villette to the ground and he and Ruth returned to town. She disclosed to the police that later, after Logan was ordained, Villette tried to blackmail her over the purported ‘affair’.
Ruth wanted to give her friend an alibi for the evening of the murder. However, rather than saving him, the blackmail detail gives Logan a motive in the eyes of the police. The crescendo of circumstantial evidence and Logan’s obstinate refusal to speak leave Larrue and his investigators, Crown Prosecutor Willy Robertson (Brian Aherne) and Pierre Grandfort little doubt as to what happened.
This produces a classic Hitchcock dilemma: Father Logan is the prime suspect and the actual murderer has confessed the crime to him; yet the priest’s dedication to his calling will not let him violate the sanctity of the confessional, regardless of how despicable the culprit, even to save himself.
Also Hitchcockian is a sense that many people’s individual guilt seek a public scapegoat for a deliverance from evil if not absolution. The question Hitchcock appears to resolve is, if vengeance truly is the Lord’s, will He repay?
This masterpiece concludes with a grand dénouement in the Québec’s landmark Chateau Frontenac.