Can a career with as much popular and critical theory attached to it as Alfred Hitchcock’s still be said to include underrated masterpieces? Apparently so, given the academic indifference still accorded to the likes of The Wrong Man, Family Plot, Marnie, and the devastatingly tight I Confess. (Though the enthusiasm of the Cahiers critics to any and all of these Hitchcock black sheep probably can’t be underestimated, their influence didn’t exactly cross the Atlantic undiluted). Perhaps because it’s a great deal meatier than his more popularly celebrated examinations of personal disclosure like Psycho or Rebecca. Perhaps because it is relatively stripped down of the formal tinsel-strewing found in Notorious (“the” crane shot) or North by Northwest (the crop duster), sequences that usually inspire far more enthusiastic discourse than Hitchcock’s moral examinations or always canny exploration of the connective tissue between the audience and the cultural artifact. Perhaps it’s because the suspense of I Confess is never really pleasant in the slightest. Jonathan Rosenbaum once suggested (admittedly not about a Hitchcock film) that there’s something insidiously seductive about equating unabating queasiness with sexual desire. What’s truly astonishing about I Confess is how it manages to achieve a monumental sense of sexual guilt and adventurousness without the benefit of an icy-cool Grace Kelly character bubbling with pleasure upon finding the zest of life in, mainly, the thrill of the chase.
If I’ve chosen to emphasize the absences and voids of I Confess first, it’s because of the compelling portrayal of obligatory taciturnity by Montgomery Clift, who stands there, all but imploding in the crosshairs of the film. Clift plays Father Michael Logan, who discovers Otto Keller, a destitute man he gives shelter to at the church, praying in the sanctuary late one night. Keller requests an emergency confessional and reveals that he’s just killed a man. Knowing that Logan cannot reveal confessionals to the police, Keller realizes that he can be framed and plants clues leading investigators directly to the priest’s door. Complicating the investigation is the long ago affair between Logan and Ruth Grandfort (Anne Baxter, hermetically horny as usual), who inevitably was being blackmailed for their affair by the man Keller murdered, supplying the police with a handy motive.
Just as I Confess suggests Hitchcock’s experimental urge to incorporate less overt artificiality into his vision (the stabs at neorealism; the location filming in Quebec instead of on studio lots; the significantly less jokey Hitch cameo), so does Clift’s performance as Father Logan represent something of an anomaly in the director’s canon. Hitchcock believed in pretty people, to be sure, but he also believed in the actor as a movable piece of scenery. (After all, he could milk emotion and suspense out of a plane dial or a pair of cymbals. Why complicate matters further than necessary with volatile human mess?) But incorporating Clift’s method acting (not to mention his Methodist-tinged Catholicism) was a canny move on Hitchock’s part, as it adds a further level of outsider mystique that pushes the film’s ultimate showdown with the public (all those classically trained extras) over the top.
On the flip side from the film’s tantalizing study of the “silence of God” are the traditionally Hitchcockian flourishes. I Confess is yet another film in which the director works out his mistrustfulness of authority figures, both religious and civic. But at the same time, the screenplay by George Tabori and William Archibald presents a clear set of moral rules that those closely associated and aligned with Hitchcock’s macabre sense of fate will find surprising—namely, there is such a thing as religious purity and there are cops who genuinely care about the fate of men falsely accused. (Check out Karl Malden’s outrage at the jury’s wording of their verdict later in the film.) Hitchcock’s most slithery auteurial outlet is his portrayal of the transference of guilt from character to character, from screen to audience. Very often, Hitchcock’s communal wisdom was that there is no such thing as moral purity, or an absence of culpability. But often the sense is that there is absolute good in the world of I Confess. So, too, is there absolute reprehensible evil, represented by the film’s baldly unforgiving portrayal of O.E. Hasse as Keller (we’re far away from the cuteness of Norman Bates and Bruno Anthony here). Since the rules are far more rigid than Hitchcock fans might seem comfortable with, it’s all the more ingenious that he guides them through with Clift’s completely malleable figure.
Finally, it’s probably important to stress that I Confess is as formally stuffed and playful as the best Hitchcock films, and far from the dour tragedy that could’ve been. (The entire courtroom sequence is marked by ominously large crucifix figures reflecting Logan’s martyrdom, as well as shots that make the judges appear dwarfed by their chairs.) The script sometimes seems to bend over backward to put its characters in a pinch, but that’s always been Hitchcock’s preferred stomping ground. The structural roadblock that is the film’s middle 20 minutes (Ruth goes to the police and divulges an entire film’s worth of expositional material about her affair with Logan, in an ill-advised attempt to clear him) provides Hitchcock the opportunity to stage a lush, interlocking montage of gooey romantic moments of nostalgia from Ruth’s point of view. Ruth awakens after an evening with Logan seeking shelter from a rainstorm in a gazebo. When Logan looks into Ruth’s eyes (and the audience’s), I don’t care what gender or sexual persuasion you are, it’s a moment of almost unparalleled eroticism from one of cinema’s unlikeliest and most fetish-grounded sensualists.
Also of note is how Hitchcock redeems the highly clichéd, damned near deus ex machina ending (Keller is tricked by the police into thinking that Logan squealed, ranting himself into a self-implicating tizzy) by subtly paralleling it to the scene right before it. Logan’s unjust guilt is reflected by popular opinion (i.e. his congregation), and his position in society requires him to maintain at the very least an illusion of piety up there on the pulpit (the first thing Logan sees upon exiting the courthouse is a church steeple). The bitter irony of I Confess is that each character is perpetually confessing throughout the movie, and many of them achieve some modicum of relief upon confessing (especially Ruth). Essentially, the outrage of the community toward Logan is suggested to be a reflection of their incredulity that there is someone in their society that is capable of transcending that confessional showmanship. Eventually, this theme builds up to the finale, where Hitchcock parallels Logan’s near-Crucible moment outside the courthouse and cheerfully vulgarizes Keller’s real guilt by staging his last stand upon—what else?—a stage. I Confess ultimately reveals itself to be one of Hitchcock’s most successful examinations of the tension between public image and private turmoil.