Sunday, March 01, 2009

I Confess (1953)

Written by Bill Hare

Montgomery Clift and a Hitchcock Portrait of Sensitivity

For filmgoers who like performers who render sensitivity Montgomery Clift becomes an obvious favorite.

In the important realm of close-up projection where eye contact between performer and audience is the critical barometer, Clift’s register catapulted him to soaring heights.

A definitive example came in the 1951 drama “A Place in the Sun” directed by George Stevens. Wily veteran Stevens used Clift and leading lady Elizabeth Taylor to exquisite advantage. Taylor, one of Clift’s closest friends, had captivating eyes that were made to order for close-ups in the manner of Clift.

One of the most unforgettable close-ups in cinema annals occurred as Taylor walked into Clift’s cell just prior to his execution for killing a woman he had impregnated but did not ultimately love. His passions burned for Taylor and the feeling was mutual. Their expressions told the ultimate story and the scene was etched forever in the minds of all who saw it.

One of Alfred Hitchcock’s most successful traits in the career of a film stylist who basked in triumph was his ability to skillfully cast performers. Clift was an exquisite choice for the sensitive Father Michael William Logan in the 1953 release “I Confess.”

The setting is historic and picturesque Quebec City in Canada’s Quebec Province. The cinematography of Hitchcock regular Robert Burks emphasizes dark clouds on overcast days and shadows when the sun is shining.

The brooding mood synchronizes with a man whose heavily laden conscience is torn in conflicting directions in two important dimensions. Therein lies the film’s plot and inherent dramatic conflict.

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Secrets of the Confessional and Deep, Abiding Love

Hitchcock was a practicing Roman Catholic and the story, adapted to the screen by George Tabori and William Archibald from a play by Paul Anthelme, surrounded a priest accused of murder who can clear himself by breaking his vow of silence relating to confession. In this case Otto Keller, played superbly by German actor O.E. Hasse, has confessed to Clift in the sanctuary of the confessional of the church where the parish priest served.

To those familiar with U.S. law, where privilege attaches to confidences involving members of the clergy, differing circumstances applied to Canadian law of that period. This brought an element of torture and dilemma for Clift. Despite repeated interrogation by police detective Karl Malden, he refused to waver.

Clift’s Father Logan was also a war hero who had fallen in love before service duty abroad. Anne Baxter expressed her willingness to marry him, but Clift responded that there were “too many war widows already” and declined.

By the time Clift returns Baxter, after not receiving letters from him following a certain interval, marries Roger Dann, a leading local political figure as a Member of Parliament.

After Clift’s return Baxter, who concedes, even to her husband, that she has always loved the man who, after returning home, becomes a priest, is found one morning with Father Logan after they had become caught in a storm. As a result they spend an evening together in a guest house where they had sought shelter.

Suspicious Circumstances Equal Motive

To the distinct disadvantage of both Clift and Baxter, they are found the following morning, after the storm has ended, by the disreputable owner of the guest house as well as the main residence. His eyes dance with opportunistic delight when he recognizes Baxter as the wife of a well known Member of Parliament.

Does this make Baxter a logical target for blackmail? Does the fact that she is seen in the company of a local priest make the prospect even more enticing? The answer is yes to both questions and a target she becomes, with Clift dragged along in the ensuing circumstances.

The web of suspicion tightens even more after Clift and Baxter were both viewed leaving the scene of the blackmailer’s home around the time of his murder. While Clift could potentially clear himself by revealing what he has been told in the sanctity of the confessional by O.E. Hasse, that he went to the blackmailer’s home to rob him since he and his wife badly needed money, to do so would betray the sacred confidence of the Catholic institution of confession, part of the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

While Malden, who reveals himself to be a practicing Catholic, and is someone who feels sympathy for the sensitive priest, facts are facts. Prosecutor Brian Aherne is convinced that with Clift possessing sufficient motive along with being observed leaving a home where a murder occurred on or about the time in question, he should be compelled to stand trial.

An Honest Wife’s Guilt and Hitchcock’s View

Clift’s position generates even more audience empathy for another basic reason. Hasse has been befriended by Clift. As a European émigré in need of employment, the priest sees that both Hasse and his wife, played by Dolly Haas, like Hasse a German born performer, are employed at the rectory where Clift, another priest, and the parish pastor reside.

Not only does Hasse maintain silence while knowing that Clift will be tried for a murder he committed; he goes one step further by planting evidence that increases suspicion toward an innocent man.

Aherne does his best at trial and presents his evidence. While the jury returns with a “not guilty” verdict the foreperson adds that there was insufficient evidence to convict. Strong suspicions remain. Clift leaves the courtroom with courtroom observers furious. The anger develops at a swift, furious pace when he leaves the building.

Dolly Haas has seen enough. She knows that her husband, someone who committed a murder for profit and then planted the dead man’s blood on the priest’s cassock, has victimized Clift grievously to serve his own ill ends.

In Hitchcock fashion there is a grand finale, and this one is played out in the historic setting of Hotel Frontenac, perhaps the beautiful city’s most spectacular and best known building.

After Hasse shoots his own wife to save himself, he is finally hunted down in the august setting of the hotel.

The film’s unique linchpin rests on the bond within Catholicism’s confessional secrecy. The anguish is clearly visible on Clift’s face as he realizes that he can save himself from a murder conviction and punishment for breaking the bonds of that secrecy, which he refuses to do, even after Karl Malden has pled with the priest to provide all information within his knowledge.

As a practicing Roman Catholic, Hitchcock was the perfect director to make “I Confess,” feeling an empathy toward a priest tormented by a natural desire to extricate himself from a murder charge and his obligation toward the church as an ordained priest.


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