Hitchock’s confession: “The whole treatment was lacking in humour and subtlety.” He’s right: I CONFESS is entirely devoid of comic relief or comic commentary, apart from Father Benoit’s bicycle, which does raise a smile, and a party game where Brian Aherne balances a glass of water on his head. In fact, Benoit is beneficial on a second level, because the thick Quebecois accent of Charles Andre makes the name sound exactly like “Father Bunuel”, and there IS something quite UN CHIEN ANDALOU about the cleric at the handlebars. The idea of Bunuel as a priest is delicious — although Benoit looks a bit more like Pasolini.
Some of the French critics regarded I CONFESS very highly, and while I agree it’s a decent film, I fear the seriousness of theme and aspect may have given it a respect it does not altogether earn as art. But the overt Catholicism makes it a very illuminating film in Hitchcock’s career. A lot of people have commented on the central idea, that Montgomery Clift, as Father Logan, cannot reveal the murderer’s identity, even to save himself from suspicion, because he learned it under the seal of the confessional. As Hitchcock admitted to Truffaut, “We Catholics know that a priest cannot disclose the secret of the confessional, but the Protestants, the atheists, and the agnostics all say, ‘Ridiculous!'”
Perhaps the problem could have been alleviated in the dialogue — in Jimmy McGovern’s TV show Cracker, I recall a very clear exposition of the idea that the secret of the confessional is paramount — all other considerations are secondary to it. It doesn’t help that, by the very nature of the story, Monty can’t discuss his problem with anyone else. William Archibald and George Tabori’s screenplay certainly hits most of the story points with a leaden thud, but somehow glosses over this centrally important point. (Tabori is best known, perhaps, for the barmy SECRET CEREMONY, while Archibald’s only other significant screenplay credit is THE INNOCENTS, although he didn’t actually contribute much to that great film.)
Fortunately, Monty can discuss his problem with the audience, using his intensely expressive eyes. Hitchcock at one point planned to have Clift effectively identify the murderer with a glance, a very Hitchcockian idea, but Catholic chief censor Joseph Breen objected that this still counted as a violation of Catholic doctrine. I think Hitchcock privately agreed, which is why he wanted to kill Clift’s character at the end.
DIRECTION. We all love the DIRECTION signs dotted around Quebec. They seem to add a fateful, doomy quality. The Hitchcock cameo is deliberately early: Hitch worried that audiences would be distracted looking for him, and in a serious film like I CONFESS that would be especially harmful. The stairs in Georgetown down which Jack MacGowran and Jason Miller tumble in THE EXORCIST are known as “the Hitchcock steps,” presumably because of this shot.
Great noir photography by Robert Burks, cementing his position as Hitchcock’s cameraman of choice and exploiting the cobbled streets and dark, heavy skies. The Tiomkin score (recycling familiar themes like the medieval death mass) and Burks’ lighting emphasise the darkness and gloom of the story, and may be my favourite things about it, along with Clift’s performance.
As Truffaut pointed out, it’s a remarkable coincidence that the priest O.E. Hasse confesses to has a covert relationship to the murdered man, which makes him a suspect. I guess, as in STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, the murder benefits the hero, in this case by ridding him of Anne Baxter’s blackmailer, which adds a metaphysical guilt to his shoulders. We never find out what Clift was planning to do to make the blackmailer stop blackmailing…
Tabori’s and Archibald’s dialogue really doesn’t satisfy me. Charles Andre spends his first scene talking about PAINT, which is a very minor plot point indeed. And he does it in that acc-ent, so it’s “Do you know of enny pain’ zat does not smirl?”
That flashback! I thought the Dutch tilt of Baxter coming downstairs in slomo was preposterous when I first saw it. I guess the O.T.T. romantic schmaltz allies the flashback to Baxter’s POV, though, and Truffaut apparently felt this made it a “lying flashback” like the one in STAGE FRIGHT. It’s certainly a heavily slanted one, and it’s notably silent on the subject of whether Clift had sex with Baxter that night in the gazebo.
Monty gets into a fight with Monsieur Hulot.
This all means that what I thought was the worst thing in the film, the vulgar and overblown flashback, is maybe the most interesting. It may not be successful, but it opens up intriguing possibilities.
What else? Hasse has wild eyes, which he manages to keep under control, and there’s one great scene of him hassling Clift as Clift walks swiftly down a corridor and through a couple of rooms, Hitch cutting fast and rhythmic, piling on the pressure. That’s something the whole film tries to do, crush Clift under the weight of evidence and suspicion and shame. Karl Malden’s detective isn’t a bad guy (the cops in THE WRONG MAN are much meaner) but he’s ruthless as hell, and Hitch indulges his fear of law enforcers while remaining fair to the character. The nightmare is that Malden’s actions are all quite reasonable.
Clift is great, of course. Everybody talks about his eyes, in which we can read everything, but I also like the little smile he gives whenever one of his interrogators says something that’s true. “You’re getting warm,” he’s telling them. It’s a beautiful little smile too. Of course, they all miss the signs.
If the film seems minor to me it’s partly the lack of humour and distinguishing touches in the dialogue, and perhaps even more so the lack of logic at the end. Of course, Hitch is famously illogical, as we’ve seen, but this movie sets up certain expectations in its sombre style, and in the way each event is inexorably forced on by the last. So when Hasse basically goes nuts at the end, it’s unsatisfying. He’s gone through an interesting and credible arc, starting as an incompetent criminal who kills by mistake and experiences persecution mania and guilt, but slowly being corrupted by his desire to escape punishment, so that he deliberately frames Clift. But at the end, he shoots his wife, who was the reason he committed robbery in the first place. Worse, he shoots her to stop he denouncing him, which makes very little sense since he does it in the middle of a crowd. And then, rather than recognizing that the gig is up, he takes everyone on a protracted chase through an irrelevant hotel, wounding or killing someone else (RFK-style, in the hotel kitchen) solely to generate some kind of suspense sequence. We don’t really believe that Clift is still in the frame as a murder suspect (he’s been cleared by the court, and Hasse’s homicidal behaviour is sure to change the tide of public sympathy) and so the only tension is whether Clift will get himself killed. Worse, Anne Baxter leaves with her husband while that question is still unanswered, which seems frankly incredible.
I think I CONFESS deserves to be held to a higher standard of probability than NORTH BY NORTHWEST or even PSYCHO, because the whole narrative problem is a social and psychological one. It’s a good little film, but not quite the triumph Clift’s performance deserves.
I’ll be away most of today — teaching, and then a film translation by Mr Wingrove — but I’ll reply to any comments this evening. Meanwhile, dust off your red-and-blue glasses for next week’s 3D extravaganza…
Heavy symbolism. Earlier, Clift stares balefully at a lobby card for Warner Bros’ THE ENFORCER…