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Hitchapalooza 5: I Confessin’ Up July 8, 2008

Posted by Jim Berkin in Movies.
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Hitchcock’s 1953 I Confess is the last of the never-seen-by-Wagstaff Hitchcock yardsale DVD bonanza of several months back, and I’m glad I saved it for last since it turned out to be one of the better ones, and a nice surprise.

This one is a slim & rather economical story of a priest (Montgomery Clift) who hears a confession of a murder and because he can never reveal the confession without violating the oath of the priesthood, he winds up the main suspect himself, thanks to some circumstantial evidence and a well-meaning but amazingly naive ex-girlfriend (Anne Baxter) who winds up outlining a possible motive when she tries to provide him an alibi.

Girls! Nuthin’ but trouble!

This one is also rather dark and serious – it’s shot largely in shadows and offers barely any comic relief or sarcasm (only a fellow priest with a noisy bicycle is there for any sense of levity) – we get a sense of film noir from the photography and a sense of stoic duty & Catholic guilt from Clift’s performance, one that comes off as stiff and unemotional, but is in fact very controlled and subtle. The only place where Clift’s dispassionate manner seems out of place is in Anne Baxter’s soft-focus memory of her romance with him – but if we’re seeing this through her rose-colored hindsight, perhaps he ought to merely be a passive participant in it all. He certainly behaves that way as the wrongly-accused Father Logan. Clift is at the mercy of the machinery of a criminal investigation, and the only action he can take to stop that machinery would involve breaking his vows – so, powerless, he must remain passive as the wheels turn and slowly crush him. Clift doesn’t say much in this film, and he’s required to convey thinking merely through facial expression at different points. One of the best sequences is when the true murderer (wonderfully played by O.E. Hasse) follows him through the rectory in a tracking shot, reminding him how he can never tell anyone of the confession and all Clift can do is bottle up his inner torture.

Also on hand is Karl Malden as a methodical cop and German actress Dolly Haas as the murderer’s wife, Alma (named after Hitchcock’s wife!). In real life, Haas was the wife of cartoonist Al Hirschfeld, and was the mother of the famous “Nina” whose name you can always find his caricatures. Aren’t movies neat?

Hitchcock gives us a lot of religious imagery in the film, but it’s not a religious movie in the DeMille sense. There are numerous shots juxtaposing Clift, while maintaining the sanctum of the confessional, with images of Jesus suffering – including one wonderful aerial shot from behind a rooftop statue of Christ carrying the cross while surrounded by the spears of Roman soldiers as we look down below to the street where we can see the lone black figure of Clift walking in emotional agony before he ultimately turns himself in to Malden. Hitchcock’s childhood experience in those Jesuit schools finds its way onto the screen here.

The only problem is how the film simply expects us to accept Clift’s devotion to his vows without ever giving him any moment to explain it to anyone (the natural choice being ex-girlfriend-who-still-loves-him Baxter). We’re merely told through her flashback that the war supposedly “changed him,” and we’re left to assume it was a religious epiphany that brought him to the priesthood rather than getting a Jake Barnes war injury that left him a limp noodle and led him to the Almighty in the pre-Viagra era. We are to take Father Logan’s devotion to the confessional over valuing his own life at face value, without any explicated depiction of how me might view this in relation to his soul as well as his life. There’s never any speech, any reflection, any moment of spoken introspection instead of the silent & implied moments of it. Perhaps Hitchcock didn’t want to go this route, fearing too religious a picture, but it would have developed Clift’s character much more and added to all the possibilities we could project onto his silent facial expressions while thinking over his ever-dire situation.

It’s too bad what happened to Clift and how he slowly destroyed himself. Like his method-actor contemporary James Dean, he only left us with a permanent image of his young Mr. Handsome self in his major roles by dying young (I get to say that since he was about my age when he died). We never got to see how his acting chops would have evolved had he aged, and either grew distinguished with gettin’ old the way John Forsythe or Cary Grant did, or if he let himself go in a totally different way, perhaps in the manner of other fellow method-actor Marlon Brando. Perhaps they could have made a film together were they fight to the death over the last piece of pizza. Or not.

Hitchcock remarked that this film turned out too serious for him. Perhaps a wittier tone scared the censors considering the religious setting and the main character of a priest – movie priests were very different in 1953 than now, when they can be more fully developed characters. The film is certainly dark and serious, but the people in it behave logically and it moves along quickly enough that we do not get bogged down in that seriousness. That is what elevates it into a better category of Hitchcock suspense from the similarly-themed Paradine Case. It also has a better payoff in the end, and makes better use of its exterior settings – Hitchcock filmed this in the old-world-style city of Quebec and we get to see a lot of it used well for atmosphere – dark cobblestone narrow streets, giant imposing cathedrals, high hills and steps, etc. So all in all, for what we film geeks consider to be the “B-tier” of Hitchcock film, I found this one to be pretty good.

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