“I Confess” (1953)

Alfred Hitchcock and Religion Don’t Mix

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.  Paradoxically, however, this applies only to the movies that had nothing to do with religion.  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 the story is about a priest.  As we watch this movie, we cannot help but wonder if Hitchcock’s Catholic upbringing constrained his treatment of this protagonist.  Of course, we cannot be sure about this, for Warner Bros. and the Hays Office also put limits on Hitchcock’s treatment of a man of the cloth.

The original source for this movie was Nos Deux Consciences, a French play produced in 1902, in which a priest hears a confession about the murder of another priest.  Then he is accused of committing the murder himself, but cannot tell who the real killer is on account of the sacramental seal of the confessional.  He is convicted and sentenced to die by guillotine.  After he gets his head chopped off, they discover that he was innocent.

According to commentary on the DVD, Hitchcock wanted the priest to be executed in the end, just as in the play, but Joseph Breen of the Hays Office would not allow it.  But even in small ways, the story as presented in the movie comes across as inhibited.  For one thing, it is lacking in humor.  In a lot of Hitchcock’s movies, there is some comic relief, often provided by the protagonist.  But the priest in this movie is mirthless.  The only thing that counts for humor is weak:  another priest keeps bringing his bicycle into the rectory, leaning it up against a wall, after which it falls over.  This is so not-funny that it would have been better to leave it out completely.

There Is No Sex in This Movie

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.  As told by Ruth in the flashback, she is very much in love with with Michael, who she says loves her.  But we never actually hear Michael tell Ruth that he loves her.  On the DVD commentary, this flashback is compared to the one in Stage Fright (1950), a Hitchcock film in which the story told in a flashback turns out not to be true, a lying flashback, the first ever to take place in a movie. Apparently, François Truffaut thought the flashback in ”I Confess” was also a lying flashback, for it tells of what happened from the dreamy perspective of a young woman in love, without giving us any direct insight into what Michael is actually thinking and feeling.

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.  There is something a little detestable about a man who does exactly what he wants to do, and then tells the woman that he is doing it for her benefit.  In any event, compared to all the movies we have seen where couples, desperately in love, get married just before the man is sent off to fight a war, Michael’s excuse makes him out to be something of a cold fish.  Sure enough, as the war drags on, he stops writing Ruth letters, none of which were love letters in any event.  She says the letters were all serious.  She ends up working as the secretary of Pierre Grandfort, a member of Parliament, whom she eventually marries. We know he must be a good husband, because when we first encounter him, he is arguing before the House of Commons that female teachers should receive pay equal to that of the male teachers, as opposed to a conservative member of Parliament who claims that it would 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.  This immediately made me think of The Aeneid, where Aeneas and Dido hide in a cave when a storm comes up, and they end up becoming lovers.  That may be the first, but certainly not the last time that a storm has proved conducive to lovemaking in a work of fiction.  As a result, when Michael and Ruth do not have sex when they hide from the storm, it is a bit of a let down.

In addition to the fact that they do not have sex, there are two other sanitizing features in this scene: Michael has not yet become a priest, and he does not know Ruth is married.  Imagine the opposite: Michael, now an ordained priest, has sex with Ruth during the storm, even though he knows she is a married woman.  Juicy!  But as it is, Michael’s innocence is preserved at the expense of sapping this movie of any vitality.

In the play that was the source for this story, the priest does have sex with a woman, gets her pregnant, and she has a child out of wedlock.  According to the commentary on the DVD, Hitchcock wanted Michael to have sex with Ruth, but before he had become a priest.  And he wanted her to have an illegitimate child.  I hate to be technical, but I don’t think the child of a married woman would be illegitimate, even if it is the child of her lover rather than her husband.  Furthermore, that would seem to violate a general principle concerning sex and pregnancy in the movies, which is as follows:  if an unmarried woman in a movie has sex just one time, she always gets pregnant; but if a married woman in a movie has sex with another man, she never gets pregnant.  In any event, Hitchcock was not allowed to follow the play in this regard either.

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.  As a result, Michael and Ruth do not see each other again for five years.

But then Villette finds himself in a “tax scandal.”  He tells Ruth that she must get her husband 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.

A Religious Villain

Somewhat later, he looks out 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 notwithstanding 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, Keller confesses again to his wife, Alma.  He says he stole the money because it broke his heart thinking of her working so hard.  Here we go again.  Just as Michael came up with that lame excuse for refusing to marry Ruth, saying there were too many widows already, Keller tells his wife that he didn’t steal the money for his own selfish reasons, but rather he did it all for her.

Anyway, he says he figured that with $2,000, they could start a new life.  Adjusted for inflation, that would be a little over $22,000 today.  I don’t know what kind of new life a married couple could start with that.

Keller wore a priest’s cassock the night he robbed and killed Villette in order to throw off suspicion in case someone saw him.  A couple of school girls did see him, and they tell the police 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?  I looked into it, and 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.)

There seems to be a conflation of what Logan cannot say to the police regarding what he heard in the confessional and what Logan does not want to say to the police because it regards his relationship with Ruth.  When Larrue interrogates Logan, asking about the woman he met in front of Villette’s house, or who he was with the night of the murder, it is easy to blend his refusal to answer for personal reasons with his refusal to reveal who murdered Villette.  But the fact is that he could easily have answered Larrue’s questions.  We might imagine him saying the following:

The woman was Ruth Grandfort, whom I knew before the war.  Villette was blackmailing her because he thought we were having an affair.  It wasn’t true, of course, but Ruth asked to meet me that night, because she didn’t know what to do about it.  We agreed to meet at Villette’s house the next morning, which is why you saw her talking to me on the street.  This is a personal matter, inspector, so I trust you will be discreet with the information I have given you.

Anyway, having failed to get this information from Logan, Larrue eventually finds out the woman in question was Ruth, and he brings her in for questioning, along with her husband Pierre.  Ruth tries to give Michael an alibi, telling Inspector Larrue that she was with Michael that night, when she told him that she was being blackmailed.  This is where the flashback occurs, when she tells how she and Michael were in love before the war.  Pierre already knew about her love for Michael before the war, but the investigation really brings things out in the open, leading to marital discord. Ruth tells Pierre with brutal frankness that she never loved him and that he can leave her, for all she cares.  She could have lied, saying she no longer is in love with Michael, that she cares about him only as a friend, telling her husband that he is the one she truly loves now.  Maybe he wouldn’t have completely believed her, but he would have accepted it, and their marriage could have been saved.  Instead, she proudly asserts that she has never deceived him in this matter, as if that were a virtue.  But when a woman reaches the point where she is no longer willing to lie to her husband, that marriage over.  I guess that’s what happens when a woman marries a man she doesn’t love because she is still in love with a man that never loved her.

However, it is all for naught.  When she and Logan parted at 11:00, there was still time for him to murder Villette, for the autopsy establishes that he could not have died before 11:30.

The supposed time of death of Villette is an inconsistent mess.  The school girls said they saw the priest leaving Villette’s house between 11:00 and 11:30, which would mean Villette did die before 11:30.  So, either they were wrong about the time, or the coroner was wrong about the time of death.  Furthermore, Larrue says that since Madame Grandfort and Father Logan parted at 11:00, “You can do a lot of things in thirty minutes,” suggesting that it was in that time period that Villette was murdered.  But Logan wouldn’t have had to kill Villette in that thirty-minute time period, because the autopsy said Villette could not have died before 11:30.  The murder would have had to take place after that thirty-minute period.  Finally, Pierre tells Ruth the next morning that the autopsy report showed that Villette died at exactly 11:30.  And later, during the trial, the crown prosecutor also says the murder took place at 11:30.

In order for all this to make sense, the autopsy should have said that Villette died sometime between 11:00 and 11:30.  That would be consistent with what the school girls said, and it would make sense of Larrue’s remark about doing “a lot of things in thirty minutes.”  Pierre’s remark should have been, “The autopsy showed that Villette could have died as late as 11:30,” and the crown prosecutor should have made a similar statement in court.

In any event, Larrue now knows that Logan had a motive for killing Villete.

The Employment of Spiritual Technology

That would be bad enough, but when Keller tells his wife what he did, saying that Logan told him 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.  But he does not simply sit back and let Logan be accused.  He lies about when Logan returned to the rectory. Whereas Logan got back to the rectory at 11:15, and he saw Keller entering the church somewhat later than that, Keller says he saw Logan entering the church at 11:45, 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 more about material gain than about what is right and wrong.  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, using religious magic for his own evil ends.

The Half Trial of Father Logan

Eventually, Logan is put on trial for murder.  But it is only half a trial. We never see the defense attorney cross examine the prosecution’s witnesses, call his own witnesses to testify, or present his closing argument to the jury. The only thing he does of any significance is object a couple of times, but the crown prosecutor continues with his line of questioning unimpeded. Speaking of which, the prosecutor often stops asking a 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, whose part is so minimal that he is not even listed in the credits.  Hitchcock could have made this his cameo.

This reminded me of Helter Skelter (1976), a television miniseries 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 my patience went unrewarded, because we never got to hear from the defense attorney at all. And that is why Helter Skelter is inferior. 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,” let us consider how the trial might have been made more interesting by having Logan’s attorney do more than just make an occasional fruitless objection.  While Logan may have been unable to reveal what was said to him in the confessional, he is not bound to remain silent about other matters, especially anything that happened before he heard the confession.  When being questioned on the witness stand by the crown prosecutor, Logan asserts that much of what Keller said was not true, but his own attorney makes no attempt to get him to elaborate on this matter.  Had he done so, we might have heard the following:

Defense attorney:  Father Logan, was Otto Keller already in the church when you returned to the rectory?

Father Logan:  No, he was not.

Defense attorney:  Do you know when he arrived at the church?

Father Logan:  Yes, it was after 11:30.

Defense attorney:  So, when Keller says he followed you into the church and found you there kneeling, that is not true?

Father Logan:  No, it is not.

Defense attorney:  Do you know any reason why Keller would lie about this matter?

Father Logan:  I cannot say.

Anyway, 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, and 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 simplistic.

More Guilt for Logan, Less Guilt for Keller

Just as it would have been more interesting had Father Logan been guilty of something, such as having sex with Ruth, so too would 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. He could have told Larrue that he saw Father Logan get back to the church too early to have committed the murder, not only giving Logan an alibi, but cleverly giving himself one at the same time. This testimony from Keller 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 the alibi that Keller provided for him was a genuine effort to help exonerate him, making him grateful to Keller.

An Evil Man Gets His Eternal Reward

In the end, Alma 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.  Keller 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 is even worse. Fortunately for Alma, just before she dies, another priest performs the last rites as she asks to be forgiven.  As a result, her soul goes to Heaven.

Then Keller runs off.  He kills a chef 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.  Logan makes the sign of the cross, while uttering the words, “Te absolvo in nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti,” at which point Keller dies.  As a result, his soul ascends to Heaven, where he will join his wife, allowing them to share eternity together.

As a final improvement for this movie, imagine that Keller dies before Father Logan can reach him.  “Too late, Father,” Inspector Larrue says, “that’s one confession you’re never going to hear.”

Just as the miracle in The Wrong Man was a distraction, forcing us to think about divine intervention when the movie would have been much better if it had restricted itself to the natural world, so too does “I Confess” irritate us with the mechanics of salvation, forcing us to think about the arbitrary rules concerning confession that will allow a man to commit three murders and then get off on a technicality.

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