“We Catholics know that a priest cannot disclose the secret of the confessional, but the Protestants, the atheists, and the agnostics all say, ‘Ridiculous! No man would remain silent and sacrifice his life for such a thing,” Alfred Hitchcock once mused. And indeed, to those outside of the Catholic tradition the central conflict of Hitchcock’s I Confess (1953) may seem absolutely preposterous: a Catholic priest named Father Michael Logan (Montgomery Clift) is put on trial for murder for a crime he didn’t commit yet refuses to reveal the identity of the true killer. The reason? The killer, a German immigrant named Otto Keller (O. E. Hasse), confessed his crime to Father Logan via the Sacrament of Penance, more commonly known to non-Catholics as “confession.”
Strictly forbidden from sharing any information he receives in confession, Father Logan faces an impossible choice: keep his vows and risk being wrongly executed or break his vows and save his own life. There are other elements to the plot that help explain Father Logan’s reluctance to disclose his privileged information, chief among them being that it could potentially ruin the life and respectability of Ruth Grandfort (Anne Baxter), a woman he knew and loved before taking his vows. But these are all minor considerations. The heart and soul of I Confess is its simple, central dilemma: martyrdom or self-preservation?
I Confess may seem a strange film for viewers with only a passing knowledge of Hitchcock and his filmography. The general public know Hitchcock as the Master of Suspense, the fat, dour fellow with the morbid sense of humor who was synonymous with many of the greatest thrillers ever made. But the truth is that while thrillers and suspense films were his bread and butter, Hitchcock worked as a director for over fifty years, averaging an astonishing output of a little over one movie a year (and that doesn’t count his short films, documentaries, and television work). As such, suspense films only made up a portion of Hitchcock’s total output. Few know that the vast majority of Hitchcock’s films in the 1920s and early 1930s were stale, largely insufferable dramas and romantic “comedies.” And even after he made a reputation for himself as a director of suspense films, he still frequently returned to more traditional genres (with varying degrees of success) like the comedy (Mr. & Mrs. Smith , The Trouble with Harry ), the drama (Jamaica Inn , The Paradine Case , and even the musical (Waltzes from Vienna ). But of his non-suspense films, I Confess may be his greatest triumph.
The film itself is a study in stylistic contradictions. The film flusters the auteur theorist due to its odd twist on the Wrongly Accused Man storyline that so dominated Hitchcock’s career: Father Logan could literally prove himself innocent of his charges at any time, he just chooses not to. The formalist is likewise unsettled by the film’s atypical style: Hitchcock, that steadfast proponent of studio shooting and sound stages, shot the film largely on-location in Hollywood and Quebec. Even more unusual is Clift’s performance as a method actor. Unaccustomed to working with such performers, tensions were high on-set between Clift and Hitchcock. But the effect is tremendous: Clift seems like a time-bomb of guilt, anxiety, and fear ready to explode at the slightest provocation, particularly in scenes where he is paired up with more traditional, classically trained actors like Baxter and Karl Malden as Inspector Larrue, the head investigator in Father Logan’s case.
Though powerfully performed and immaculately filmed, Hitchcock’s I Confess is unbalanced by an overly trite ending which sees Father Logan found innocent and Keller being shot and killed by the police. If it seems to clash with the suffocating atmosphere of the rest of the film, that is because it was an ending demanded by the studio. The original ending featured Father Logan being executed before he could be pronounced innocent. Thematically, that ending would have been more appropriate. But ultimately the resolution is of secondary importance to the central conflict. As any penitent will tell you, the guarantee of salvation is comforting, but the memory of the guilt lasts forever.