Explaining what's good about Alfred Hitchcock can sometimes seem pointless, as many of the benchmarks for directing excellence seem to have been drafted from his example. How many times can one praise Psycho or Vertigo and come up with anything interesting to say?
I Confess is far from perfect, and this is what makes it one of the more fascinating Hitchcock movies to discuss. It goes in a number of directions that seem at cross purposes to the director's narrative strengths. It miscalculates some effects so seriously that it has to be redeemed by an actor's performance ... not something typical of a Hitchcock movie. I know it's a device used by literary analysts, but analyzing the weak links in Alfred Hitchcock's repertoire is perhaps the best way to understand his art.
I Confess is a serious picture by a serious Catholic director, a fact immediately pounced upon by French critics that rank the film high in Hitchcock's body of work. The Master of Suspense liked to work with McGuffins, essentially meaningless objects or gimmicks that set his plots in motion yet didn't burden him with unnecessary exposition or deep meanings. "Keep it light" was his motto, even in serious films. By disposing with plot details, it left him more time to concentrate on whatever theme or narrative twist he had in mind.
But in I Confess, the Maguffin of the sanctity of a Priest's confessional is the focus of the film. It's a subject that the average viewer has to be educated about, an absolute rule of the Catholic faith. Hitchcock is fond of mocking most institutions, but that doesn't seem to be his purpose here. Hitchcock plays it straight, creating a movie about faith that's not a happy match with a romantic murder thriller.
Hitchcock's films work on rational logic and cause and effect, rarely acknowledging faith except as something for a quaint chuckle: Perhaps I Confess is the revenge of the churchman snubbed by Guy Haines at the end of Strangers on a Train? Hitch's games with criminal and moral culpability are often utilized to highlight cruel ironies, which in I Confess almost break the back of his story. Father Logan stays true to his professional, holy code and throws a city into chaos and innocent lives in danger. Logan doesn't shoot the victims of the final hotel seige, but in a normal story he'd be at least partly responsible for them. It's difficult for non-Catholics to understand why Logan remains silent while other people are suffering.
Hitchcock called himself a 'simplifier' instead of a 'complicator,' but the issues in I Confess don't simplify so easily. The code of the law and the code of the Church are two separate worlds and Logan is trapped in the middle. An article of faith is at stake, and that places Logan on the level of a potential saint - when it comes to religious principle he's unwilling to compromise. 1
I have to think that Hitchcock saw Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest, was deeply moved by it yet knew that very few moviegoers would begin to tolerate its abstract theme and lack of conventional drama. Father Logan doesn't seek to literally emulate Christ the way that The Priest of Ambricourt does, but he has a lot in common with Bresson's sad priest. Their silent suffering cuts them off from meaningful communication; both are diagnosed by laypeople as being foolish, stubborn and guilty of something. Father Logan is in a particularly tough Catch-22, as even the sympathetic police chief played by Karl Malden interprets his lack of cooperation as hidden guilt.
The romantic murder thriller format encumbers I Confess with a tangle of problems that Hitchcock does not solve. In 1953 Hitchcock had to go through censorship hoops to present a story about a priest merely suspected of a love affair; he recounts in interviews the church advisor's nixing of any gestures by Father Logan that might suggest he would consider implicating the real killer. Father Logan's principled position leaves him no leeway - he can't even privately harass the real killer to give himself up and stay loyal to his oath. Logan is an involuntary accessory to a cover-up, something that politicians - well, some politicians - are regularly crucified for.
The big mess in I Confess is the love angle, with Ruth Grandfort's deliriously beautiful romantic flashback. Through the alternate-reality of Ruth's romantic memories, we're fed not the truth but a subjective fantasy about the past. Hitchcock wants to correct the narrative error of Stage Fright by beginning the flashback with an impossibly idealized love image (the gauzy perfection of Anne Baxter descending the stairs to her lover) and thus clue us in to the unreliability of the rest of her testimony. But it doesn't work, for the same old reason - film reality is real and unless primed for a post-modern (read: intellectually forced) visual world where all images are suspect, audiences will accept what they see. The saccharine staircase shot doesn't seem all that different from visuals in normal romances, so our suspicions aren't aroused to the falseness of Ruth's story.
In other words, Hitchcock is trying his best, but failing, to tell a visual story with the facility of the written word. An author can change speakers and give us whatever clues needed to let us know if a particular narrator is lying or, like Ruth, is operating under romantic delusions.
Ruth's words don't really lie, but her visuals must be lying, as we see Ruth and Michael Logan as perfectly normal star-eyed lovers torn apart by war. We're supposed to realize that Ruth is shallow and selfish, thinking only of herself in giant tearful closeups. But then the story goes to pieces when Ruth offhandedly tells us that after a few missed letters, she went and married another man. This happens across about ten seconds of screen time, and it frequently makes audiences laugh out loud. Ruth comes off as an idiot. In real life, Michael may have just grown tired of her at the same time his war experience drew him to the priesthood. Perhaps his affair with Ruth was a 'time-off' from his planned commitment to the church. We never know, as we get nothing at all from Michael's side of the story. Ruth's account may be hogwash, painting smiles of love on Michael's face and making him seem eager to "make hay" with her out in the Canadian countryside.
That's what we see, and it causes problems when it's contradicted later. The audience resentment factor is powerful, as if the magician 'cheated.' Hitchcock acknowledges this in some movies (Stage Fright) but not others. But it plays as a cheat and is usually rejected by audiences as an easy way out of a difficult storyline, like the "It's all a dream" gag made famous by Invaders from Mars. Hitchcock's film is an "original cheat," unlike the tiresome cheat of, say A Beautiful Mind where a false story is eventually revealed as the invention of a madman. Because it seems that practically every movie now wants to play games with 'filmic reality," these narrative devices mostly get in the way. But back in I Confess Hitchcock was trying an honest and original narrative experiment.
The Anne Baxter character suffers the most. Father Logan is never honest with her, has never said, "Listen doll, I'm devoting myself to God and you were just a fork in the road." So she's nursed exaggerated fantasies of a gloriously tragic love affair - an affair now rekindled with the notion that her dream lover has killed on her behalf. Logan is just as paternalistically silent with her as he is with the killer Otto Keller. Kept in blissful ignorance (where even Hitchcock frequently suggests women belong), Ruth looks like a villain during the investigation and the trial, indulging herself in dramatics while further implicating Father Logan.
But the final miscalculation is all Hitchcock's. Discovering in the middle of a life-or-death pistol showdown that her dream lover did it all for Christ, that she was irrelevant, Ruth retreats into domestic limbo with her cuckolded husband. "Take me home," she says, and doesn't even wait to see if Michael lives or dies. This is one of the strongest put-downs of womanhood on film. I Confess says that romance is immature nonsense compared to Logan's holy commitment. Logan's loyalty to the cloth is the only real value. I'll bet the Church 'advisors' purred in contentment at that one.
This narrative misalignment - Hitchcock's fundamental miscalculation - makes the rest of his directorial touches stand out in naked relief. I Confess is filled with Quebec architecture, suggesting a relationship between the timeless buildings and the infallibility of Logan's faith and the rightness of his church. Catholic services and the official functions of the priest are respectfully realistic and unadorned, but every time Logan steps out into the city streets he becomes a Catholic version of Will Kane, marching down lonely streets on his way to a High Noon showdown with destiny. He's a man alone, misunderstood by all; he can only trust that greater powers (he's forever gazing up at skies and handsome stonework facades) are on his side. 2
The ultimate gaffe is when Logan is composed in a shot that parallels him with Christ carrying the cross. This has to be the worst use of a symbol in Hitchcock's whole career (well, Marnie's flashing red psycho klaxon is at least as bad).
Only on the periphery does Hitchcock become brilliant, and in I Confess the person to watch is Dolly Haas' Alma, the innocent wife of the killer. She has her own justification not to turn him in, one condoned by the legal system, at least as far as courtroom testimony is concerned. Ironically, as the most innocent member of the cast she's the one who pays the most dearly. We're supposed to maintain a heirarchy of concern, with Logan's problem on top, followed by Anne Baxter's etc. Poor Alma is a footnote victim, collateral damage under the onslaught of everyone else's collective sins: Her husband's greed and cowardice, Ruth's selfish vanity and even Father Logan's 'noble' self-sacrifice.
Another irony is that Alma literally usurps Logan's role. She takes a bullet for him, and in an instant of instinctual action achieves Logan's goal of martyrdom. He wants to be the Christ figure, but instead this meek woman dies to save him. Buñuel's acid Nazarin wears this 'failure to emulate Christ' theme on the surface, whereas Hitchcock seems to be placing a subversive counterargument behind a screen. When Father Logan walks away from the bloodbath at the end of I Confess, there seems to be no ambiguity at work. Or is there? Was Hitchcock prevented from presenting Father Logan as a more complicated character? Or was he blind to the contraction in his message?
I Confess could be twice as confused and still be a riveting experience, thanks to Montgomery Clift's performance. It's arguably one of his best, as he successfully communicates almost everything through facial mannerisms. He's the best and most believable tortured priest in the movies. Hitchcock doubtlessly was impressed.
Anne Baxter's opportunity to star opposite Clift turns out to be a pitfall when the movie makes her character look like a ninny. After repeated viewing she seems like a dippy ingenue enraptured by her own romantic imagination, even during the beautiful descent of the staircase. Too bad the visuals and the message are so at odds. If Baxter the actress suffers, it's because confused viewers tend to think it's her performance that is at fault, and not the cinematics.
Most of the peripheral characters are strained by the awkward plot. We wonder why Karl Malden's honest cop doesn't guess the reason why Logan isn't talking: Gee, now what reason might a priest have for remaining silent about something? We fully expect Malden to start slapping Father Logan around at the end, saying "You let all this slaughter happen for WHAT?!" O.E. Hasse is unlikeable as an unconvincingly heartless man - an incredibly bad Catholic who uses the confessional as a "get out of jail" card. Dolly Haas (the wife of the wonderful cartoonist Al Hirshfeld profiled in The Line King) is the character I identify with, the one most of us should. When important people start acting on the basis of higher religious or political principles, ordinary people tend to suffer. Alma represents us all.
Warners' DVD of I Confess hasn't been given quite the exceptional treatment of the other Hitchcock films I've seen in this new collection. The image is a bit (just a bit) murky, indicating that it might not be a new transfer. Robert Burks' razor sharp cinematography is somewhat let down. The real victim is Dimitri Tiomkin's superb music, which in the main title sounds muddy and indistinct. This truly weird, flowery melody mixes romance with a delicate ode to higher virtue. It's one of my favorite Tiomkin scores.
Laurent Bouzereau's featurette isn't as memorable as some of the others, perhaps because to get into interesting territory with the film one must deal with loaded, subjective subjects like faith and religion. Father Logan's moral dilemma is discussed as almost a technical, mechanical problem.
There's a trailer that tries to implicate Clift as the cause of the scandal. It has a shot that's an outtake of the "carrying the cross" scene, only Montgomery Clift can be seen strolling back to his initial position. A newsreel shows Hitchcock and Baxter premiering the film in Canada with the Canadian actor Roger Dann following meekly in their wake. The cover art is from a great-looking original ad showing Clift holding Baxter in a hammerlock that matches James Cagney's grip on Virgina Mayo in White Heat. It completely misrepresents the film ... in the best way possible.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
I Confess rates:
1. Hitchcock shows a range of priests, actually. Logan's superior is
an intelligent bureaucrat, while a novice seems rather nerdy and incapable of taking on the kind of
moral mess that Logan welcomes. Anti-church types like to read symbolism into the young priest's
bicycle, and in the fact that they're repainting the rectory ... what are the priests covering up?
Is this coincidental or ultra-subtle Hitchcock subversion?
2. Even the 'Direction' signs are a miscalculation. They
have nothing to do with the story except as an artificial way of saying "Look here." The Canadian
signage means simply "One Way Street," something few Americans know, so they tend to just confuse
most viewers. Hitchcock's gimmick visuals are usually much more adroit. Maybe 1953 was a low ebb