Montgomery Clift plays Father Michael Logan, a Catholic priest who hears the confession of a killer. When Father Logan is accused of murder, the sacrament forbids him to reveal the truth, even to protect himself.
Hitchcock is famous for celebrating the landmarks and lesser-known areas of San Francisco, London, and other great cities. I CONFESS was shot almost entirely in Quebec City. Since Quebec has not been featured in nearly as many films as some of Hitchcock’s favorite cities, he had free reign to explore and use the city as a character.
It’ll finish Thursday
AFTER THOUGHT from July 5th, 2014
I was baptized Catholic but I fell away from the church when I was fairly young. As a movie fan, themes if faith and doubt and sacrifice and redemption appeal to me, as much in films with a religious focus as in more secular films. I have read The Bible, and I have paid a reasonable amount of attention to what separates one denomination from another, because I am often fascinated by how these issues and themes come into play in storytelling. I am no longer a Catholic but some of my favorite movies either would have been very different, or simply would not have existed, without Catholicism and/or Christianity.
Alfred Hitchcock was raised Catholic. He was also a master storyteller who could wring maximum dramatic intensity from a scene while still playing within the rules of his faith. Watching a religiously themed movie like I CONFESS with the lunch movie crowd was always amusing. I could count on most of the audience to be aware of the suits and trappings of faith even if it was not their particular denomination. But there were always those uninformed few who needed concepts like Catholic confession, the Passover Seder, or the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama explained to them. This film was no exception; thankfully the 95 minute running time permitted us to fit I CONFESS into 2 consecutive lunch hours, while still having time to pause it early at the end of the first day to address all the questions of the uninitiated. The film raised questions ranging from adorably naive to defiantly provoking, with some seeking to understand the confessional process, and others looking for loopholes either in the Catholic ritual or Hitchcock’s film. If you think this is funny, ya shoulda been there for THE EXORCIST!
With all this dogmatic debate aside, we were able to get down to the core of this unique little thriller. This is not a standard whodunit, since the murderer confesses his crime in the first reel, and much of Hitch’s trademark gallows humor is also missing. What you’re left with is a sombre character study of a well meaning man caught in an impossible situation. Montgomery Clift is perfectly understated as Father Logan; in a standard murder mystery a man in this situation could desperately pursue his own ends, but the bonds of the priesthood create a layer of complexity here that would challenge a lessor actor. In a similar situation in a very different movie, Bob Hoskins rages indignantly against a murder taking advantage of the confessional in the underrated A PRAYER FOR THE DYING. Hoskins’ reaction worked for that story, but I CONFESS needed a performer who would go the opposite direction, drawing ever inward and feeling more trapped.
Montgomery Clift was 32 years old when he played Father Logan. He was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar later that year for his heartbreakingly nuanced portrayal of the bugling pugilist Pvt. Robert E. Lee Prewitt in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY. We see him here at the dawn of an exemplary and tragically brief career of playing wounded men caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. Father Logan has not only heard the confession of a murderer, but he stands to benefit, as the victim was aware of a potentially compromising secret about the Father. If this film were remade today, studio development execs would almost certainly make this secret far more lascivious, which would be a mistake. Part of what makes Father Logan a riveting hero is precisely that he is a good and honest man, and no matter which course of action he takes, he will be mistaken for the wrongdoing of another person.
As I mentioned to my coworkers in 2007, Hitchcock makes wonderful use of the city of Quebec, which had rarely been portrayed previously on film. He uses locations that would be familiar to tourists, or a draw to those considering visiting, such as the Parliament Building, the Old Quarter, and Hôtel Le Château Frontenac. Frontenac sits overlooking the St. Lawrence River like a glorious medieval castle, a hearty stone’s throw from La Citadelle de Québec. Hitch also follows Father Logan through parts of town that would not be found in your Michelin Guide: Eglise Saint-Zéphirin de Stadacona, where Father Logan hears the inciting confession, the Hall of Justice where Karl Malden’s Inspector Larrue questions Logan, and yet again the Frontenac Hotel, where a climactic chase takes us through areas of the hotel that no guest would see. This is an aspect of the rarely sung artistry of Hitchcock: he takes a location you have heard about, and makes you want to see it, or he takes a location you know, and shows you something unexpected.
I CONFESS is not regarded as one of Hitchcock’s high art masterpieces. Its initial release was a little contentious, with Hitch even joking that an alternate cut may be required to appease the Quebec Catholic community, and another cut for the rest of the world. This may be solely my agnostic point of view, but I find movies that feature spirituality tested by doubt far more faith affirming that movies about blind faith. This is a timeless story set in one of the oldest standing cities in the western hemisphere. The elements of I CONFESS that may upset some Catholics are exactly what makes this story resonate 60 years after the film’s release, and 110 years after the French play on which it was based.