By Marc S. Sanders
Alfred Hitchcock’s 1953 film noir I Confess is an absolute must see. An underrated film that held my attention all the way to the end. Perhaps because of its subject matter and setting within the Catholic Church it didn’t hold the reputation of Hitch’s other more well known classics like Psycho, The Birds and North By Northwest. Those films played with their suspense. They had fun with humor and special effects to carry their adventures and horror. I Confess has a little more serious weight to its story, as it examines the scruples of its characters within a murder yarn.
Montgomery Clift portrays Michael Logan, a Catholic Priest, who hears the confession of a murder from the church’s maintenance man (O.E. Hasse), late one night. Only now, sworn to his oath of confidence, he must keep it undisclosed. That might be a little challenging when it is gradually revealed that Fr. Logan might have a connection to the victim, a well known attorney.
Anne Baxter plays Ruth Grandefort, the wife of a politician, caught speaking with Logan just outside of the scene of the crime the next morning. Inspector LaRue (Karl Malden) has reason to follow up on these people. Immediately, your mind will likely go somewhere. When a man and a woman are caught whispering to one another in any murder mystery, well, what are you gonna think? Still, could it be something else entirely? Alibis are not quite solid and unlikely suspects are caught together. Why? What do they know? What’s the connection?
Hitchcock shoots a mystery turned inside out. You know who the killer is in the first five minutes. From there he pursues the red herring until it’s conclusion. The mystery isn’t really the issue here. The question is whether Logan and Grandefort will avoid a frame up. Can Fr. Logan maintain his oath while maintaining his innocence? Det. LaRue has every reason to believe he’s got his culprit, and yet he doesn’t.
Film noir set in Quebec sidles up to questions of morality beautifully here. I was truly wondering whether Logan was going to get exonerated. Hitchcock applies the suspense in that perspective. It’s a great twist on the traditional Agatha Christie motif. He’s got a great tracking shot (actually he was probably carrying the camera and walking on his own two feet) of the maintenance man walking at a fast pace alongside Logan down a hallway, reminding him of his commitment of confidentiality. “As long as you’re a priest…”. Hitch got my pulse racing at this moment.
The three principal players (Clift, Baxter and Malden) are very good here. None of the performances feel dated. As well, Hasse as the murderous German caretaker makes for a good, creepy foil, always looking in from the outside to make certain the investigation never sways away from Logan.
The set up is really well executed from Hitchcock using a script by George Tabori & William Archibald, adapted from an early 20th century play by Paul Anthelme. It’s a little surprising to see a priest caught up in a murder and perhaps some other sinful acts in a film from 1953. There were actually aspects of the original script that Warner Brothers insisted be excised.
However, had this film been made today, there’d likely be an uproar over a Catholic Priest being considered for murder or even participating in a possible affair.
The shock of it all still works in I Confess. A priest is a prime murder suspect? Never! How could it be? Yet, that’s what engaged me. We all are capable of carrying out the worst acts imaginable. The same could be said that we are all capable of holding true to our moral character. Our capabilities are embedded in our human mindset. The question is what is everyone willing to believe.