Friday, May 13, 2011

Film Review: "I Confess"


"I Confess" is widely regarded as a mediocre entry in the Hitchcock canon. Certainly, in terms of the artistry and technical ingenuity, this film cannot compare to the greatest of Alfred Hitchcock's oeuvre. Even so, the film wrestles with issues of truth, morality, honor and the Catholic practice of faith in an almost unprecedented manner. "I Confess" may be my favorite out of all the films of Hitchcock.

The premise is simple enough: a man is murdered and a priest hears the murderer's confession. Under Catholic canon law, a priest is barred from revealing any information disclosed under the seal of confession. To my knowledge, this prohibition covers all confessions, even those that involve a crime... and even if the priest himself is suspected for that crime.

Thus, when the rectory housekeeper Otto Kellar confesses to Father Logan that he murdered the lawyer Villette during an attempted burglary, the priest is unable to speak the truth to the police. But the paranoiac Kellar begins fabricating evidence against Logan, who soon becomes the chief suspect. Moreover, Father Logan is found to have a strong motive: he was being blackmailed by Villette for an alleged tryst with his (now married) childhood sweetheart Ruth. Logan is slowly but surely ensnared by the wheels of justice.

The premise is so fraught with tension that it has been recycled with numbing regularity on procedurals like "Law & Order." But we cannot blame others for mining a plot of such narrative richness. Nor ought it diminish our appreciation for the film, which was one of the first and certainly the best to treat the subject.

To our modern jaundiced eyes, many classic plots of film and literature will seem hackneyed, but I think we can and we ought to appreciate the original masterpiece that made them clich├ęs in the first place. Beaumarchais' "The Marriage of Figaro" is one of the finest products of French theatre and the source material for one of the great operas ever composed. Can we blame it for servicing as a boilerplate for many modern soap operas as well? The same applies to Homer's "Odyssey" and the road movie, "Romeo and Juliet" and the romantic tragedy, and "The Scarlet Pimpernel" and every superhero story ever made. We cannot blame the great artists merely for inspiring artists of lower caliber.

"I Confess" succeeds as a moral drama. Indeed, it might even be seen as an allegory. Father Logan is treated almost as a messianic figure, looking out for the good of everyone without consideration of the cost to himself. Despite Kellar's persistent accusations and denigrations, Logan does not break the seal of confession. Even under oath, when asked directly about Kellar's testimony, he merely responds "I cannot say." He takes upon himself the full burden of Kellar's sin, as well as the improprieties of Ruth's conduct. By the penultimate scene, as Christ faced the scorn of the mobs before his crucifixion, Logan is judged guilty by the mob outside the courthouse.

The original script was heavily amended under the Hay's Code. On the one hand, Hitchcock had intended to complete the messianic allegory, by depicting Logan's execution for Kellar's crime. On the other hand, he also sought to humanize Logan by including an illegitimate child from a liaison with Ruth. Both of these elements were removed from the final cut. The messianic allegory remains intact, the two script edits balancing each other out, but it certainly makes for an intriguing "what if?"

This film clearly reveals Hitchcock's keen grasp of suspense. While the cinematography of this film is not as flashy as some of his others, Hitchcock still incorporated many of the techniques that made his other films so effective. The casting is another highlight. Montgomery Clift's performance as the methodically minded priest is probably the best part of "I Confess." Hitchcock was reportedly flummoxed by Clift's technique of method acting, but it works wonders for this film. Logan's silence speaks more volumes than any more demonstrative performance could have conveyed.

As entertainment, "I Confess" is gold. As a study in psychology, the film is positively insightful. Kellar's slow descent from guilt-ridden confession to full-blown paranoia is a wonder to behold. The lead detective, Inspector Larrue, experiences a similar descent into suspicion, though his fall is perhaps more justifiable and certainly more professional. Kellar is motivated primarily by fear that Logan will break the seal of confession -- as a bad man himself, he cannot even imagine that other men might be virtuous. His persistent accusations against Logan culminates in bitter though misplaced vindication when he believes Logan had at last betrayed him. We despise him, not with the enmity reserved for true men, but almost with a sort of pity reserved for lesser creatures. He is somehow less substantial, less real, than the other characters. If we were to borrow a phrase from C.S. Lewis and call him a "Hollow Man," I'm not sure we'd be far off the mark.

To purchase this film, check out
I ConfessMystery & Suspense Classics Movies & TV)

Hat-tip to Seeing Sepia, a blog of classic film and book reviews.
This was cross-posted at Worthy of Note.

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