North by Northwest (1959)

Icebox Scenes in North by Northwest

Alfred Hitchcock is said to have formulated the principle of “fridge logic” when discussing the movie Vertigo (1958).  When asked about something in the movie that did not make sense, when Madeleine (Kim Novak) disappears from a hotel, he referred to it as an “icebox scene.”  The idea is that if there is an inconsistency or absurdity in a movie, but the viewer does not realize it until he gets home and starts pulling a piece of cold chicken out of the icebox for a snack, then the inconsistency or absurdity does not matter, because he has already enjoyed the movie.  Although as a historical matter, it is the movie Vertigo that is associated with this principle, North by Northwest exemplifies it like no other movie he ever made.

The first time we watch this movie, we experience it from the point of view of a man that gets mistaken for a government agent.  Although there are a few scenes that we see where the protagonist is not present, giving us a little extra information, we are pretty much in the dark about things as he is. But once we have seen the entire movie, it becomes possible to look at his situation objectively, or rather, from the point of view of the spies and the actual government agents.  It is then that we notice things that seem inexplicable.

When Hitchcock made that remark about fridge logic, people mostly watched a movie once and that was it. There was no cable television, no video cassettes, no DVDs, and no streaming.  An old movie might show up on television, on the Late Show, and a really good movie might be brought back to the theaters after several years, but that was something of an exception.  Today, it is not at all uncommon for people to watch movies several times, and this makes icebox scenes more problematic than previously. I have a friend who says he just can’t watch North by Northwest anymore because of all the stuff that doesn’t make any sense, and I confess that I have felt the same way at times.  And that’s a shame, for in other respects, this is one of the best movies Hitchcock ever made.

As a result, I set about the task of trying to rationalize the icebox scenes in this movie, and while I cannot say that I have been completely successful, I did manage to make it possible for me to watch the movie again and thoroughly enjoy it one more time.  The results of my efforts are presented here.  That being my purpose, I have decided that rather than start when the protagonist is introduced to us at the beginning of the movie, we should consider the relevant events in the order in which they occurred.

In addition to what is explicitly shown to us, it will be necessary during this analysis to provide information not depicted in the movie, but clearly implied by it, if we are to assume that there are rational explanations for any apprehensions we might have had while reaching for that piece of cold chicken.  This additional information will be contained in footnotes interpolated in the main text.

The Movie Rationalized

Phillip Vandamm (James Mason) is the head of a spy organization that smuggles government secrets out of the United States and delivers them to a foreign government overseas, presumably the Soviet Union.

Footnote 1:  The operation begins with an American traitor, who has access to classified information.  He photographs top-secret documents and puts them on microfilm. This traitor then turns these rolls of microfilm over a sculptor, who conceals them in small sculptures he has designed for just that purpose.  They are counterfeit items, the latest being made to look like a Tarascan Warrior.  The sculptor then passes these fake pieces of Pre-Columbian art on to an art dealer, who puts them up for auction. Posing as an art collector, Vandamm buys the sculptures at these auctions, which take place in various parts of the Northeast and the Midwest:  Pittsburg, Philadelphia, Boston, Detroit, Chicago, and New York. Then Vandamm takes the sculptures with him on flights to Europe from his private airport in South Dakota.

Footnote 2:  Vandamm’s personal secretary, Leonard (Martin Landau), thinks that all this business about buying counterfeit sculptures at art auctions is unnecessarily elaborate.  He says that the rolls of microfilm should be deposited in a drop, where he can then pick them up.  That way it can all be done in just one city, and fewer people will be involved. Vandamm says that’s just what the government agents would expect them to do.  So, while the government agents are busy trying to figure out where the drop is, Vandamm is free to buy the sculptures at auctions without arousing suspicion.

“The Professor” (Leo G. Carroll) works for the United States Intelligence Agency.  He is in charge of finding out how Vandamm obtains the secrets he is smuggling out of the country.  He has several subordinates working for him, including Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), who is an undercover agent, working as Vandamm’s mistress.

Footnote 3:  It has never occurred to Eve or to the Professor that the secrets are on microfilm planted inside the sculptures that Vandamm routinely bids for at auctions.  They figure the microfilm is just left at a drop somewhere.

The Professor is worried that Vandamm may suspect Eve of being a government agent, so to mislead him on this matter, he decides to create a nonexistent decoy named George Kaplan.  He will be registered at various hotel rooms wherever Vandamm travels in order to participate in one of those auctions.  Clothes and sundries will be moved from hotel to hotel so that it will appear that there really is such an agent.

Footnote 4:  At the meeting when the Professor announces his scheme involving a nonexistent George Kaplan, one of his subordinates, a Miss Gleason, asks who will be responsible for registering in hotels and moving stuff from room to room.

“I thought I’d let that new guy, Clarence, take care of all that,” the Professor answers.

“In that case,” Miss Gleason asks, “why not just let Clarence pretend to be Kaplan?  That would certainly be simpler.  As long as he is going to have to register at the hotels, see to it that clothes and sundries are moved from one room to another, and book flights on trains and planes whenever Vandamm goes from one auction to another, we might just as well have Clarence stay in those hotel rooms as Kaplan. Furthermore,” Miss Gleason continues, “the whole point of this business of creating a fake agent named George Kaplan will be lost if the spies don’t know he supposedly exists. What better way to make sure the spies believe there is such an agent than to have Clarence be seen at those hotels, traveling on those trains and planes, and attending the various auctions that Vandamm goes to?”

The Professor points out that Clarence would then be entitled to some overtime pay if he did all that, and there just aren’t the funds available for that in this year’s budget.

Footnote 5:  Vandamm worries that he is suspected of being a spy.  He tells Leonard to find out if they are being followed around.  “Whenever we arrive in a city,” Vandamm tells Leonard, “check all the hotels in that city and see who registers in them around the same time. Then, when we travel to a new city, check all the hotels in that city to see who registers there.  Then compare the names on the first list with those on the second, and see if you can find a match.  If there is a match, then we’ll know he is a government agent assigned to my case.”

Leonard is appalled.  “Do you realize what that would entail?” he asks.  “Besides,” Leonard points out, “even if there is a match, the man could just be a genuine art collector, going to the same auctions you do.”

But Vandamm is adamant. After much effort on Leonard’s part, he reports back that there is a George Kaplan that seems to be following them around, and he is presently registered at the Plaza Hotel.

A couple of Vandamm’s henchmen, Valerian (Adam Williams) and Licht (Robert Ellenstein), go to the Plaza Hotel.  They have Kaplan paged.  By coincidence, Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant), a Madison Avenue advertising executive, calls the pageboy to his table in order to send a telegram to his mother.  The spies think he is Kaplan responding to the page for Kaplan, and they force him into a car and take him to the magnificent estate of Lester Townsend, a United Nations diplomat.

Footnote 6:  At the Townsend estate, Valerian is the gardener, and his wife Anna is the housekeeper. Whenever the United Nations is in session, Townsend stays in the city, and Valerian lets Vandamm know that Townsend will be gone for a while.  It’s at times like these that Vandamm likes to throw parties at Townsend’s house, where he pretends to be Townsend.  That way he can impress all the girls, who will then have sex with him because they think he is a big shot.  He even has his sister pretend to be his wife, although the real Mrs. Townsend died years ago.  Now, it was at one of those parties where Eve met Vandamm, and being suitably impressed by his apparent wealth and influence, she had sex with him.  She thought he was Townsend and was married, but you know how it is.  It often happens that a woman would rather have an affair with a married man who is rich and powerful, than have an unmarried man of modest means and position all to herself. It was subsequent to this that the Professor approached her, and told her that her lover was not the enormously wealthy and highly respected Lester Townsend, president of UNIPO, but only Phillip Vandamm, who was just a spy.  So, when the Professor said he needed her help to find out more about Vandamm’s operation, she agreed, partly out of a sense of patriotic duty, but mostly out of pique.

When Thornhill is brought inside Townsend’s house, they put him in the library.  When Vandamm enters, Thornhill naturally assumes that Vandamm is Townsend and refers to him as such.  In turn, Vandamm refers to Thornhill as Kaplan, even though Thornhill is taller than he expected.  Thornhill insists that he is not Kaplan.

Footnote 7:  Vandamm knows that if Thornhill really is Kaplan, then he, Kaplan, would know that Vandamm is not Townsend.  In that case, there would be no point in his pretending to be Townsend while they are alone in the library.  One might expect him to say, “Come off it, Kaplan.  You know I’m Phillip Vandamm.”  But deep down in Vandamm’s subconscious mind, he suspects that Thornhill is not Kaplan, and the whole thing is a mistake.  After all, Valerian and Licht had gained entry into what was supposedly Kaplan’s hotel room, where they had a look at his clothes, which were for a much shorter man. That’s why Vandamm wasn’t expecting someone tall like Thornhill.  And so, owing to these subliminal misgivings, he continues to pretend to be Townsend.

When Thornhill apparently refuses to talk about how much he supposedly knows about Vandamm’s operation, the spies force him to drink a lot of bourbon, put him in a Mercedes that belongs to one of the guests, and try to make it looks as though he was so drunk that he drove off a cliff.  The plan does not work.  There is an automobile accident involving a police car, and Thornhill is arrested.

Footnote 8:  Anna points out that they need to clean the couch where some of the liquor spilled. Otherwise, when Townsend returns, he will know that there have been shenanigans going on in his house while he was away.  Vandamm agrees, but he is worried about something else. If the man they tried to kill really is Kaplan, he will report to his superiors what happened.  Knowing that he has been identified, the Intelligence Agency will take him off the case and put someone else on it. Fine.  But deep down in his subconscious mind, Vandamm still suspects that Thornhill is not really Kaplan.  In that case, Thornhill will return the next day with the police.  So, they’d better have a cover story ready, just in case.

Thornhill does return the next day, not only with the local police, but also with his lawyer and his mother.  The fake Mrs. Townsend pretends that they have all been worried about “Roger,” especially since he was so drunk that he “borrowed” Laura’s Mercedes.

Footnote 9:  Since Thornhill did return with the police, his lawyer, and his mother, something a real intelligence agent would not do, this confirms Vandamm’s subconscious suspicions that he is not Kaplan. But Vandamm has something else on his mind instead. What if Thornhill goes to the United Nations and tells Townsend about the party?  They will be so busted!  So, he sends Valerian and Licht to apprehend Thornhill again.  If he goes to the United Nations, they are to kill Townsend so that no one will ever know about all the parties they’ve been throwing at his house.

The fake Mrs. Townsend mentioned that her husband would be addressing the General Assembly that afternoon.  Thornhill decides to go to the United Nations, hoping to resolve the issue with Townsend in a public place.  When he gets there, he discovers that the real Lester Townsend is not the man that he met the previous evening.  When he asks Townsend who all those people were having a big party in his house, there was nothing for Valerian to do but throw his switchblade stiletto into Townsend’s back.  Of course, that’s the last party Vandamm and his friends will be able to throw at the Townsend estate, so they pack up and leave for Chicago.

Because Thornhill is photographed holding the knife he removed from Townsend’s back, he now has the police looking for him, thinking he is guilty of murder.  He finds out from the Plaza Hotel that Kaplan is supposedly going to the Ambassador East, a hotel in Chicago.  Hoping to make contact with this George Kaplan so he can be cleared of this murder charge, he gets on a train heading for Chicago.  On that train, he meets Eve.  When a couple of police detectives board the train later on, she hides him in her compartment.  While he is in the lavatory, she gives the porter a note to give to Vandamm, who is also on the train, asking what to do with Kaplan/Thornhill in the morning.  In the meantime, she and Thornhill have sex.

After leaving the train, Thornhill, believing there really is a Kaplan, accepts Eve’s offer to call Kaplan for him at the Ambassador East.  She goes to a phone booth and starts talking to someone. In another phone booth, we see Leonard, to whom she is apparently speaking. We do not hear what they are saying. When she comes out of the phone booth, she tells Thornhill where he can meet Kaplan.

There is commentary for this movie on the DVD, provided by the screenwriter, Ernest Lehman.  He says that Hitchcock shut down production for a whole day just prior to filming the phone booth scene. He had a problem with that scene, but he couldn’t ask Lehman about it because Lehman was in Europe at the time. Lehman said that Hitchcock was bothered by the fact that Leonard would not have known the phone number of the booth Eve was in.  But since he didn’t have Lehman on the set to ask him about it, Hitchcock decided to let it go.

That was not the reason, although I have no doubt that Hitchcock pretended it was, while keeping the real reason to himself.  What undoubtedly bothered Hitchcock was that a seemingly impossible conversation takes place in the phone booths.  But since no one else on the set seemed to have realized this, he figured he could get away with it as greatest piece of fridge logic ever. To see this, we have to keep in mind that Thornhill does not know Eve is Vandamm’s mistress working undercover as a government agent. Furthermore, he believes Kaplan exists and wants to meet him. Leonard, on the other hand, thinks Thornhill is Kaplan. And Eve knows that there is no Kaplan.

Footnote 10:  Now, to be revealed for the first time ever, here is the conversation that took place in the phone booths:

Eve:  He says he wants me to call Kaplan and arrange a meeting.

Leonard: What are you talking about? He is Kaplan.

Eve: But that’s what he says.

Leonard: He must be on to you. After all, a government agent like Kaplan, who has been following us for months, would know that you are Phillip’s mistress.

Eve: So, what shall I do?

Leonard: Oh, what the heck!  Tell Kaplan you talked to Kaplan, and that Kaplan wants to meet him.  [He then gives Eve instructions as to where the meeting will take place.]

Eve gets off the phone and tells Thornhill where he can supposedly meet Kaplan. Then follows the famous crop-dusting scene.

Footnote 11:  It has been said that there are easier ways to kill someone than getting him out into the middle of an open prairie so that he can be shot with a sub-machine gun from a crop-dusting plane flying overhead.  But more to the point is the fact that Kaplan, if he really existed, would not want to meet himself. And if he did want to meet someone other than himself, he would not agree to meet him alone, unarmed, and in the middle of nowhere. Only if Thornhill is who he says he is, would he believe that Eve talked to Kaplan, and that Kaplan wants to meet him in this isolated place. In other words, when Thornhill gets off the bus at Prairie Stop, that confirms the subliminal suspicions in Vandamm’s subconscious mind that Thornhill is not Kaplan, and the whole thing has been a big mistake.  But Vandamm is distracted.  He is worried that when Eve and Thornhill had sex, it was so good that she wants more. As a result, he is too jealous to worry about whether Thornhill really is Kaplan or not.

Well, you know what happens after that.  There is a climactic scene at Mount Rushmore, where the spies are killed or captured.  Thornhill and Eve end up getting married, and they live happily ever after.

Footnote 12:  The American traitor who has been using Vandamm as a courier ends up having to find someone else to transport the rolls of microfilm out of the country.  Fortunately for him, Vandamm’s replacement is content to pick the microfilm up at a drop, thus obviating the need for all that convoluted nonsense about sculptures and auctions.

Hopefully, the information I provided in the footnotes has cleared up any fridge-logic concerns you may have had.

“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.

Frenzy (1972)

Frenzy is set in London, and Barry Foster plays Robert Rusk, a man who rapes women and then strangles them with a necktie. Chief Inspector Oxford (Alec McCowen) is in charge of the case, assisted by Sergeant Spearman (Michael Bates).  At one point during the movie, Oxford tells Spearman that when they catch up with the necktie strangler, it will probably turn out that he is impotent. Spearman expresses surprise, and rightly so, for this is a bizarre claim. A man who is impotent cannot get an erection, and therefore is incapable of having sexual intercourse. Therefore, if the necktie strangler were impotent, there would be no semen in the vaginas of his victims. Since all his victims were murdered and thus could not give evidence, there would be no reason to think they had been raped. Inspector Oxford does not address that question, but simply tells Sergeant Spearman that it is not sex that gratifies such rapists, but violence.

When Brenda Blaney (Barbara Leigh Hunt) is raped and strangled with a necktie, suspicion falls on her ex-husband Richard Blaney (Jon Finch).  Because the Blaneys never had any children, Inspector Oxford probably took that as confirmation of his impotence theory, although he never says so explicitly.  In fact, he might have even thought that was why they divorced, because Brenda was sexually frustrated by having a husband who could not get it up.  In any event, Richard Blaney is eventually convicted of the crime.  He breaks out of prison to get revenge on Rusk, who Blaney knows is the real necktie strangler.  All turns out well in the end when Inspector Oxford catches Rusk with another one of those women whom he impotently raped in his room.

Several years prior to the production of this movie, it became fashionable to say that rape was not about sex, and some people maintain that theory to this day. It is said that rape is really about power, about dominating women. Even if it is so that rape has some motive other than sex, there still has to be a rape, and that means that the rapist cannot be impotent, regardless of what his motive might be. If we bend over backwards to make sense of Oxford’s claim, we might say that the rapist is able to penetrate, but cannot achieve completion, cannot ejaculate. But that would mean no semen in the vagina, which brings us right back to the question, what would make the police think the women had been raped?

Oxford speaks with an authoritative voice in the movie, and so we know we are supposed to believe him. But aside from squaring impotence with rape, there is the incongruity between his words and the rape that took place in the movie thirty minutes before, when we see Rusk raping Brenda. In the history of mainstream cinema, no movie, made before or since, has depicted sex, consensual or coerced, in which anyone, male or female, experiences greater heights of sexual ecstasy than does that of the necktie strangler in Frenzy.

What is remarkable about this movie is that in discussing it with others, I have noticed that a lot of people accept the pronouncements of the detective, notwithstanding their apparent inconsistency with the rape scene. This is in part due to the authoritative voice of the detective, and in part due to the widespread acceptance of the rape-is-not-about-sex theory at that time. I have seen people twist themselves into a pretzel trying to argue that the rapist never really got it up, let alone gratified himself sexually.

Alfred Hitchcock directed this movie, and I suspect that this was his idea of a joke. He purposely put this contradiction into the movie between the words of the pompous detective and the scene of intense sexual passion, as his way of making fun of that theory.