Week 37: ‘I Confess’ – 1953

Set in Quebec, Canada, ‘I Confess’ is a neat little thriller which boasts a fine performance by the great Montgomery Clift. He plays Father Michael William Logan who takes confession from one of his parishioners – Otto Keller (O.E. Hasse) – and is promptly told that the confessor has just committed a murder. Sworn to silence by the sacred sanctity of the confessional box, Logan is then fingered for the crime himself because a priest was seen scuttling from the scene. This is all then compounded by a love interest from his pre-priest life (Ruth Grandfort, played by Anne Baxter) and Logan’s life starts to seriously unravel…

The opening sweeps you in with a celestial theme (courtesy of Dimitri Tiomkin) and a drifting watery shot towards a towering church structure in Quebec, straightaway then giving way to a more menacing toned theme with slight music stabs.

The shots take us through the streets and various ‘Direction’ signs before we see the murdered man (Villette, played – uncredited – by Ovila Legare), the figure of a priest striding away with lovely expressionist ‘Third Man’-ish lighting:

The lighting in the vital confession scene and the church shots is harsh and vivid, deep blacks and bright whites – very attractive in this tale of good and evil, darkness and light. In fact, the picture throughout is quite beautifully photographed (by Robert Burks, who will be Hitchcock’s preferred DoP right up to the cameraman’s death in 1968).

Keller’s wife Alma* (Dolly Haas) is not good at hiding her knowledge that Logan knows about her husband – veering around behind him as the priests eat their breakfast, a nice camera track behind Logan’s head. Logan can’t handle it and promptly walks out, much to his fellow priests’ confusion.

The chief investigator, Inspector Larrue, is played by the always dependable Karl Malden. He’s always good value for money and here he is clipped, direct, suspicious and to the point. He has that friendly smiley Karl Malden thing going but underscores this with a steel heart and manner, feigning confusion at times to draw more factoids out of anyone he comes in contact with. Malden is often shot from below, emphasizing his height and looming down on Logan or Keller. There’s a lovely shot where Keller is halteringly talking to Larrue and the latter moves his head half past the man to spy Logan outside, who is at that point telling the (blonde) Ruth about the murder.

Larrue is gentle and fatherly with the two young girl witnesses also, another good side of his character. They are the first to mention the ‘priest’ leaving – and Malden’s tone changes to formal quickly, the coincidence of Logan visiting the murder scene that same morning starting to sink in.

Ruth is now married (to Pierre, played by Roger Dann) but clearly her heart still belongs to Father. Her relationship with her husband is interesting as Pierre is clearly aware she is still in love with the vicar and says as much later in the picture. The scene where the married couple really get down to it in the honesty stakes is well handled, Hitchcock shooting this scene with out of focus objects planted in the foreground to give a slight imbalance to the composition and therefore the feel of the scene.

It’s good as Pierre just comes out with his accusation without loads of flim flam or embarrassment. Sure enough, as soon as Pierre leaves the room, Ruth immediately rings Logan and they meet the following morning on a ferry. There are interesting shots here as Tiomkin’s music beats cue cuts to people who may be watching them, her paranoia rising as she tells him she still loves him. Sure enough, one of the guys then appears in Larrue’s office and the odds start to stack against Logan.

There are slight flashes of humour in the film and they’re welcome. The continued painting and decoration of the priests’ house and the priest with the bicycle seem to offer some respite to the rather overwrought feel of parts of the film. Keller confronts Logan as the priest is painting up a ladder, and it feels like another confession. The scene is then enriched as Alma comes in and you have three people all of whom know what is going on but no-one will talk about it.

Hitchcock makes good use of the architecture of the city of Quebec – it’s large and stone and imposing and inspiring as towers soar diagonally across the frame, often used to link scenes together. At times it feels almost like a big travel commercial for the city and presents it as very attractive and dramatic. The church steeple montage is good as the cops go round questioning the priests regarding the night of the murder.

This Ruth remembering/flashback scenes (another kind of confessional) showing her and Logan as ‘young’ lovers (although they don’t look significantly different to me) start with a tremendously schmaltzy slightly slo-mo shot of Ruth descending a staircase, literally glowing in white – as is Logan as they kiss. The evocation of her romantic memories justifies this rather overboard and saccharine sequence.

Other scenes show Logan leaving and the pair of them caught in a rainstorm (her married by this stage, post WWII).  It’s also fairly lengthy – taking up a good few minutes right at the heart of the film that stalls the progress of the main plot somewhat.  The scenes, although based in sadness, do give the film a bit of a lift as far as being country based and romantic. The introduction of Villette and the reasons for his blackmail are all handled in this section, which then segueways neatly into the murder section. Tiomkin’s music seeps us through her whole reminiscence –which helps as it runs over ten minutes, the music fairly dreamy and again the rather celestial feel is present. Of course, Larrue then blows the whole alibi out of the water by stating that Villette was murdered out of the timeframe Ruth was with Logan – nice of him to let her pour her guts out and potentially wreck her marriage and ruin Logan’s career before letting this nugget of information come out.

The courtroom scenes are fairly swift and interestingly shot – Keller shot from below dramatically, then some cutaways (rather curious) of the jury, one of them combing his hair, another sneezing. It’s almost as if the director wants to inject a bit or personality into the jury members (most movies just have them sitting there). Logan, at the vital point of questioning, is shot from below – a large crucified Christ in shot with him to emphasise the weight on his shoulders.

It seems slightly strange that Logan doesn’t mention that Keller wanted to go to confession – could he have said this but then refused to say what was said in the confession box? It would immediately cast suspicion on Keller and away from him. As it is, Logan is found not guilty and has to endure the walk of shame through the amassed throng outside the court – trial by the mob. Mrs. Keller can’t handle it and her husband has to shoot her to shut her up, a bizarre decision as it squarely puts him in the frame – stalemate though it is by this point. The pace picks up and the closing of the film happens extremely fast – much chasing around and gunshots as they track to track down the lunatic Keller – finally he being gunned down in front of a theatre stage and Logan giving him the last rites.

I’m a big fan of Montgomery Clift and he’s good in the film, believable as the angst-ridden Logan. He has just the right balance of devotion to his vocation and confusion as to what he can possibly do with the information he has been lumbered with. The picture is good but not great, an interesting premise but not without its plot holes. ‘I Confess’ is solid fare, entertaining if somewhat dry, but well worth a look for how the premise plays out and the fine performances of the ever wracked Clift and the appealing Malden.

Miscellaneous notes

*Alma also being Hitchcock’s wife’s Christian name.

Hitchcock gets his little appearance out of the way fast, so as not to interrupt proceedings. He walks right to left at the top of a steep staircase, fairly distant.

I liked Larrue’s little bathroom behind a curtain in the corner of his office – it’s like he’s successful but not so much that he would get his own en suite in his office, a neat little touch to assess his pay grade.

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