Directed By: Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Montgomery Clift, Anne Baxter, Karl Malden
Tag line: "Crushed lips don't talk..."
Trivia: Alfred Hitchcock offered Cary Grant the lead role, but he turned it down
I have a confession of my own to make: despite the fact Alfred Hitchcock ranks among my favorite directors, there are still a handful of his films I’ve never seen, and until today, 1953’s I Confess was one of them. The story of a priest who’s wrongly accused of murder, I Confess may not be the Master of Suspense’s most riveting movie, but it does have its moments.
Late one evening, Father Logan (Montgomery Clift), a Catholic priest stationed in Quebec, hears the confession of Otto Keller (O.E. Hesse), whose wife, Alma (Dolly Has), works as a maid at the church’s rectory. As it turns out, Otto had a doozy of a sin to confess: earlier that night, he murdered a man. Because Otto confessed to this crime while receiving the sacrament of Penance, Father Logan is forbidden by church law to pass this information on to the authorities. Things take an even stranger turn when Inspector Larrue (Karl Malden), the man assigned to investigate the murder, suspects Father Logan himself may be the killer. Apparently, Father Logan was being blackmailed by the victim, who threatened to expose a tryst the priest had years earlier (prior to taking his vows) with Ruth Grandfort (Anne Baxter), a former lover who was married at the time. Unable to reveal the killer’s true identity, Father Logan is arrested and put on trial for a crime he didn’t commit.
I Confess gets off to a stellar start, with a sequence that looks as if it were lifted straight out of a classic Film Noir; interspersed between shots of a city skyline are images of street signs, all pointing to the exact location where the murder took place. Shortly after the dead man’s body is revealed (by way of a nifty tracking shot through an open window), we see the killer, dressed as a priest, making a hasty getaway down a darkened, shadow-filled street. These opening scenes are executed perfectly, with Hitch displaying the visual flair that, by 1953, had become his trademark. The film’s climax is also strong, with some anxious moments in a courtroom punctuated by a tense showdown inside a nearby hotel. These scenes aside, however, I Confess is a talky, often dull affair, with Montgomery Clift, who certainly looks the part of a dashing young priest, coming off as far too solemn in the lead role.
Another aspect of I Confess that non-Catholics will find particularly frustrating is Father Logan’s refusal to reveal the killer’s identity, but thanks to my upbringing, I had no problem whatsoever accepting his decision to remain quiet. During the 12 years I spent in Catholic schools, the nuns would often speak of the sanctity of the confessional, and how the priest was bound by his sacred vows to never reveal what was discussed within its walls. Several of the good sisters even used the example set forth in this film, saying that, if someone confessed to taking part in a murder, the priest had no choice but to keep it a secret. Sure, it’s a tad archaic, and even a bit scary to think that a killer would be protected by the church because he spoke up in a confessional, but that’s the way it was (for the record, I have no idea if this practice is adhered to as strongly today as it was in the past). So, while I Confess definitely has its share of problems, it would be a mistake to hold Hitchcock accountable for this particular plot twist. Maddening though it may be, he was simply following church doctrine.
Whether he agreed with this practice or not is another matter entirely. In fact, there were times during I Confess where I got the feeling Hitch himself wanted Father Logan to spill the beans.