Unloved Hitchcock 4: I Confess (1953)
Justifiably held as one of Hitchcock’s most serious films – alongside THE WRONG MAN (1956) – I CONFESS is loaded with religious symbolism and sports one of the great director’s best openings; the camera pans along narrow streets and through the open window of a house to reveal a dead body lying on the floor.
It’s all based on a theme so familiar to Hitchcock fans, that of an innocent man held to be guilty by those around him. In I CONFESS said man is a priest (Montgomery Clift) and instead of doing “a 39 steps” and going on-the-run, he stays to face the music, unable to reveal the true identifity of the murderer due to the convention of confession.
The use of B&W photography endows the film with a noirish zest, heighted by the frequent utilisation of dutch angles to frame the emotional disintegration of the cast. This is perhaps a picture of which Welles or Reed would be proud. Clift and Karl Malden (as the chief detective) give the movie an authoritative presence and Dmitri Tiomkin’s hearty soundtrack emphasises the moral pendulum at the heart of the plot. The French critics, led by Truffaut, regarded this film as one of the very best of Hitchcock’s career. A mightly accolade given his cannon.
Much like the now-forgotten STAGE FRIGHT (1950), most characters in the screenplay are hiding behind masks. On the surface Clift is a pious priest, Anne Baxter a doting wife and Otto Hasse, playing the real murderer ‘Keller’, a hard-working migrant. Underneath these fronts things are much more complicated. The most sympathetic character is that of ‘Pierre’ (Roger Dann), a helpless husband to a woman whose love is not for him but for our celibate priest.
In terms of the religious undertones – though such a phrase does no justice to the overt themes within the movie – they are in stark contrast to those in the pseudo-documentary THE WRONG MAN (1956). Here, praying does absolutely no good and it is the guilt of Keller’s wife that provides the redemption for Clift’s priest. Indeed, contrition is a major driver of events in several key Hitchcock pictures – think of Farley Granger’s penetant ‘Philip’ in ROPE (1948) or Olivier’s broken widower ‘Maxim’ in REBECCA (1940). In THE WRONG MAN (1956) and somewhat out of nowhere, it is precisely a solemn prayer which supposedly brings about the capture of Fonda’s doppleganger. Likewise, in I CONFESS as in other Hitchcock works, the Church as a physical space is no safe place; indeed’s it’s both the ‘home’ of the killer (and his wife) as well as being the stage for the cause of the turmoil on screen, the confession itself. This theme started in the original (and I’d wager the superior) THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1934) where our gang of kidnappers and assassins hold up in a London church as cover; and would be dramatically revisited via the masterfully choreographed bell-tower death sequence in VERTIGO (1958).
It’s not all positive. Most glaringly, what lets the film down slightly is a discourteously romantic flashback sequence. It’s an important plot device but seems to fit awkwardly amongst the rest of the picture. In my view, it would have been far better to leave this out and deepen the ambiguity as to the history of Clift and Baxter’s sexual relationship.
Some have criticised the film for the unusual lack of light humour relative to Hitchcock’s more successful movies. It’s quite true that I CONFESS is close to VERTIGO (1958) in playing things straight but that’s not a bad thing. After all, according to the critics and whilst I personally don’t concur, is not VERTIGO (1958) the cinematic meridian of his catalogue ?
Overall, this is one of Hitchcock’s more mature movies adorned with few set-pieces but plenty of depth. Well-worth seeking out but perhaps not as an introduction to Hitchcock’s work. For that it’s seemingly best to start with the innovative REAR WINDOW (1954), the dynamic NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959) or the menacing STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1952).
Hotdog rating: 8/10