I CONFESS, Alfred Hitchcock’s contribution to 1953, didn’t fare too well at the time, coming in 73rd place with earnings of $4,400,000. The director was disappointed with the film, which he’d been nursing for years, and had some exasperation during the shoot, dealing with his handsome and intense leading man, Montgomery Clift. *
‘Father Logan’ (Clift) has decision dilemmas up the pew. An immigrant he’s been kind to (O.E. Hasse) confesses to a murder, sure the priest will not break the sanctity of the confessional to turn him in. But Logan’s own involvement with a married woman (Anne Baxter) leads a police inspector (Karl Malden) to link clues pointing to the clergyman as the perp. Honor-bound not to reveal the various enmeshing secrets, Logan is wrung with private turmoil, professional crisis and public furor.
Less a suspense piece than a meditation on character, the film does an abrupt zigzag in visual and emotional tone when Baxter gets her centerpiece scenes in an awkward sequence, which does not play well, and her breathy dramatics contrast badly with the more natural performances of Clift, Malden and Hasse. Hasse is superb; the fine German actor didn’t do too many films in the West (see Decision Before Dawn) though he’d worked with the meteoric Clift three years before on The Big Lift. His calculating and pathetic killer really has the standout role here. That’s not to dismiss a compelling Clift at all, while his character is not well fleshed out by the script, he’s excellent, conveying a great deal through expressions and body language. I always have to strain to adjust to Anne Baxter’s telegraphing manner—and usually can’t.
Filmed in Quebec City, with fine mood work from Hitchcock’s favorite cameraman Robert Burks, the setting has a European look and feel (along with its citizen mix) that perhaps made for a better reflection of traditional religious Reason vs. Fidelity conundrums—in this case Catholic guilt—than would a US-based affair (it came from a French play written in 1902). Dimitri Tiomkin adds his signature flourish to the soundtrack.
Ireland banned it, the French critics loved it, non-dogma-bound Americans were lukewarm. 95 minutes, with Brian Aherne (always welcome, also doing well that year as Capt. Smith of Titanic), Dolly Haas (an underused beauty, very good as the despairing wife of the murderer), Judson Pratt and Roger Danne. My churchless yet faithful honor binds me to recommend the typically insightful write-up done by Glenn Erickson, to be found at CineSavant.
* Hitchcock hadn’t had a hit since Notorious in 1946: Strangers On A Train did only moderate business while Rope, The Paradine Case, Under Capricorn and Stage Fright were all losers with both public and reviewers. The following year saw smashes Dial M For Murder and Rear Window. 29-year-old Clift had two more ’53 films, a major dud with Indiscretion of an American Wife/Terminal Station, dying at #154, and a triumphant #2 with From Here To Eternity. His Method style, dithering over directorial wishes and drinking problem vexed the precision-minded Hitchcock, and fellow cast members. Alfred: “There are some actors I’ve felt uncomfortable with, and working with Montgomery Clift was difficult because he was a method actor and a neurotic as well.”
The director had tooled the project over an 8-year period, using a dozen writers to try and meld the sort of Guilt vs. Duty study that would honor his serious take on the application of implacable rules in the realm of faith when they’re matched against the Law’s severe codes concerning crime & punishment. He later expressed “The final result was rather heavy-handed. The whole treatment was lacking in humor and subtlety. I don’t mean that the film itself should have been humorous, but my own approach should have been more ironic…” Hitchcock’s Catholic upbringing, like that of John Ford, had him simultaneously loyal to tradition while flaunting misbehavior. Inner agony made for a lot of great Art. We who are without sin, give thanks.