I Confess (1953) is an Alfred Hitchcock film that has flown under the radar since its premiere; the box office figures were disappointing and there has been a lack of critical analysis for this work, especially when compared to most of his American films. This is a pity, as this tale of deception, hidden secrets and the control that love has over our souls is one of the director’s finest examinations of the human condition.
The basic concept behind the film, based on the 1902 play Nos Deux Consciences by Paul Anthelme, is that a Catholic priest cannot divulge anything he has heard in the confessional. At the beginning of the film, we learn that a humble servant named Otto Keller (O.E. Hasse), who does household chores at the rectory and church in Quebec where Father Michael Logan (Montgomery Clift) is assigned, has killed a lawyer named Villette. Keller also worked for Villette and attempted to steal some of his money, in order to better the situation of his wife Alma (Dolly Haas) and himself. His attempt at robbery winds up in murder, as he knocks out Villette upon being discovered.
We are left to put together some of the pieces of this puzzle, as Hitchcock, in characteristic precision shows us only the dead man’s body in his office and then pans off him to show a man in a priest’s cassock walking away from the scene. Two school girls see this man and assume it is a priest, but Hitchcock shows the audience that it is Keller, who takes off the cassock and then hurries back to the rectory to plant the evidence in Fr. Logan’s room.
Logan enters the church that evening and sees Keller praying; he then hears his confession and learns of the murder. Of course, he will not be able to reveal the secrets of the confessional; Hitchock makes sure that the audience is aware of this. As Fr. Logan is the only man who knows the truth, the conflict is front and center, as his silence in the murder investigation will only infuriate Inspector Larue (Karl Malden), who is assigned to this high-profile case.
But there is another reason for Fr. Logan to keep quiet; his former girlfriend Ruth Landfort (Anne Baxter) was being blackmailed by Villette when he discovered their relationship. Both Logan and Ruth are brought in for questioning by Larue and as neither is too anxious to share their past affair (at least initially), they are viewed with trepidation by Larue who eventually puts out a warrant for Logan’s arrest on the charge of murder.
There are other twists and turns here that I will not reveal, but suffice it to say that the storyline is a compelling and surprising one. The title I Confess takes on several meanings in this film; not only the confession of Keller, but also that of Ruth regarding her past romance with Logan. Keller knows that Logan cannot tell anyone about his crime, while Ruth has different realities to face, as she will embarrass Logan, whom she admits she is still in love with, while also facing the possibility of forever ruining her relationship with her husband Pierre (Roger Dann), whom she tells to his face that she has never loved.
Hitchock treats this story with great dignity and seriousness, and with virtually no humor (there is one running gag about another priest’s bicycle in the rectory). This is certainly what this treatment deserves, but given the director’s Catholic upbringing, it adds another layer to this film. The theme of the innocent man was one of Hitchock’s most central motifs, used in films from The 39 Steps to North by Northwest to Frenzy (to name only a few), but it was never presented in this fashion, where the innocent man knows the killer (as does the audience), yet cannot disclose his identity. That this secrecy is an absolute given between a priest and God makes this realization that much stronger.
During his initial interrogation, Larue tells Fr. Logan, “The difficulty perhaps is that we aren’t thinking from the same point of view.” This is clear as Logan must protect his spiritual contract as a priest, even if it means not fully cooperating with the police, which will eventually mean that he is a prime suspect in the murder.
Examples of faith – one between a priest and God and the other between a man and a woman – are tested in I Confess. Just how strong that faith can remain is the key element to this serious, at times somber and at times, deeply religious film.
I must cite not only the excellent performances of the entire cast, but also the outstanding work of cinematographer Robert Burks on this film. Burks, who was a long-time collaborator of Hitchock, used various looks in his black-and-white photography here, varying between a stark look that perfectly captures the solemness of this story as well as providing lush, soft-light closeups of the stars. The faces are beautiful to begin with – Baxter, Clift and Brian Aherne the most obvious – but even Karl Malden looks more handsome here than he ever did in his other films.
The radiant glow of the faces of the main characters captures not only superficial beauty, but also gives the film an ironic visual look, as we see these people trying to maintain their calm and sense of sanity amidst a storm of troubles. This is especially true in the flashback sequence with Clift and Baxter, but also apparent in the courtroom sequence.
This is among the finest films ever photographed in black-and-white and the result is quite simply, timeless.
Tom Hyland has been an avid film buff for 40 years. He lives in Chicago and publishes the film blog Cinema Directives.