Hitchcock’s underrated I Confess may or may not not quite rank with his greatest masterpieces, but it offers perhaps the most compelling variation on the director’s favorite theme, the innocent man wrongly accused.
In most variations, the wrongly accused protagonist’s general decency (as opposed to his innocence of the specific crime in question) is a dramatic convenience, not an integral plot point. In principle, there’s no reason the circumstances and mistaken suspicions that ensnared, say, the hero of The Man Who Knew Too Much couldn’t just as easily have befallen a scoundrel as a decent citizen.
By contrast, in I Confess, based on the play by Paul Anthelme, the whole dilemma turns on the protagonist’s principles, apart from which he could clear his name and finger the real culprit any time he wishes. That’s because Michael William Logan (Montgomery Clift) is a Catholic priest, and the identity of the culprit (O. E. Hasse) is known to him from the confessional, which means that the murderer’s identity is protected by the sacramental seal forbidding priests under any circumstances whatsoever, even at the cost of their lives, from revealing the contents of a confession.
Fr. Logan’s priesthood also figures integrally into the story in regard to his vow of celibacy. Anne Baxter plays Ruth Grandfort, a married woman to whom Fr. Logan is overheard making a startling remark following the murder. Karl Malden, who himself played a priest the following year in the classic On the Waterfront, is excellent as Inspector Larrue, a police officer investigating the murder. Hitchcock and cinematographer Robert Burks (with whom he frequently collaborated) make excellent use of the Quebec setting.
At a time when a shadow of suspicion has fallen on many innocent priests, this film’s themes, and its humanizing depiction of a clergyman who is both virtuous and also more complicated than a mere stereotype of piety, are especially resonant.
Reverent, well directed, and well acted by a respectable cast including Bruce Davison, Tom Bosley and Peter Green, Confession’s weakness is also its promotional gimmick: Meyers directed the film at 24, but wrote the screenplay ten years earlier as a student in a Catholic boarding school.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.