I Confess (1953 USA 95mins)
Source: CAC Prod Co: Warner Brothers -First National Prod, Dir: Alfred Hitchcock Scr: George Tabori, William Archibald Phot: Robert Burks Ed: Rudi Fehr Art Dir: Edward S. Haworth Mus: Dimitri Tiomkin
Cast: Montgomery Clift, Anne Baxter, Karl Malden, Brian Aherne, O. E. Hasse.
This is an extract from Ken Mogg’s The Alfred Hitchcock Story, Titan Books, London, 1999, pp. 122-23.
[Found stealing, Otto Keller (Otto E. Hasse), a church sexton in Quebec, one night murders a lawyer, Vilette. Wearing a priest’s cassock, Keller hastens back to the rectory where he and his wife Alma (Dolly Haas) have rooms. He enters via the adjacent church, where he is seen by Father Michael Logan (Montgomery Clift), to whom he proceeds to make a formal confession. As it happens, Logan knows of Vilette, who had been attempting to blackmail Madame Ruth Grandfort (Anne Baxter) over a long-ago incident with Logan before he was ordained. When Police Inspector Larrue (Karl Malden) questions Logan, the priest can give no alibi for the time of the murder; nor, being bound by the rules of the confessional, can he disclose Keller’s guilt. Subsequently, Logan himself goes on trial, where he arouses the jury’s unwarranted suspicion about his conduct with the married Ruth. Though acquitted, he faces a hostile crowd. This proves too much for the watching Alma, who publicly accuses Keller. The latter shoots his wife, then flees into the nearby Château Frontenac hotel. Before dying from police bullets, Keller asks Logan’s forgiveness.]
Quebec City, site of several military battles, is located at the confluence of two rivers. As I Confess begins, the camera moves towards the city’s silhouette dominated by the massive Château Frontenac, which resembles a castle in a fairy tale. Women’s voices sing, siren-like. The same musical passage will later accompany Ruth Grandfort’s description of her early love affair with Michael Logan. All of youth’s ideals, and sense of what life offers, are implicit in the film’s respective uses of that passage. But at the end the camera retreats back across the river, the city again wreathed in darkness. Though a city of churches, it has proved not to be the City of God. I Confess is another engrossing film on the ‘lost paradise’ theme.
It is based on a 1902 play by Paul Anthelme, Nos deux consciences (‘Our Two Consciences’), which Hitchcock discovered in the early 1930s. The play is a typical melodrama; stories about clerics or would-be clerics tempted by love were commonplace at the turn of the century (Hall Caine’s The Christian  comes to mind). So, too, were stories about silent suffering, like that of ‘Madame X’ in Alexandre Brisson’s 1909 play, filmed many times. Anthelme’s play combines both these motifs while cleverly employing the idea of a murderer’s confession to a priest that so intrigued the Catholic Hitchcock. When Montgomery Clift agreed to appear in the film version, early in 1951, the script had the priest hanged at the end, then proven innocent. But Hitchcock bowed to pressure from ecclesiastical authorities, and the present ending was substituted during shooting, to its director’s deep regret.
Clift’s man-in-crisis performance is one of his finest. Fellow actor Karl Malden paid him tribute: “His ability to project mood and a held-back strength is quite extraordinary”. (1) The character’s integrity is further suggested by his constant forward movement (and Dimitri Tiomkin’s emphatic score), the antithesis of the non-movement of Mrs Danvers in Rebecca (1940). Anne Baxter was cast at the last minute as Ruth Grandfort. Hitchcock had first hired Swedish actress Anita Bjork, following a recommendation by friend and colleague Sidney Bernstein, but Warner Brothers rejected her when she arrived in America pregnant and with an unmarried lover in tow. Baxter’s playing in a demanding role is quietly effective. Madame Grandfort exists in a loveless marriage to the politician Pierre (Roger Dann) – loveless on her side, at any rate, because she can’t cease loving the no-longer available Logan. She is selfish in the sense that all romantic love is selfish. Until the end of the film, when Logan is exonerated of murder, she secretly hopes that he is guilty because that would confirm her deepest fantasy that her love is reciprocated. As soon as Logan is cleared, she turns to her husband and says, “Take me home, Pierre”. The character resembles Yvonne, the fiancée of the dedicated young Resistance fighter named Pierre, in Aventure Malgache (1944).
Hitchcock’s reasons for locating the film in Quebec were complex, but basically French Canada was as close as he could get to the play’s original setting. Quebec in 1952 had an Old World quality, and was noted for its architecture of medieval flavour; also, the city was the only one in North America where priests still wore the cassock, a garment that suggests its wearer combines male and female qualities. With its sloping, narrow streets, and flights of steps and stairs, Quebec City prefigures the San Francisco of Vertigo (1958). A memorable flashback shows a radiant Ruth coming down a spiral staircase to greet her lover, Logan, outside her home. Here the staircase echoes the one in Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). Kazan’s film is set in another French-American city, New Orleans, and Hitchcock astutely made a connection. Logan later descends a curving staircase of a different kind, in the courthouse, to face an angry mob who believe him a murderer. In fact, steps and stairs are everywhere in I Confess, like a secular version of the Stations of the Cross.
The film got mixed reviews, although it was generally well received in the Catholic Church. But it failed at the box office. John Russell Taylor, writing in 1978, thought it represented “another example of Hitch being ahead of his time” (2), and he was surely right (despite the film’s basis in turn-of-the-century melodrama). I Confess is in various ways timeless. Its subject-matter includes murder, blackmail, and human suffering. References to the Second World War, and earlier wars, are more potent here than in Rope (1948), and make Keller’s murder of Vilette seem part of a much larger scheme of things. Likewise, Vilette’s piece of intended blackmail finds its ironic equivalent at an official level: in court, the Crown Prosecutor (Brian Aherne) doesn’t hesitate to force his friend’s wife, Ruth, to answer painful questions about her marriage by threatening to quote from her signed testimony, which is of an even more intimate nature. And indications of human mortality are everywhere: the jury foreman combing his hair to hide his bald patch; a crippled girl passing in a street; black smoke drifting over the city; frequent references to eating and digestion. The film’s “open-ended pessimism” (to quote Father Neil Hurley) accords with how philosophers tell us that the world’s Will – a life-force that is also a death-force – has always worked like this. The film’s ‘medieval’ look is apt.
- Patricia Bosworth, Montgomery Clift, Bantam Books, 1979, p. 241.
- John Russell Taylor, Hitch, Faber, 1978, p. 219. “The slow-burning intensity of the film, its doom-laden atmosphere, are much easier to take now than they were then, and it seems to have been more than anything another example of Hitch being ahead of his time”.