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I Confess (1953)

October 23rd, 2007 · 5 Comments

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31 days of October. 31 articles devoted to the screen’s maestro of suspense and the macabre, Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980). I’ll be jumping back and forth through five decades in this series. More than half of the films I’ve never seen before, but even the ones I have seen were viewed, researched and written about this month.

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In Quebec City, a man is murdered in the night. His killer, an immigrant named Kellar (O.E. Hasse) returns to the Catholic church where he works as caretaker. He confesses his crime to Father Logan (Montgomery Clift), who has gone out of his way to help Kellar and his wife Alma (Dolly Haas) settle in Canada. Kellar was tired of seeing his wife work and was caught trying to steal money from an attorney named Villette, who was killed in the struggle.

Logan is bound not to reveal this confession to the police, led by Inspector Larrue (Karl Malden). Logan visits the crime scene, where Larrue observes the priest talking to Ruth Grandfort (Anne Baxter), wife to a member of Parliament. Upon receiving information that a priest was seen leaving Villette’s home the night of the crime, the inspector has a talk with Logan, who reveals that his reasons for speaking to the murder victim and to Ruth are personal.

Larrue brings Logan and Ruth in for questioning. He forces her relationship with the priest into the open. She reveals that they were childhood friends whose marriage was put on hold when Logan left for the war. Combat changed him, and she married hastily in an effort to forget him. When Logan returned, Villette caught them in a compromising position. He threatened Ruth with blackmail unless she got her husband to help him out of legal trouble.

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Ruth believes she’s helping Logan by admitting she was with him on the night of the murder, but instead, provides Larrue with a timeframe in which it was still possible for the priest to commit the crime. Logan goes to trial, still unwilling to expose Kellar as the murderer. He’s acquitted, but the court of public opinion turns in a guilty verdict. Kellar is scared that the truth will come out eventually, and decides to handle the problem with a Luger pistol.

Production history 
One of the first projects director Alfred Hitchcock wanted to option for his production company Transatlantic Pictures was The Dark Duty, a 1931 novel by Margaret Wilson. The story chronicled a wrongly accused man’s countdown to execution. Hitchcock desperately wanted to make an anti-capital punishment “shocker,” but Wilson’s agents drove the film rights too high for the director to afford.

Instead, Hitchcock optioned a 1902 French play by Paul Bourde called Nos Deux Consciences. It concerned a priest who hears a murder confession, but is unable to share the information with police due to his vow of silence. The priest is tried for the murder and takes his secret to the gallows. Warner Bros. was leery of the subject matter, but Hitchcock maintained he would get Cary Grant to star and would handle the censorship boards.

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French playwright Louis Verneuil had obtained rights to the play, and was hired to write a treatment. Verneuil relocated the story – now titled I Confess – to a small town near San Francisco. His treatment also introduced a plot twist involving the priest fathering an illegitimate child. Warner Bros. became even more concerned when news of this leaked out, but Hitchcock was fascinated by the subject matter, and assured the studio that he could get James Stewart to replace Grant.

Playwright William Archibald wrote a screenplay, which novelist George Tabori punched up the dialogue for in late 1951. When the studio read Tabori’s draft, they threatened to cancel the project. They insisted that Hitchcock remove the out-of-wedlock child and downbeat ending from the script. Hitchcock worked with Barbara Keon to produce a draft acceptable to Warner Bros.

Montgomery Clift agreed to star, only to find out during camera tests that the script he signed up for had gone under the knife. Hitchcock had courted Olivia de Havilland to play the female lead, but as that role diminished, so did the prospect of the star agreeing to appear in the film. Hitchcock was permitted to cast Anita Bjork, but when the Swedish actress arrived in New York with her lover and out of wedlock daughter, Jack Warner insisted she be paid off and fired.

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Warner Bros. proposed to buy out Transatlantic and assume 100% financial liability for I Confess. Hitchcock had never walked out on a production and agreed to stay on as director, even after the studio replaced Bjork with Anne Baxter. Shooting commenced in August 1952 and did not go smoothly, with Clift’s meticulous acting methods seething both Hitchcock and co-star Karl Malden. “Lacking in humor and subtlety,” was how Hitchcock summed the picture up for Francois Truffaut years later.

Both script and casting of the lead roles are flawed, but they’re not disastrous, and while I Confess is seldom mentioned in any discussion of Hitchcock’s work, there was a lot about the film that I enjoyed. It suffers in comparison to the director’s “shockers,” but if anyone else had made this thunderous melodrama except for Hitchcock, it might have been greeted with more excitement.

The lighting and camera angles – Robert Burks served as director of photography – are stark and inventive from the beginning. Whether the fact that the film was being shot in Quebec had anything to do with the expressive nature of the film’s look, its visual language is enthralling. Setting the picture in Quebec was a novel choice, and while Clift doesn’t really appear to be acting with anyone else in the movie, the supporting players – particularly Malden – shine.

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Clayton White at Film School Rejects writes, “Even though the film has been largely forgotten in America, the French Cahiers du Cinema crowd, made up of great filmmakers like Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and Eric Rohmer, consider it among Hitchcock’s best work. I found the film to be fairly engrossing, while the technical aspects of the film are fairly flawless.”

“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,” says Mark Van Hook at DVD Verdict.

John Nesbit at Old School Reviews writes, “The biggest crime surrounding I Confess is the generally indifferent reception that the film has received over the years. Among method actor Montgomery Cliff’s strongest performances, his subtle visual communication has been overlooked for decades simply because it remains undercover with one of the Master’s least recognized works.”

© Joe Valdez 

Tags: Based on play · Interrogation · Murder mystery · Paranoia

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jeff McM // Oct 25, 2007 at 12:09 am

    Armond White also wrote a rave about this when the DVD was released a couple of years ago.

  • 2 Damian // Oct 25, 2007 at 5:07 pm

    Another Hitchcock film that I fnally saw a short while ago and which I really liked. I found that I Confess was more suspenseful in an emotional/spiritual sense rather than a visceral/psychological one (as was typical with Hitchcock).

  • 3 Justine // Oct 27, 2007 at 5:54 pm

    I like this film more than most, but I’m somewhat biased as I’m completely in love with Quebec City and the film is a beautiful showcase of it. Hitch’ uses the “ancient” surroundings to his advantage, using the dark and twisting lanes and the ever present cross to work at Clift’s character.

  • 4 Joe Valdez // Oct 27, 2007 at 6:20 pm

    Jeff: I had never even heard of Armond White before you pointed this out, so thanks! In terms of suspense, I Confess is not very satisfying at all, with a hero who remains passive throughout, but when you look at it purely in terms of style, it ranks among Hitchcock’s boldest films.

    Damian: You’re right. There was suspense in the film, just a different type. I couldn’t get past how passive the hero was. I know a priest can’t very well go around getting in pub brawls, but the original script was supposed to have been much more charged than the finished product ended up being.

    Justine: I’d never even heard of Quebec City before this movie, so your geographic skills impress me. The visual cues in this movie seemed inspired by German expressionism, Dr. Caligari and so on. Cobblestone streets, spooky angles or shadows never go out of style.

  • 5 Justine // Oct 29, 2007 at 11:57 am

    Don’t be too impressed with my geography skills because I live in Quebec (Montreal to be exact, but I have visited Quebec City). I agree with you on the German Expressionism, even the dream feels out of tone from his usual approach. It’s interesting that the French New Wave filmmakers really adored this, and many considered it among his best work.

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