There is nothing Hitchcock loves more than a man who is under suspicion for a crime he didn’t commit. He probably loves it even more than he loves melodramatic film titles, which is- as the Velvettes would tell you- really saying something. The wrongly accused man is his key theme (three years later another of his many films on the theme would be called simply The Wrong Man) and the way it is used in this film could have made it the best of all of his takes on the concept.
Montgomery Clift plays Father Logan who is not only under suspicion and entirely innocent but he heard the guilty man’s confession and he knows who the real murderer is but is bound by his vows and cannot say- even in the face of the gallows! It’s a great concept, truly it is and Monty Clift gives an extraordinarily tortured and yet restrained performance as Logan. I don’t know too much about Clift, other than he died prematurely in sad circumstances and that his homosexuality had led him into alcohol and drug dependency, but I do know that when he was young he had it all- he was beautiful (not sexy or handsome but actually beautiful) and talented with a wonderful voice. I bet he could even play darts if he’d put his mind to it. In I Confess we are seeing the young, pre-accident Clift and his ability to express a thousand thoughts with fleeting expressions or a shift of his eyes is striking. The scene where he hears O. E. Hasse’s confession is dazzling. Hitchock knew he had something special here and he made the most of it. It’s a wonderfully memorable scene. What follows from there succeeds where it does because the audience is totally with Clift and that’s the hook.
The downside of this concept, however, is that the underlying uncertainty in Hitchcock’s other great innocent suspect films cannot happen here. We never truly know until the climax whether Rear Window‘s Lars Thorwald really killed his wife or not, but we know that Clift is innocent without any lingering doubts about whether a further twist awaits us. We also know- as seasoned movie-goers- that there is not a chance in a million that an innocent priest would be sent to the gallows in a 1953 Hollywood film. If that was the ending, the film simply wouldn’t have been made. And that kind of kills the suspense. My wife’s uncle says that he’ll never watch a James Bond film “there’s no point” he claims “if you know that he isn’t going to die”. And that’s a little of what happens here. That element of doubt is missing and so as great a performance as Clift might give, it still isn’t quite enough. I also didn’t think that Dimitri Tiomkin’s score aided the process as it should. The best advert for the talents of Bernard Herrmann are the Hitchcock films which he didn’t score, that’s always been my opinion. Tiomkin’s music is competent without adding colour to what is on screen, it lacks magic.
One of the interesting things about this film, though, is the way that Hitchcock presents it visually. This is almost a film noir with it’s exaggerated shadows and many dramatic low-level outdoor shots of Quebec buildings. The noir motif of light streaking in through venetian blinds was brilliantly played upon in the confession box scene too- Hitchcock had great fun there. There is even an extended flashback sequence, another noir staple. And yet one of the things a noir needs- at least according to my understanding and opinions vary- is a degree of tension and conflict that is the staple of the vast majority of the great man’s work and yet is sorely missing here. Clift’s stoical determination to uphold the sanctity of the confession box is so great that he doesn’t even appear to try and push Keller (the real murderer) into confessing. And this lack of tension makes the film sag, especially around the extended flashback scene. I remember thinking ‘this goes on a bit’ only halfway through that, by contrast the courtroom scenes flashed by in an eye-blink. The change in Keller’s demeanour through the course of the film from distraught to relieved to cocksure should have ramped up the tension just as Clift’s turmoil and fear should have. But it didn’t. While Clift is angst-ridden and Keller’s manipulative remorselessness should make for spectacular exchanges, their scenes together are flat.
And none of the sub-plots really add to the drama, though at the same time they don’t offer relief either, they merely exist alongside the main story. Ruth and Pierre Grandfort’s marriage may be going through the wringer and Alma Keller may be struggling to hold it together, or even to want to hold it together, for her husband but the viewer isn’t grabbed by these. As extensions on the false accusation/trust and honesty theme they are simply mentioned, they aren’t explored or even properly introduced. This is Hitchcockian thriller without the trademark Hitchcockian thrills.
We get some wonderful little sequences like the party scene opening on a glass and then opening out to reveal that it is being balanced on a man’s head as part of a party game, but they aren’t sufficient to do more than remind you that this is Hitchcock, but not vintage Hitchcock. It’s a shame because Hasse, the ever-reliable Karl Malden, Dolly Haas as Alma Keller and Montgomery Clift all deserved a better film for their efforts. Good, not great. 5/10
Ooooh, something occured to me in the night that I’d probably need to check up on but given the politics of the time with McCarthyism and all, how significant was it that Hitchcock’s hero refused to speak up? I know that Hitch was no lefty, but is this an alternative perspective to Kazan’s On The Waterfront?