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I CONFESS

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Montgomery Clift, Anne Baxter, Karl Malden, Brian Aherne, O.E. Hasse, Dolly
Haas
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Audio: English
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Video: Black & white, full-frame
Studio: Warner Brothers
Features: Featurette, gala premiere footage, trailer
Length: 94 minutes
Release Date: September 7, 2004

"You can't tell them, as long as you're a priest, can you?"

Film ****

Before Marlon Brando or James Dean, there was Montgomery Clift.  An extraordinarily handsome young actor with well-chiseled features, Montgomery Clift was the cinema's first prominent Method actor.  He made a solid impact in his first major role in Red River (1948) opposite John Wayne and went on to give memorable performances in such later classics as From Here to Eternity and A Place in the Sun.  While his personal life was a tormented one, on-screen, Montgomery Clift's star shone very brightly.

One of his finest films, I Confess (1953), placed Montgomery Clift under the guidance of one of the great directors of our time, Alfred Hitchcock.  While the film was not an initial success due to its very somber nature, it has since become embraced as one of Hitchcock's most deeply personal and visually stunning black & white film.  By the mid-1950's, I Confess was already being championed by early proponents of the French New Wave as one of Hitchcock's greatest films.

In I Confess, Montgomery Clift portrays a young abbe, Father Michael Logan.  He is approached one evening by Keller (O.E. Hasse), a German refugee taken in by the kindly priest to serve as caretaker for the St. Marie rectory.  Keller confesses to a terrible crime, the murder of a Québec lawyer.  Despite the horrible revelation of this deed, Father Logan by the sacrament of penance is sworn to secrecy.  Furthermore, under this sacrament, he may not even discuss the sin with Keller outside the Confessional.

Father Logan's faith will soon come under intense pressure.  As local police officers begin to investigate the lawyer's death, the clues seemingly point to the clergy and ultimately to Father Logan himself.  When he is called for questioning, the young priest is consequently neither able to defend himself nor able to reveal his knowledge of the murderer's true identity.  Soon, Ruth (Anne Baxter), a former sweetheart from Logan's pre-ordained youth, is implicated in the lawyer's death, providing a possible motive for murder and casting further suspicion upon the priest.

Directing the investigation is the no-nonsense police inspector Larrue (Karl Malden), a man not of faith but of reason and rationality.  Larrue genuinely wishes to help Father Logan, yet in face of Logan's awkward inability to answer Larrue's questions or to even defend himself against the potential charge of murder, Larrue has no option but to arrest Logan as a prime suspect.  Ultimately, Father Logan's plight becomes seemingly untenable when, at his trial, even Keller testifies against him, bearing false witness upon his very own benefactor.

The acting by all the principals in I Confess is extremely good.  Montgomery Clift is quite believable as a young, conflicted priest nevertheless devoted to his faith.  Anne Baxter and Karl Malden, being Oscar winners in their own right, are equally solid in their roles.  O.E. Hasse has the small but very pivotal role as Keller.  This role might easily have devolved into that of a typically cold-blooded villain, but Hasse infuses the character with such emotional depth that his Keller, guilt-ridden and repentant, is more to be pitied than feared.  Equally mesmerizing is Dolly Haas as Alma, Keller's wife, torn between loyalty to her husband and her horror at his deed.  A German actress, Haas displays an astounding degree of poignant expressivity rarely seen outside of the silent era (Haas was once a star of German cinema herself, and it is a pity that she did not appear in more American films).

I Confess, while not a religious film per se, uses Catholicism and the sanctity of the priesthood as central points in this morality play.  Like Henry Fonda's Manny in The Wrong Man, Father Logan is caught in a case of mistaken identity.  But whereas in The Wrong Man, Manny's devotion and prayers lead to his salvation in the end, in I Confess, Father Logan's irresolute adherence to his faith nearly costs him dearly in the end.  Both Manny and Father Logan are the wrong men, trapped by the machineries of justice.  With doubt all around them, only their faith in their own innocence or in the system saves them in the end.  The true tragedy of both I Confess and The Wrong Man is that being innocent and cleared of any wrong-doing does not truly save the protagonists.  Their lives have been irretrievably shattered and perhaps, the true suffering is still yet to commence after the conclusion of the films.

I Confess was a film which Hitchcock, with his strict Jesuit upbringing, was eager to make for many years.  Its message of faith was one that was important to the British director, and the film was certainly one of his most personal, second only to Vertigo.

It is a true mystery why this remarkable film remains undiscovered today by so many Hitchcock fans.  Perhaps the fact that I Confess was a fairly heart-wrenching dramatic film, rather than Hitchcock's usual suspense-thriller, may have turned fans away.  Fortunately, the DVD release of I Confess will hopefully provide viewers with a fresh opportunity to experience not only one of Montgomery Clift's finest performances but also one of Alfred Hitchcock's best films.

Video *** ½

I Confess was filmed in Québec, Canada.  Unlike previous Hitchcock films, it made extensive cinematic use of real locations.  The Old World flavor of the city, from its cobblestone streets to its dark, winding alleys and its numerous church steeples, was richly brought forth in the film's remarkable cinematography.

Considered one of Hitchcock's most visually stunning black & white films, I Confess has received a great transfer for this DVD.  The startlingly black & white contrasts of the original photography is well-preserved, and there is only a minimal degree or speckles or scratch marks.  This is how black & white films should appear on all DVDs!

Audio ** ½

I Confess is presented with its original English monaural soundtrack.  As with most of these older films, the sound quality is not particularly deep or resonant but serves the film well in progressing the story.  Don't expect any aural fireworks here, and you will enjoy the film just fine.

Features * ½

"Bad movies are photographs of people talking.  A Hitchcock movie is a photograph of people thinking."

The featurette Hitchcock's Confession:  A Look at I Confess (20 min.) highlights this dramatic and serious film as one of Hitchcock's most underrated films.  The featurette looks briefly at Hitchcock's strict Jesuit Catholic background and its large influence upon this film.  Early screenplay ideas are mentioned, including an illegitimate child for Father Logan and an early extramarital affair.  The featurette also discusses Montgomery Clift and his Method acting.  Lastly, if you can't spot Hitchcock's cameo in the film, this featurette offers a quick glimpse of it to guide your search.

Other extras on the DVD include newsreel footage (1 min.) of the film's gala premiere at the Capitol Theater in Québec, Canada and a vintage trailer, too.

Summary:

A beautifully photographed film with a tragic tale of mistaken identity, I Confess features one of Montgomery Clift's best performances and ranks among Alfred Hitchcock's most brilliant and personal films.  Highly recommended!

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