BFI Hitchcock Season – I Confess (1953)
So we finally reach the Fifties, arguably Hitchcock’s most rewarding decade – the debate and discussion will continue as long as pictures are projected. With his skills crystalized over the preceding three decades Hitch was at the peak of his powers, during this era he forged some of his most memorable and rewarding films, not to dismiss a quartet of masterpieces – Rear Window, Vertigo, North By Northwest and Psycho – they all burnish and blaze as the years slip away, always relevant, always instructive and immediately arresting. Alongside those classics the Fifties also saw a consecration of other strong entries in the canon, the cinéma vérité stylings of The Wrong Man are Hitchcock again in experimental mode, not only intriguing for the extensive location work but also for the pairing of Hitch with the terrifically terse Henry Fonda. Strangers On A Train needs no further mention other than to say it is another classic suspense piece that I’ll be covering in full later, and then there is I Confess, a guilty pleasure for many Hitchcock aficionados, a more internalized character piece than pure suspense driven adventure, and a distinct move toward to the more personal aligned films of the decade with its religious trappings and moral infrastructure.
Quebec, night, and a prowling camera lurks through the Canadian streets before finally alighting upon a gruesome sight spied through an open window – a dead body prone upon the floor with eyewitnesses reporting that the sneaky culprit who fled the scene appeared to be sporting a cassock. Father Logan (a tepid Montgomery Clift) is conducting his ecclesiastical duties when a man stumbles into the church, demands an immediate confession, and admits to the murder by swearing Logan to secrecy under his right to spiritual anonymity. The killer is known to Logan as the parish’s local handyman Otto Keller (O. E. Hasse) who has recently moved to the area with his wife and been employed by the dioceses as a caretaker, but once the body is discovered and Inspector Laurie (an intense Karl Malden) begins his investigation the suspicions soon turn on to Father Logan who cannot provide a motive for his movements that fatal evening, nor explain his reluctance to speak of the slaying, and his relationship to local beauty Ruth (Anne Baxter) with her nefarious relationship to the deceased also casting long shadows over the whole homicidal affair….
By Hitchcock’s exacting standards this is a rather a sedate and sobering film with little in the way of bravura camera techniques or experimental designs in either the storytelling or narrative, it’s a much more controlled and low-key production for Warner Brothers with one of the longest periods of pre-productions in the canon with over a dozen writers hoarded away on various iterations of the plot over eight long years, a fiction that was based on the original stage play by French scribe Paul Anthelmeon. From this French Canadian shadow-play backdrop of Quebec the film gains a more cosmopolitan flavour, with occasional bursts of French dialogue exchanges in tandem to the legal inquisitions, whilst in his second collaboration with cameraman Robert Burks Hitch takes on more Expressionist lighting patterns which award I Confess an acrid film noir flavour, an emphasis on the internal struggles of the principals draped in shadow and uncertainty, suspicion and malfeasance. The most revelatory sequence of the film is the flashback reminiscence of Ruth during her interrogation scene, where she confesses to a prior romantic indiscretion with Logan before he went to war and subsequently entered the clergy, their recent tryst being the subject of a blackmail plot of the deceased which burdens Logan with a further motive to have potentially breached that deadly sin. It’s the first time that the perspective shifts to a lower tiered player and is dreamily constructed through its framing and lens choices, further cloaking the picture in a nest of guilt which is reinforced by the Catholic trappings, architecture of city and pervasive gloomy photography,
Whilst Karl Malden goes after the case with the tenacity of a terrier heretically I do have problems with Montgomery Clift. Unlike some of his contemporaries of the then evolving method acting embracing New York crew – James Dean, Paul Newman, Brando of course – Clift never seemed to have the necessary screen charisma, you don’t get any real sense of the churning turmoil that must be eating away at him as he is trapped between the orders of the cloth and his oath to the almighty, a spiritual manifest in collision with his own self-preservation as he falls under lethal suspicion, and these problems were replicated on set as Hitchcock clashed with his young star as he refused to do as he was told, hit his marks and deliver the dialogue as directed. It’s only recently occurred to me that every film of my Hitchcock season so far as featured a lengthy scene in a courtroom with the honorable exception of Saboteur. Now, of course this isn’t throughly remarkable for a director whose stock in trade is crime and murder which inevitably will lead to such a denouement but there is something to be said for Hitchcock’s own Catholic guilt which is perhaps most apparent in I Confess, of being judged in public by a jury of ones peers, of the eternal shame and its psychological syllabaries allegedly embedded by the now classic story of Hitchcock being sent to the local police station on the instructions of his stern father for some minor infraction during his childhood, only to be locked in the cells for a few minutes by some acquiescently cruel authority figures, a brutal shock for the young lad which casts a pallid shadow over Hitchcock’s adult work and his obsessive treatment of guilt and innocence, crime and respectability. Less significant that Bergman’s appeals to a silent and mute God perhaps, but I Confess is nevertheless worth a prayer, if only for its sermon on the mount of the miracles to come;
So here’s the bad news – the first teaser trailer for The Girl has surfaced and I’m sorry to say that this looks terrible. Now don’t get me wrong, I think Toby Jones is great and Berberian Sound Studio for example is getting some fantastic notices as a brilliant piece of meta-cinema in the vein of Blow-Up and Blow Out, but I can’t take him seriously as Hitch in that clip, it just looks and sounds wrong, like some horrible comedic impersonation – urgh.