We begin, as so often in Alfred Hitchcock’s films, with a murder. We follow a killer down a dark street. He hides in a church, praying for forgiveness. He confesses to a priest. The next day the body is found. The vow of confidentiality from the confession booth means the priest cannot tell the police of the crime. Guilt begins to wrack the good man’s conscience. Is he part of a murder by simply standing by and doing nothing? Can guilt be passed on and shared? Is his vow of priesthood more important than justice in the eyes of the law? These are questions that the film sets up with great efficiency and clarity within the first 20 minutes or so. It is, it must be said, Hitchcock at his best. Beautiful imagery combined with sharp, clearly defined storytelling. Such an opening led me to believe I was in for one of the great master’s many underappreciated works.
I was wrong. Despite all the fascinating questions I Confess poses to us in its opening act, it falls apart rather quickly. This I feel, is very much to do with the turgid mechanical screenplay, which trawls from one scene to another by having characters explain to us what is happening word-for-word, without ever getting into the root of why it’s happening. The film employs that most Hitchcockian of tropes for its basic plot, that of the wrongly accused man. Evidence slowly piles up against our protagonist Father Logan (Montgomery Clift) and he is eventually arrested and sent to trial. However, as the cards begin to stack up against Logan, his proclivity for keeping quiet begins to look more and more foolish, and when secrets from his past begin to spill out, his continued silence just begins to look utterly baffling, vow of sanctity or no.
Furthermore, the questions posed early on in the film – those of guilt and complicity – are dropped almost entirely in favour of what becomes a by-the-numbers police procedural film, wherein the cops question and interrogate various suspects for evidence until the answers tumble out of them. Logan’s interactions with the killer, a German émigré by the name of Otto Keller (O. E. Hasse) who works as a handyman in the church rectory, are the film’s most exciting scenes. The dynamic between the two characters is highly fascinating. Guilt and power intertwine inbetween the two characters, one forcing the other into a corner and back out again, but ultimately their scenes together are too few to rescue the film.
The film’s nadir comes once Father Logan has been charged with murder and is sent to court. After putting us through the already rather dull murder investigation by the police, we then have to watch the exact same information being relayed to us except this time in a court. It’s a dreadfully boring sequence of about 15 or so minutes in which every single line of dialogue we hear has already been spoken in some form or other earlier on in the film. This is surely in breach of screenwriting rule 101: there is no need to repeat information we have already been told. Why anybody thought that this section of the film was necessary baffles me beyond belief. It makes a relatively short film feel a hell of a lot longer.
So, despite its turgid, boring screenplay, what saves I Confess from being a complete failure? Well, the aforementioned first 20 minutes really were fantastic. There are also some lovely visual sequences in this film too, particularly a scene where Hitchcock quite blatantly compares Father Logan’s silent sacrifice with that of Jesus Christ. The performance too are also pretty solid. Montgomery Clift isn’t at his best here, but he is quite an engaging presence, and Karl Malden as the police detective piecing the evidence together always makes a film more watchable (Karl Malden being a Serb has no impact whatsoever on my rating of him. Nope. None whatsoever. Completely unbiased opinion). These few positives do combine to make I Confess just about serviceable but not particularly a film anyone other than Hitchcock obsessives ought to search out.