I Confess (1953)

March 20, 2009

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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.

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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

confession

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?

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Nevada Smith (1966)

January 16, 2009

My choice of film is usually fairly arbitrary and often depends upon what TCM or Film Four have scheduled or which of my high-priority LoveFilm selections arrives next.  In choosing Nevada Smith, though, I was swayed by one factor alone: Steve McQueen’s name is currently much smaller than Michael Caine’s on the tag cloud at the bottom right of my page and it just feels wrong.

I didn’t approach Nevada Smith much in the way of expectation.  It hasn’t amassed much of a reputation over the years, I don’t know much of the director Henry Hathaway’s work- aside from True Grit- and I really don’t like the work of Harold Robbins on whose novel this is based.  All this film really had going for it was its cast.  And the fact that it might help me tidy up my tag cloud.

It’s better than I expected, but not by much.  The storyline follows a familiar pattern- Steve McQueen stars as a half-Caucasian/half-native American teenager (despite McQueen being a blond 36 year old at the time) who sees his parents killed in cold blood by three men and vows to track them down and avenge the deaths.  The movie is episodic: he kills the first man (Martin Landau) in a knife fight, learns that the second (Arthur Kennedy) is in a Louisiana prison and gets sentenced himself just to kill him and then escape, and finally he hunts down the ever-reliable Karl Malden for the film’s climactic scene.

Along the way he is taught how to fight and shoot and drink and play cards by a gun salesman he tries and fails to hold up (played by an impressive Brian Keith) and he encounters a couple of love interests and a priest (played by an unconvincing Raf Vallone, he was much better as the lead Mafioso in The Italian Job) and with each of them he uses them and then turns his back on them with no further thought for them.  That is the interesting part of the film and is explored as fully as the genre allowed at that point.  Meanwhile Sergio Leone was breaking down such considerations with the contemporaneous masterpiece ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly’ and in that context Nevada Smith is exposed as a formulaic genre picture.

It is just a standard western if, I suppose, a little more ambitious than most.  And content to exist within the confines of genre expectations when the opportunity to examine the emptiness of revenge or the brutalisation of man as a means to overcome brutality was there.  And for that wasted opportunity, 5/10.


The Cincinatti Kid (1965)

January 4, 2009

Any film where the premise is that Steve McQueen faces off against Edward G. Robinson doesn’t have to try very hard to be gripping, but this one does.  It’s a sports movie and so the usual love interest/bad kid made good stuff is included, but it is peripheral.

The direction and cinematography of the movie (both excellent for me) are focused solely on the poker game conclusion.  All else is background.  Just as the players push everything else out of their mind, during the game so does the director.  And what a finale- McQueen’s ice-cube cool and Robinson’s world-weary confidence are staged against a Greek chorus of watchers “he has the jack!, “no way does he have the jack”.

The only way you can be the man is to beat the man, and beat him fair and square.  The support players (Malden, Rip Torn and Ann-Margret) are all pushing for the kid to cheat, but he takes the only honourable path and faces him fairly.

This is a superior level of sports drama between two absolute masters.  Great stuff 8/10.