To confess sins, whether in the cloistered confines of a confessional or the wide-open, if somewhat anonymous, world of the internet is to lay oneself bare. Alfred Hitchcock’s I Confess presents confession as deceptive, dangerous, and deadly (the worst of the three “d’s”). Montgomery Clift, continuing his foray into atmospheric tales that stretched his acting chops, showcases a flair for the secretive in ways we wouldn’t know until much later, itself lending an added air of subtext in this evocative tale of lies and judgement, by both men and God.
When Father Michael Logan (Clift) hears the confession of a murderer a series of coincidences sets up Logan as the prime suspect. Does he break the confessional seal to save his own skin?
I Confess was probably one of the harder films to adapt to screen in the grand scheme of Hitchcock’s work as a director. George Tabori’s original script was much darker, with a grittier ending and additional items Warner Brothers objected to. (They also objected to Hitchcock’s original leading lady, Anita Bjork who came with her own personal baggage ironically mimicking the original script.) When it was revealed the Catholic Church was heavily involved in the narrative, several churches backed out of allowing Hitch to use their locations, further complicating the shooting schedule. With so many complications it’s amazing I Confess was completed at all, and possibly contextualizes how underdeveloped things feel.
Hitchcock’s de facto cinematographer, Robert Burks, composes some utterly ethereal shots, setting up Hitchcock’s overarching theme of heavenly vs. corporeal punishment. Though Hitchcock is often praised as a master of composition, and I’m sure people would disagree with my assessment, but the cinematography in I Confess entrances. The camera looks up the spires of a beautiful church with Dimitri Tiomkin’s beautiful score, as if the angels are already weeping for what’s to come. Several scenes utilize the church’s wide, open spaces and vaunted ceilings. Coupled with the fact that these moments are meant to both ground and elevate – God’s place on Earth that ends up consuming those who do wrong – ribs with double meaning.
I Confess is the first time divine judgement is referred to so prominently unlike past Hitchcock characters’ societal castigation, but . For Logan, and the killer, there’s more on the line than just a hanging – the least of their worries. They, instead, have to worry about their souls. All the characters here, through society’s acceptance or shunning of them, are damned. The question remains whether their damnation stops at the point of death. Characters compare themselves to Logan, maintaining they aren’t as “good” as he is. But what does that mean? Logan is pious and follows the rules of religion, but does Hitchcock’s central conceit is can religion be equated with goodness?
Much of this is excavated in Logan’s past relationship with Anne Baxter’s Ruth Grandfort, the now married ex-paramour from Logan’s past before entering the priesthood. Logan’s relationship ends the minute he becomes a priest, but just the fact that he had a past relationship was what left Warner Brothers leery about the entire film. Though Anne Baxter remains as astoundingly luminous, lit in gauzy flashbacks during her summer idyll with Logan, her character’s really there as a chink in the armor, an impediment.
As a mystery, I Confess isn’t as tightly wound or expertly executed as past Hitchcock ventures. Baxter’s character is introduced merely by chance – conveniently blackmailed by the victim and associated to Brian Aherne’s Crown Prosecutor Robertson through her husband. Short of her stalking Logan, it’s hard fathoming that the events the film lays out would have worked. Also, the killer goes from scared penitent to criminal mastermind with no prior background, leading to a third act that’s as ridiculous as it is unsatisfying.
Clift and Hitchcock didn’t get along, a common pronouncement due to Clift’s adherence to the Method, but Clift’s doe-eyed life of fear and confinement plays well on-screen. The benefit of hindsight makes it impossible not to pair Clift’s homosexuality against the theme of judgement Hitchcock presents. If anything, Clift’s “secret” could be written up through a queer lens, emphasizing his own judgement for being gay as opposed to what he’s heard. Anne Baxter is good but, again, it’s impossible for her not to be more than a speed bump in the movie. She worked better leading her own features like The Blue Gardenia (1953) or Chase a Crooked Shadow (1958).
I Confess sets up a moody noir with loads of subtextual layering, but the entire venture feels toothless, possibly due to continued script revisions. Clift and Baxter, even Karl Malden and Brian Aherne, are good. This is lesser Hitchcock, but it’s worth watching, on Warner Archive’s new Blu-ray, for Burks’ beautiful cinematography.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.