Mar 10, 2016
Alfred Hitchcock's I Confess (1953) on Blu-ray
The swooning sadness of romantic yearning hangs over I Confess like a lonely specter. Not what I expected from an Alfred Hitchcock film, especially one featuring a priest and the Catholic church. This lesser known drama from the master of suspense is a departure for the director in many ways, though still familiar in theme and style. I recently had the chance to view the film on the newly-released Blu-ray from Warner Archive.
Montgomery Clift stars as Father Michael Logan, a priest who lives in the charmingly old-world Quebec City. Late one night, Otto, a German immigrant who works as a handyman with his housekeeper wife at the church where Logan lives confesses to his employer that he has murdered the man he gardens for on the side. The dead man turns out to have a significant connection to Logan and his former love the wealthy Ruth Grandfort (Anne Baxter), and he soon finds himself under suspicion for the crime. As a sharp-eyed police detective, Karl Malden is especially wary of this reserved man of the cloth. Still, though things don't look good for Logan, he refuses to tell the police what he knows about the crime.
Whether or not Father Logan will betray Otto isn't a significant part of the conflict, at least as Clift plays the role. Of course he will keep a secret told in confession, even if it means he will hang for it. This makes him a simultaneously passive and heroic character. Without the ability to expose the true murder, and also being unwilling to risk the reputation of his former love, he is forced to observe an unjust situation without comment. Nevertheless, he is strong, because he never wavers in his devotion to his vows, always sure of what he must do as much as he wishes to save himself. If he breaks his promise to his faith, his whole purpose in life will be destroyed, so why save himself?
Clift was a fragile soul, and he appears especially vulnerable in I Confess. While he plays a reserved, unemotional character, the actor is such a sensitive performer that he's able to say all that he needs to with a brief, eye-crinkling smile or a pensive flash of the eyes. No matter what role he played, those eyes always seemed to say "help", he was not the sort for heroic parts and he was well cast as the anxiety-ridden Father Logan.
That Clift was able to accomplish such a subtle performance is due to a careful balancing act on the set. Hitchcock didn't like the star's method acting, or the way his acting coach was always hiding in the shadows, waiting for the actor to look to her for approval. Monty's drinking problem would also complicate filming; especially in an emotional scene with Baxter where he was so glassy eyed the actress struggled to make a connection with her costar. The confrontation-averse Hitchcock relied on Clift's old friend Malden to intervene, and his advice to the actor helped keep the production on track.
Anne Baxter was a last minute replacement for Anita Björk, who horrified Jack Warner when she arrived in Hollywood with an illegitimate child and her lover. It was too soon after the Ingrid Bergman scandal to take the risk on the director's first choice. Baxter was clothed in Björk's costumes, agreed to dye her hair a lighter blonde per Hitchcock's request, and felt that perhaps she was not as pretty her director wished.
That sense of unease serves Baxter well. Though Ruth has married well, she still feels overwhelming love for Michael, whom she lost to the church after he got the calling while serving in World War II. She always seems to be on the edge of her seat, never relaxing into the life for which she has settled. Her dreams of Logan haunt her.
In their scenes together, it is heartbreaking to see Ruth overwhelmed with lust for a man who no longer belongs to her. The lush romance of their youth together has disappeared and she cannot find another path to happiness. As he potentially faces the loss of his own love, an enduring connection with the church, Logan seems to understand her grief.
From the supporting actors to the bit players, this is one of the more interesting casts Hitchcock has assembled. The sharp wit of Malden's inspector is a fine contrast to the more gentile gloss of Brian Aherne as Crown Prosecutor Robertson, who tries Logan's case. In a performance even more sensitive than Clift's, German actress Dolly Haas is heartbreakingly vulnerable as the murderous Otto's wife Alma. That name was a direct reference to the director's wife; the film is in many respects a tribute to her personal and professional support of her husband. I also enjoyed a pair of school girls in bit parts as witnesses from the night of the murder. The way they played off of each other was quirky, natural and a nice bit of humor in an otherwise deeply serious film.
Hitchcock makes effective use of the elegant Quebec City locations. The old world feel enhances the feeling of romance, both in the heat of the moment and when it is only a lingering memory. It is a novel setting to explore the director's common theme of the wronged man, its beauty a contrast to the darkness of the story.
I'm glad I finally saw I Confess. I enjoyed it more than I expected. While it is a well-crafted story with strong performances, I found that I liked it most because it put me under a sad, sweet spell, infused with loss and longing. While this sort of mood is unusual coming from Hitchcock, he managed that different tone well.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.