Judge Mark Van Hook just saw a twist he never expected: some of Hitchcock's films aren't perfect.
If you knew what he knew, what would you do?
One of Alfred Hitchcock's lesser-known 1950s efforts, I Confess's intriguing concept is surprisingly diminished in its execution. Hitchcock directs masterfully as usual, but the script is riddled with imperfections (most notably a meandering middle section that takes the focus off its brilliant set-up). The film now comes to DVD in a typically sturdy presentation from Warner Brothers, who include it in their essential Alfred Hitchcock Signature Collection box. I Confess is a worthwhile purchase for Hitchcock buffs regardless of its inherent flaws.
Facts of the Case
I Confess opens in Quebec where, after a series of shots of the city's dark cobblestone streets and towering structures, we see that a murder has been committed. The killer is Otto Keller (O.E. Hasse), a German refugee who has found work with his wife in one of the city's Catholic churches. Upon committing the murder, he returns to the church and immediately confesses the crime to Father Michael Logan (Montgomery Clift).
Circumstances lead the police investigating the murder to the church, where they soon find out that Father Logan has had connections with the victim, and evidence points to his having committed the crime. So Logan is faced with a dilemma—should he go to prison (and probably be executed) for a crime he didn't commit, or reveal what he knows and break his sacred vow of silence?
The set-up for I Confess is pure Hitchcock; it contains several themes that the Master would use throughout his directing career. The most obvious is the man falsely accused of a crime, struggling to prove his innocence. The film puts a fresh spin on this theme by making the accused man a priest, and giving him full knowledge of the killer's identity—but he can't let the authorities know, not even to save his own neck.
It is easy to see why this idea appealed to Hitchcock, a man obsessed with the Kafkaesque idea of being falsely accused of a crime. Hitchcock used this theme time and again in many of his best pictures (North by Northwest, The 39 Steps, etc.). Had I Confess followed through on its convictions and spent more time on the priest's inner conflict, it might have been among the master's greatest works.
But instead, the intriguing premise goes off the rails when Hitchcock introduces Ruth Grandfort, played by Anne Baxter. Grandfort is merely a plot device to connect the murder to Father Logan. In a lengthy flashback, we're told that the two were deeply in love before Logan's service in the war, and that upon his return, the affair briefly resumed (despite Ruth's marriage that took place in the interim). When the murder victim discovered the affair, he began blackmailing her, thus giving Logan motivation for carrying out the murder.
There's nothing inherently wrong with this device, as it gives Hitchcock a perfectly acceptable means for setting up the innocent-man-accused scenario. But why devote so much time to what should be a throwaway device at the expense of Father Logan's inner conflict? Wouldn't it have made for a much better and more Hitchcockian film had the priest struggled with the idea of betraying his vow in exchange for his own freedom? The flashback sequence is so unnecessarily long and so romance-novel silly (though beautifully scored by Dmitri Tiomkin) that we almost forget Logan actually knows who committed the murder.
End Spoiler Warning
This misplaced focus is disappointing because so many elements of the film work well. The performances are first-rate, especially Montgomery Clift's, who carries his method-actor introspectiveness like a priest carries his cross. Karl Malden does solid, empathetic work as the police inspector who tries to clear the priest but has no option other than to suspect him. O.E. Hasse is also excellent as the killer, a man who shows less and less remorse as it becomes apparent that he may get away with murder. And there's a great, though small, turn from German actress Dolly Haas as Keller's wife, who plays a pivotal role in the thrilling denouement.
The film also looks terrific, and uncharacteristically noirish for a Hitchcock film. It's shot on the rain-soaked cobblestone streets of Quebec, with its Old-World architecture bathed in inky shadows.
Hitchcock finally manages to get the focus back on track for the finale. He satisfyingly ties up all previous story threads, disregards the flashback silliness, and neatly returns to the themes of guilt and choice that give the picture its best qualities. If the whole film had been as focused as its first and third acts, then it may have been one of The Master's finest, most under appreciated films. Instead, it's one of his most interestingly flawed. And when a director is as good as Hitchcock, even an interesting failure should be required viewing.
The Warner Brothers DVD presentation of I Confess is typically excellent in the video department, with a top-notch full-frame (original aspect ratio) transfer. It displays Robert Burks's cinematography beautifully, with inky black shadows in the Quebec sequences and bright, vibrant whites in the sunnier flashback. Sound is mastered in Dolby Digital Mono, crisp and free of distortion. The disc features subtitles in English, French and Spanish.
In keeping with the rest of the titles in the Hitchcock Signature Collection, the disc includes a Laurent Bouzereau-produced documentary, Hitchcock's Confession, A Look at I Confess. All the necessary talking heads are featured (Peter Bogdanovich, Robert Osborne, Richard Schickel, etc.), and though it's not quite as thorough or revealing as some of the other docs in the set, it's a worthwhile sit for sure.
Rounding out the disc is a brief newsreel of the film's Canadian premiere and the original theatrical trailer.
I Confess and, indeed, Warner's entire Hitchcock box should be a no-brainer for fans of the Master. It features an intriguing, typically Hitchcockian premise played beautifully by its leading cast, faltering only in the middle section when the focus is shifted. With a director as prolific as Hitchcock, it is impossible to expect perfection every time out of the gate, but I Confess has enough great moments to rank it among his most interesting experiments.
Despite its title, I Confess has no need to throw itself on the mercy of the court, and is found not guilty on all counts. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Hitchcock's Confession: A Look at I Confess Documentary
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