I Confess (1953)

In Alfred Hitchcock’s I Confess, Otto Keller (O.E. Hasse), who is the caretaker of a church, disguises himself as a priest, tries to steal money from a lawyer named Villette, gets caught in the act, and ends up killing Villette. He confesses to Father Logan (Montgomery Clift). Ironically, Inspector Larrue (Karl Malden) comes to suspect Father Logan of the murder, but Logan cannot reveal what Keller admitted in the confessional. Larrue’s suspicions are strengthened when he finds Villette was blackmailing Ruth Grandfort (Anne Baxter), a close friend of Logan. 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 at one point, 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 irritating. 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 not likely to be very interesting.

Returning to I Confess, after Father Logan is found not guilty, the whole town seems to be against him. 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.

During the trial, the real murderer, Keller, testifies against Logan, giving false evidence that he hopes will incriminate Logan, the very priest he confessed to. In fact, Keller even planted the bloody cassock in Logan’s room. This is too much. It would have been far more interesting if Keller had given evidence that would have helped Logan, short of admitting that he was the one who was guilty. He could have said Father Logan got back to the church too early to have committed the murder, for example. This perjured 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 lies on the witness stand helped his own case, making him indebted to Keller. As it is, Keller is ridiculously evil, trying to help convict the very priest he confessed to.

Another thing that makes this movie too one-sided is Father Logan’s total innocence in every regard. In the movie, he returns from the war and meets Ruth, who he does not know is married. He is not a priest yet, and so he kisses her, as they were in love before the war. A storm comes up, and they are forced to spend the night in a gazebo. The next morning, Villette, who owns the place, discovers them and suspects them of having had sex, which they did not. This becomes the basis for the blackmail.

Think how much better it would have been if Logan had been a priest at the time, knew that Ruth was married, and in a weak moment had sex with her that night in the gazebo. Allowing for Logan to have sinned in this way would have created some moral tension, and provided an even stronger motive for the murder of Villette. In fact, it is almost a cliché that when a man and woman take shelter in a storm, they have sex, so it is a little disappointing that they do not. Instead, Father Logan is presented as completely without sin, which is just as uninteresting as Keller’s unqualified evil.

In short, Father Logan is too one-sided (too innocent), Keller is too one-sided (too evil), the trial is too one-sided (the absence of a defense), and the attitude of the townsfolk is too one-sided (everyone hates Logan). Compared to what might have been, this movie is a disappointment, especially considering that it was directed by Alfred Hitchcock, from whom we expect better.

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