Montgomery Clift, Anne Baxter, and Roger Dann in 1953's "I Confess."

I Confess August 19, 2016

What would you do if you knew the identity of a murderer but were unable to tell the police? And what if you were, by sheer coincidence, labeled as the prime suspect, unable to clear your name as a result? That’s the premise of Alfred Hitchcock’s I Confess, a resplendently photographed but dramatically safe thriller that retains the Master of Suspense’s pithy sensibilities without ever much pushing the audience to the edges of their seats.


But an effective exercise it is all the same, and the film, adapted from Paul Anthelme’s chilling 102 play Nos deux consciences, still manages to push our buttons even when it has a hard time delivering the debilitating pulse-pound we come to expect in Hitchcock’s best films.  It stars a first-rate Montgomery Clift as Father John Logan, a devoted Catholic priest whose loyalty to the church is tested after a confession puts his life in danger.  When in the confidential restrictions of the booth, German immigrant Otto (O.E. Hasse) reveals that he accidentally murdered Villette (Ovila Légaré), a prominent but corrupt lawyer, in a botched robbery attempt.


As it’s forbidden for a priest to publicly disclose anything shared in a church confessional, Logan is understandably conflicted.  By turning to the police, he’d be betraying the God he’s committed his life to.  But by remaining a tight-lipped servant, he’d also be aiding a killer whose initially remorseful disposition proves to be a front for immorality.  A decision must be made quickly, though: because Otto wore a cassock to disguise himself in his sinful endeavor, and because Logan is the only priest in town without a steady alibi, the latter just may be sent to the electric chair himself.


A movie of kept secrets and closed mouths, wherein several characters are ready to explode but cannot and wherein a livelihood and a reputation are more important than saving a life, I Confess, for most of its length, always seems to be nearing a breaking point.  Destructive consequences are everywhere in sight, an easy way out an impossibility.  The film plays with Hitchcock’s repetitious liking of exploiting a wronged-man, watching his protagonist hungrily as he looks to worm his way out of the hell hole he currently finds himself in.  


By questioning the guilting tactics of the Catholic religion and the ethically slippery slopes that stand alongside its unyielding restrictions, I Confess is at once efficiently tense and sagely thought-provoking.  Clift, stoically powerful, remains cool and contemplative, and yet we can feel the fury rumbling within his being just by watching the way his eyes move, the way his body carries the burden of a kept secret and a parasitical faith.


But the film’s matchless high anxiety is nonetheless ruined by a forced ending more studio driven than Hitchcockian.  In the play, Logan was supposed to be found guilty of the crime he did not commit, enforcing a lingering cynicism meant to disturb.  But in the movie, a comprehensively implausible conclusion is tacked on, in which all the information necessary to demonstrate Logan’s innocence suddenly slips out at the nick of time, and in which Logan and Otto have a showdown so contrived it practically works as the quintessential example of Roger Ebert’s discussion of the recurring “talking killer” trope commonly found in thrillers.


Its affected finale aside, though, I Confess is too much a sensation in directing and acting to deserve its long-standing place among Hitchcock’s weakest efforts.  Though its originally tight premise withers away into Hollywood controlled artifice, Hitch’s direction is unendingly claustrophobic (and optically daring — just look at the way the camera puts Clift and a cross in the same shot as he’s giving his testimony), and Clift’s performance, along with Anne Baxter’s (as a former lover whose good name is tarnished in a venture to supply an alibi), is brilliant in its understatement.  If I Confess had been given the chance to remain pessimistic, it’d be a haunter and certainly one of Hitchcock’s most intimate films.  But its studio sanctioned phoniness causes its untimely demise, and that’s a tragedy.  B