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CineAction (2000) - I Confess: Photographs of People Speaking




In the Truffaut book, various reasons are proposed for the failure of I Confess (1953). Hitchcock suggests that there was a lack of humour and subtlety in the screenplay that gave an effect of heaviness. He identifies some local difficulties too: the linguistic contrivances involved in setting an English-speaking movie in French Canada, and the problems arising from Warner Bros.' last-minute insistence on putting Anne Baxter into the female lead in place of the Swedish actress, Anita Bjork. Those of us who enjoy and admire Anne Baxter, here and elsewhere, may be inclined to dispute the justice of comparing an actual performance with an imagined one, but we should also bear in mind the habitual precision of Hitchcock's casting.

Truffaut and Hitchcock seem agreed that the film suffered because non-Catholic audiences were unsympathetic to the plot's founding conceit — that the sanctity of the confessional would bind a priest to silence even when he found himself suspected of killing and at risk of execution in place of a murderer known to him through confession. I am not a Christian but I do not experience the difficulty suggested, and I know of no evidence that I Confess fared better in Catholic than in other territories. Hitchcock and Truffaut are here falling into the same error as those who suppose that male spectators are unable to sympathise with female characters or that the feelings and experiences of white actors must be inaccessible to the imaginations of black filmgoers.

Very early in the film we are with Father Michael Logan (Montgomery Cliff) as he hears the confession of the sacristan Otto Keller (O.E.Hasse); Keller says that he has killed the lawyer Vilette (Ovila Legare) who had surprised him in the act of burglary. Since we know of Logan's innocence and Keller's guilt, the film has a difficulty in making it seem that Logan is in danger. Moreover — and this is an aspect that Hitchcock could have altered — the world does not talk about Logan with suspicion, or treat him like a murderer. It is only late in the picture, when we reach the theatre of the courtroom, that anyone makes a show of believing him guilty.

Complacency is disturbed however by presenting the villain as an increasingly demonic figure. Starting in a snivelling, shifty kind of pathos Keller develops a mirthlessly teasing fascination with Logan's ordeal and begins to savour the knowledge of his own power. We see the results of his glimpsing the desperate hope that he may enjoy providential protection. He becomes a cousin to Bruno, Robert Walker's wcnderful creation in Hitchcock's previous film, Strangers on a Train. He has the same appalling flirtatiousness and moral sadism but none of the glamour. Failing to subdue his terror and surmount his cowardice, he remains a colourless lump of corruption; there is little of Bruno's dreadful zest to enliven his malevolence. Keller is interesting to the extent that he is vile. He is very interesting.

We might regret that Hitchcock and his writers did not trust more to the potency of their villain. A greater respect for Keller's satanic command might have relieved them of the concern to secure each link in the circumstantial chain connecting Father Logan to the crime. The story starts like a murder mystery, with the disclosure of the corpse. It then moves almost directly to the identification of the murderer, giving us the confession that usually concludes a detective story. Nonetheless the narrative continues to be shaped as a mystery, where each step forward is also a step back that brings a new revelation about the events in the past leading up to the victim's death. In the normal way this course would be followed in order to fill out the motivation of the murder, but Hitchcock does not go the normal way. Keller gives reasons for killing Vilette that are tricked out with sentiment and more evidently self-serving than they are plausible. It would be easier to believe that Keller was driven to homicide as one of Vilette's blackmail victims — since extortion will turn out to have been Vilette's business — than it is to credit his tale of money stolen in order to free his wife Alma (Dolly Haas)(1) from a life of drudgery. But while the film's imagery and its characterisation of Keller encourage speculation, its dramatic action offers no challenge to Keller's repeated claim. Instead the pasts that come into question are those of Father Logan and Ruth Grandfort (Anne Baxter), the wife of a prominent politician.

This procedure was necessary because of the problem latent within the alluring premise of the movie's action. It is wonderful to have the hero menaced and immobilised by the very knowledge that should guarantee his freedom; but in order to bring him into danger it is necessary to construct another strand of plot to trace a history that will cause him to be accused of just that crime of which he has received the killer's confession. The priest has to have had a connection not with the killer alone but with the victim too, and the connection needs to have been such as to provide a colourable incentive to murder. Beyond that he must be without other means of establishing his innocence (such as an alibi) while the police investigation must encounter nothing that directs it to the real killer. All this while satisfying the requirements of the Production Code Administration which was professionally touchy in its protection of Catholic interests. A tall order.

The writers (Hitchcock of course included) are remarkably successful in drawing the noose that snares the priest. The middle section of the film is constructed as the gradual exposure of the connection between Logan and Ruth Grandfort. Their relationship is presented to us as a puzzle as soon as Ruth enters the movie. On the morning after the murder and Keller's confession to L...

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(1.) Spoto, 1983, p337, says that the name Alma was chosen in the final stages of scripting. We can hardly be expected to ignore Hitchcock's giving his own wife's name to the killer's wife. Deborah Thomas offers interesting reflections on the name, and much else, in her essay on I Confess in CineAction No. 40, May 1996.

(2.) Truffaut (Panther edition, 1969) p.251

(3.) ibid

(4.) One writer reports this as 'You're so cold' (Jane E. Sloan, Alfred Hitchcock — The Definitive Filmography, U.Cal. Press, 1995 p.246) O.E. Hasse's German inflections make it hard to distinguish, but it is an interesting possibility that would only strengthen the reading I offer.