Critics often comment on the influence that a Catholic upbringing had on Alfred Hitchcock. Something to do with fear and guilt. Granted that this is correct, it seems that this influence resulted in many good movies being produced, provided they had nothing to do with religion. But of the two movies where religion was involved, the results were inferior. In the case of The Wrong Man (1956), a miracle occurs which saves the protagonist at the expense of the movie.
In the other religious movie by Hitchcock, “I Confess” (1953), no miracle occurs, but as the story is about a priest, one cannot help but wonder if Hitchcock’s Catholic upbringing made it impossible for him to treat this protagonist the way he often did with those that, for all we can tell, never even went to church. Of course, we cannot be sure about this, for the Production Code may have been the force that hamstrung Hitchcock’s treatment of a man of the cloth. In either event, the movie is so constrained that it is simplistic. Also, in most of Hitchcock’s movies, there is some humor, often provided by the protagonist. But the only thing that counts for humor in this movie is weak: a priest keeps bringing his bicycle into the rectory, leaning it up against a wall, after which it falls over.
The movie involves a flashback, but an analysis of the film might proceed more smoothly if we consider the events as they occurred chronologically. The setting is Québec just before the outbreak of World War II. Michael Logan (Montgomery Clift) and Ruth (Anne Baxter) are a young couple, very much in love. With the outbreak of the war, Michael enlists, something Ruth wishes he had not done. He refuses to marry her, saying that there are too many widows already. Sounds to me like a kiss-off. Sure enough, as the war drags on, Michael eventually stops writing her letters. She ends up working as the secretary of Pierre Grandfort, a member of Parliament. We know he must be a good husband, because when we first encounter him, he is arguing that female teachers should receive pay equal to that of the men, while another member of Parliament is exclaiming that it will wreck the economy.
The war ends, and Michael returns. Ruth meets him as he gets off the ship, and they agree to meet the next day. She is still in love with him, and does not tell him she is married. They spend the day in the countryside, where he talks about how the war changed him. She tries kissing him, but he pulls away, cool to her attempt at lovemaking. Suddenly a storm comes up. They are forced to seek shelter in a gazebo, where they spend the night.
There are three important features about what happens here: (1) Michael has not yet become a priest; (2) he does not know Ruth is married; and (3) they do not have sex. Change any one of these three items, and the element of guilt creeps in for Michael. Change all three, and guilt is maximized: Michael, now an ordained priest, has sex with Ruth, even though he knows she is a married woman. But with all three conditions holding, Michael remains completely innocent.
The next morning, the owner of the estate, a Monsieur Villette, discovers them and makes a remark suggesting Michael and Ruth were having sex. Outraged, Michael knocks him down. Then Villette sees Ruth, realizing she is Madame Grandfort and addressing her as such. Michael and Ruth do not see each again for five years.
But then Villette finds himself in a “tax scandal.” He tells Ruth that she must get Pierre to use his influence to get him out of trouble, or he will tell about that night in the gazebo. She refuses, saying that her husband would never get involved in anything shady. Villette keeps putting pressure on her. She turns to Michael, now Father Logan, and gets him to meet her one night. She tells him her problem, and he becomes angry, saying he will take care of Villette. Then he goes back to the rectory.
Somewhat later, he looks out of his window and sees someone entering the church. Logan goes down to see who it is and finds Otto Keller, the sexton, praying. Logan asks if he can help him. Keller replies:
No one can help me. I have abused your kindness…. You gave my wife and me a home, a job, even friendship. I felt you would let me be your friend. So wonderful a thing for a refugee, a German, a man without a home. You will hate me now…. You trusted me. You saw that my wife and I were not common servants. It was you who found more pleasant tasks for us, working here in the rectory.
But not withstanding his reference to how well he and his wife have been treated, he adds a remark somewhat incongruous with that: “It was my wife, working so hard. It breaks my heart.”
Following this, Keller confesses to Logan that he accidentally killed Villette while trying to rob him. Later, he confesses again to his wife, Alma. He says he stole the money because it broke his heart thinking of her working so hard. He figured with $2,000, they could start a new life. Adjusted for inflation, that would be a little over $20,000 today. I don’t know what kind of new life a married couple could start with that.
Keller wore a priest’s cassock while trying to rob Villette to throw off suspicion in case someone saw him. A couple of school girls did see him, saying that they saw a priest leaving Villette’s house. The result is that Logan falls under suspicion, especially when Inspector Larrue (Karl Malden) sees him meeting Ruth on the street the morning after the murder, just outside Villette’s house. But Logan can’t defend himself against the charge of murder because he cannot reveal what he heard in the confessional.
I wondered about this. Can a priest really allow a murderer to continue to walk the streets, possibly killing again, simply because the killer confessed to the murder to him? So, thinking that was ridiculous, I researched it. Apparently, it’s true. I even came across one article in which a priest admitted to the way “I Confess” bothered him:
People wonder, “Can the priest ever reveal what is said in confession?” The simple, straight answer is “no.” … (Just as an aside, a great movie which deals with this very topic is Alfred Hitchcock’s I Confess, which deals with a priest who hears a murder confession and then is framed for the murder. As a priest, I was in agony during much of the movie.)
Ruth tries to give Logan an alibi, telling Larrue that she was with him that night, when she told him that she was being blackmailed. Unfortunately, when they parted at 11:00, there was still time for him to murder Villette, for the time of death has been established as 11:30. Worse, Larrue now knows that Logan had a motive for killing Keller.
That would be bad enough, but when Keller tells his wife what he did, saying that Logan said he must give back the money, which would presumably mean admitting to the murder, he suddenly gets an evil look in his eye. We know what he’s thinking. Now that he has absolution, he will still go to Heaven, but he is safe here on Earth as well, for Father Logan cannot tell what he knows. He can even keep the money. But he does not simply sit back and let Logan be accused. He lies about when Logan returned to the rectory. Whereas Logan saw Keller entering the church a little past 11:30, Keller says he saw Logan entering the church at that time, thereby making it seem as though Logan had time to murder Villette. He says Logan appeared to be distressed and wanted to be left alone. But, he goes on to say, he did not want to leave him because he wanted to help him, because Logan had been so kind to him and his wife. On a later occasion, he suggests that Logan was acting like a guilty man. Then, he even takes the cassock he wore, which has Villette’s blood on it, and plants it among Logan’s things for the police to find later.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. He might have been absolved of the murder, but is not the prohibition against bearing false witness against your neighbor one of the Ten Commandments? Won’t he go to Hell for that? Not at all. He’ll just wait until Logan is convicted and hanged, after which he can go out and get himself another priest and confess to that, thereby ensuring his future felicity.
If this sounds farfetched, it really is not. Religious belief falls on a spectrum ranging from the moral to the magical. The more one believes that the important parts of a religion are about doing good and eschewing evil, the less one cares about the magical side, which may be dismissed as silly superstition. But those who are on the magical end of that spectrum will care little about what’s right and wrong. They buy candles with the Virgin Mary painted on the glass to help them win the lottery. They carry a St. Christopher medal to protect them at sea. They would love to get their hands on a relic, like a piece of wood from the cross, for that would really pay dividends. It is not unheard of for such people to use religious magic to protect them while doing something immoral or illegal. Keller is clearly located way over on the magical end of that spectrum, so much so that he is as purely evil as Logan is purely innocent.
Eventually, Logan is put on trial for the murder. But it is only half a trial. We never see the defense attorney call witnesses to testify, cross examine the prosecution’s witnesses, or present his closing argument to the jury. The only thing he does of any significance is object a couple of times, but the prosecutor continues with his line of questioning unabated. Speaking of which, the prosecutor often stops asking the witness questions so he can give his theory of what happened. We know that movies take liberties in their presentations of trials, but the absence of an objection from the defense at these points is preposterous. In any event, when the jury comes back with a not-guilty verdict, it strikes us as arbitrary, for we never heard anything from the defense casting doubt on the accusation. In fact, for all practical purposes, Father Logan might just as well not have had a defense attorney.
This reminded me of Helter Skelter (1976), a movie about Charles Manson, including his trial. There too, we have a defense attorney that is practically nonexistent. The day before the closing arguments are to begin, the prosecuting attorney tells his wife how worried he is about the summation he will have to give, because so much depends on it. I remember thinking to myself, “Is he kidding? Everyone knew Charles Manson was going to be found guilty. No special skill was required from the prosecutor in giving his closing argument.” In fact, I was wondering what closing argument would be heard from the defense. That was where the real challenge lay. So, in the next scene, we see the prosecutor give his all-important summation, while I waited patiently for him to finish so I could hear what the defense attorney would say. But we never got to hear from him. And that is why Helter Skelter is a lackluster movie. In general, when a trial takes place in a movie in which we never hear from the defense, it is completely lacking in dramatic value.
Returning to “I Confess,” after Father Logan is found not guilty by a jury that says they think he did it, but there just was not enough evidence to convict beyond a reasonable doubt, the judge even goes one step further and says he disagrees with the jury, that they should have convicted Logan. As a result, the whole town ends up being against him, aside from Ruth, of course. That is totally unrealistic. In real life, we would expect him to have some supporters who believed he was innocent. The unanimity of the townsfolk in this regard is as one-sided as the trial, and therefore just as boring.
This movie would have been far more interesting if, instead of trying to incriminate Logan, Keller had given evidence that would have helped him, short of admitting that he was the one who was guilty. At the trial, he could have said Father Logan got back to the church too early to have committed the murder, for example. This testimony from the killer in defense of Logan would have created an even greater degree of moral tension. Logan would not only have to keep it a secret that Keller killed Villette, but he would also have to accept that Keller’s testimony on the witness stand helped his own case, making him indebted to Keller.
In the end, Alma, Keller’s wife, cannot stand it when Logan is being attacked by the mob outside the courthouse. She points to her husband, trying to say he is the one who is guilty. He shoots her to keep her from talking. So much for his excuse that he was doing it all for his wife. We already knew that Keller was evil, but this makes him even worse. Fortunately for Alma, she lived just long enough for another priest to give her absolution, so her soul ascends to Heaven.
Then Keller runs off. He kills another person in a hotel kitchen. Then, by means of a kind of logic that can occur only in a melodrama, Keller concludes that Logan has told the police what he knows, and thus blurts out the fact that he killed Villette while the police are within earshot. Subsequently, the police shoot him. Logan goes over to Keller, who asks for forgiveness just before he dies, from which we may assume his soul ascends to Heaven too, where he will join his wife, allowing them to share eternity together.