Week 30: I Confess (1953), Situations, and the Ten Commandments Rap

Disclaimer: These essays presume you’ve seen the film in question. If you want to avoid spoilers, watch the movie first!

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“I’d prefer to build a film around a situation rather than a plot.”
– Alfred Hitchcock in Hitchcock/Truffaut

Hitchcock said this while discussing I Confess (1953) and I can’t believe it took me this long to find that quote. It perfectly sums up Hitchcock and all of his strengths and weaknesses. In his best films, we’re compelled by the situation, the scenes, and the characters involved, not the mechanics of the plot. It’s one of the things I love about how Hitchcock aged; as he got older, he got more cavalier with the “how” and “why” of his films.

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This strategy works tremendously well for his man-on-the-run films, where you’re swept along for the ride. It can even work for tight suspense thrillers like Rope or Psycho where the details aren’t as important as how Hitch is turning the screws. Yet when it comes to a courtroom drama like I Confess, a film where entire sequences depend on who said what to when and where, it falls apart. As we saw in The Paradine Case, Hitchcock doesn’t have the temperament for a courtroom film; precise details seem to bore him. But in a movie where the minutiae of a case are examined for the benefit of a judge & jury, implausible moments jump out at you. Once the events of a night are gone over multiple times, you realize that the entire film is hinging on tremendous coincidence.

I Confess has a great situation but a lousy plot. The film begins with a gorgeous location tour of Quebec City and in an inspired Hitchcockian detail, the series of “Direction” street signs slowly point the way to a murdered man, Vilette. We see that the killer is a man wearing a priest’s cassock (a type of robe) which he takes off when he enters a church. The killer, a man named Keller who works in the rectory, takes confession with Father Logan (played by Montgomery Clift) and admits that he killed Vilette. Now here’s the great situation: Keller knows that Father Logan is bound by the Catholic church not to reveal what he heard in confession. Keller now sees that he may be able to frame Logan for the murder, and the priest can do nothing about it without breaking his vow to God and the church.

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It’s a great idea (based on an old play by Paul Anthelme). But Hitchcock and his team of screenwriters make two huge mistakes.

1. They complicate the story with incredible coincidences and implausible scenarios. Not only does Logan have to keep quiet about the confession, but he also wants to shield his former lover Ruth (Anne Baxter) from embarrassment. Ruth was in love with Logan before World War II, yet while he was fighting overseas she married another man for reasons that are spectacularly unclear (she says that his letters stopped coming, but it’s hard to read this as an incredibly shitty turn of events. You can’t blame the guy for not writing when he’s knee-deep in fighting against the Nazis). When Logan returns they meet to talk and get caught in a storm that forces them to spend the night together (wink, wink). The man whose gazebo they hide in (no, really) is Vilette, who is now blackmailing her over what is surely the most innocuous situation imaginable. All Ruth needs to do is say “yes, I was visiting with my old friend who is now a priest.” Even in 1953, this would have been far less scandalous than the film makes it out to be. And now you have the gigantic coincidence of her blackmailer being killed by the same man who works in the rectory with Father Logan, her ostensible lover. It’s absurd, and while Hitchcock tries to paper over it with excellent acting and some great directorial flourishes, it doesn’t hold up to the film’s repeated examination.

2. Here’s the biggest problem: Nowhere in the film, despite repeated, endless questioning by police and lawyers, does Father Logan indicate that he cannot answer because he would be violating a confession. And no one, not even the obviously Catholic detective played by Karl Malden, makes the leap that “hey, maybe the reason he isn’t saying anything is because he’s sworn not to.” This idea, known as “priest-penitent privilege” has since come under fire in some areas (in 2014 there was a high profile case where a priest was sued for not revealing information about a child molester to authorities), although in 1950s Quebec this privilege was a known and established rule. Yet no one explains it to the audience (until the very end of the film) and Logan doesn’t talk to any of his superiors for advice, instead remaining a stoic pillar of Catholic suffering for the entire film. The most we get is the killer taunting Logan, saying “You can’t tell them as long as you are a priest.”

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It’s a great idea, done in by a rare clumsy execution. Hitchcock would later admit this mistake, saying that while he raised a Jesuit (and was a devoted Catholic all his life), he now realizes that he should have explained the concept to the audience. It’s a shame because I think Hitchcock was excited by the idea. He’d been pursuing his film for years, and was intrigued by making something that related to his faith.

***

I’ve not a religious person, although I used to be. I went to Sunday School and church for the first eighteen years of my life. At first it was because I enjoyed it, and later just to make my mom & dad happy. 

My parent’s religion is hard to pin down. When I was young we attended Northside Christian Church. I never thought about what that meant until later in life when people would ask what affiliation we were. Methodist? Lutheran? Non-Denominational? All I could say is that I thought it was kind of Baptist. My uncle was a Southern Baptist minister so I probably related to that church (although he was later found guilty of soliciting sex from a prostitute, which did little to help my dislike of organized religion. But I digress).

I loved all the community elements of church. I grew up at Northside and its Sunday school rooms & event hall. I helped fill the trays with grape juice for communion, I ran around with my friends Mark & Don (yes, we were Matthew, Mark & Don), and I felt like I owned the place. Yet while I studied in Sunday school and learned everything I was supposed to, it never connected with me. This was made clear to me one summer at christian camp in Prescott, Arizona. I went there every summer probably from fourth grade to junior high. It’s where I learned about suicide sodas (where you mix all the fountain sodas together), realized I was terrible at sports when I broke my pinkie by playing deep right field in softball without a mitt (It has a permanent weird angle to it now), and first started to get interested in girls. I remember like yesterday during a bus trip to the YMCA pool when one of our camp counselors leaned out of the window to stare at some passing girls. We razzed him about it and he responded “God says to admire his creations, and I do.”

It was a lot of fun, even with having to learn the Ten Commandments Rap (“Now you shall have no Gods but me / Before no idol bow your knee!”). But one moment soured me on camp. At the end of my last week there, they brought us down to the firepit and ask us all to commit to Christ. To vow that we’d be born again or be baptised and devote our life to God. If we agreed, we should get up from our side of the fire and move to the other side of the fire.

It was classic peer pressure bullshit. One by one, people stood up to do it. I sat there, with my friend Mark. I don’t know what he was thinking. But I was thinking that they were all hypocrites. The boys who teased me in my bunk year after year were heading over, and so were the girls who laughed when I cried because I broke my pinkie finger. I knew they were hypocrites. And I knew that I didn’t believe.

I was raised with faith but I never believed it. I’m not an atheist, mainly because I like the idea of God and a higher power, but I can’t bring myself to believe in it. I know that Faith is what’s important. That if God simply presented Himself to us it would defeat the purpose of faith. I love that idea and I respect it. Yet then as now I can’t make peace with all the contradictions. The fact that the bible says to hate gay people. The idea that good things happen to bad people and we’re just supposed to accept it as Part of God’s Plan (yes, I read that damn book and this was all I got out of it). As I’ve gotten older and seen terrible, evil things happen to people I love, I find myself less and less able to unquestioningly accept that He Moves in Mysterious Ways.

I also resent the camp counselors and organizers who tried to pressure us into a token baptism around that campfire, so they could look good to their bosses. Somehow my friend Mark and I resisted. It’s easier when you’re already the underdog in school and you’re used to being the odd person out. I remember the look from the team leader, the same one who told us that “Sex is great, you guys. I love sex. But only with my wife, after marriage.” He didn’t like that he had two holdouts, but he couldn’t do anything about it It’s a proud moment for me, even as I’m still mad at the counselors and adults who let it happen.

That said, I do still love the best elements of organized religion. That sense of community, faith, and compassion is remarkable. It’s just that most of the time it’s overwhelmed by hatred, bullshit, and hypocrisy. But I try not to judge; if you get something out of church, that’s awesome! Just don’t tell me what I can & can’t do and we’ll get along fine.

Hitchcock was not only deeply religious, but he donated thousands of dollars to Catholic causes over the course of his life. His Jesuit upbringing informed his sense of morality which I think carries over to most if not all of his films. In later years he’d try to pass it off as the studio’s wishes but I think he genuinely thought the bad guys should be punished. Both of his proposed endings for I Confess show this kind of religious morality. It’s clearly a very personal movie for him.

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There are reports that Hitchcock was unhappy with Montgomery Clift & Anne Baxter in the film. Baxter was pushed on him by Warner Bros and while he was initially excited about the talented Clift, Hitch was put off by his Method acting and on-set drinking. Yet I think they’re both great in the film; Baxter easily sells a smoldering sensuality lurking just below her surface even if she’s not a typical “Hitchcock Blonde.” And Clift underplays his entire performance, confining his emotions and angst to his eyes which flicker with emotion on his otherwise passive, controlled countenance.

Hitchcock makes a strange choice with his villain; Otto Keller is a character who elicits no sympathy from the audience. He’s played by German actor O.E. Hasse with no charm and an impenetrable accent (seriously, I could barely understand him). By 1953 Hitchcock was well into his “Suave Villain” phase, where he correctly recognized that charming, charismatic bad guys are far more dangerous than any obvious black hat (Just look at John Dall in Rope, Ray Milland in Dial M For Murder, and best of all, James Mason in North by Northwest). Yet here the antagonist is an unremarkable “Bad Guy” type who brings no motivation or sense of urgency to the film. Perhaps Hitchcock was feeling the tug towards neo-realism that would pop up in The Wrong Man (1957); he had spent part of the previous summer visiting with Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini in Europe and was undoubtedly familiar with the new Italian movement. Yet striving for realism with this casting simply delivers an ineffective and weak villain.

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Still there are great moments in I Confess, many of them due to the way Hitch and his cinematographer Robert Burks shoot the movie. Throughout the film Hitchcock employs lots of contrasting low and high angles, many of them echoing the view of Jesus on the cross and the way we always look up in church.

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There’s also a terrific shot where the prosecutor is drilling into Father Logan, insisting that he must be the murderer. Most directors would push in on the accused man, showing him sweating or looking around nervously before shouting “it’s not true!” But here Hitchcock slowly pulls the camera back to reveal the entire courtroom, everyone staring at Logan, condemning him under the weight of public spectacle.

Hitchcock had initially envisioned a much bleaker ending. For years while the film was in development at Warner Bros, he fought for Logan & Ruth to have had an illegitimate child as a result of their one-night stand and for Logan to be found guilty and hung for the murder, unwilling to compromise his vow to God even to save his own life.

It’s a good idea and oddly enough, the Catholic Church had no problem with it. Warner Bros, however, flipped out. It’s likely that it would never have worked onscreen, and Hitchcock actually creates a terrific ending, perhaps the most moving moment in the whole film. After the jury can’t find enough evidence to convict Father Logan, they find him not guilty, even though everyone still suspects him. In a brilliant sequence, Logan makes his way out of the courtroom as the crowd jeers at him (Clift is particularly good here, remaining impassive over the stares and accusations), until finally Keller’s wife can’t take it. She goes to talk to the police and Keller panics and shoots her, leading to a chase through a nearby hotel where Keller confesses after being shot by the police. The final shot of the film is Father Logan ministering to the dying Keller, the man who nearly ruined his entire life. Logan shows no hesitation as he cradles Keller and starts to pray for him, in a truly touching and beautiful moment of forgiveness and compassion as the movie fades out. It’s everything we want from religion. It’s almost enough to make me believe. Sometimes I wish I did.

I Confess is not streaming on any services. It’s available to rent on iTunes or Amazon, or is available from your friendly local library.

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