When an attempted robbery results in murder, the man responsible, Otto Keller, immediately retreats to the church where he works as a caretaker/handyman of sorts and confesses the crime to Father Michael Logan (Montgomery Clift). When the police begin to investigate the crime, all the circumstantial evidence points to Father Logan as the murderer, however do to the rules of the confessional privilege, that is a priest cannot divulge anything that is said during confession, Father Logan is unable to speak out in his own defense. When Ruth Grandfort (Anne Baxter), an old flame goes to the police in an attempt to clear Father Logan’s name, her plan backfires as she not only fuels the police’s case against Father Logan, but implicates herself in scandal in the process.
I Confess may be one of Hitchcock’s more low key films but it quickly reveals itself to be no less gripping than his more widely seen works. All the classic Hitchcock elements are in play here. You’ve got murder, the wrong man accused, blackmail, scandal, and of course, repression. What makes I Confess a bit different from other Hitchcock films is the way Hitch puts all these devices to work. Not many filmmakers can get away with having all the seemingly crucial information regarding a murder spelled out for the audience within the first 10 minutes of the film, but Hitchcock uses the murder as a primer to build additional drama and keeps piling on intrigue after intrigue. In a way it’s somewhat similar to what he did 5 years earlier with Rope (1948). The suspense you’ve come to expect from Hitchcock is ever present, but it’s a different kind of suspense, if you will. Really an interesting way of telling a story, and in the wrong hands has the potential to horribly misfire. Hitchcock’s mastery of audience manipulation is on display beautifully here, tricking you into thinking the film is going in one direction than taking a sharp left turn so it’s hard to not be completely engaged for every frame. Another aspect of the film that makes it stand out bit is the humor that Hitchcock was known for usually injecting into this films is all but gone here, although with the heaviness of the material, it might have seemed a tad out of place, so the absence is understandable.
One thing that’s apparent throughout the entirety of I Confess is nobody utilized the black and white medium quite like Hitchcock. Very much a film of shadows, it’s obvious Hitch really had fun playing around with the lighting here, as evidenced in the films ominous noir-like opening complete with the aforementioned shadows, including a large silhouette projected on stone wall and the outline of a shady character walking down a dark alley in the night (wearing a black derby and long black coat of course). Other times Hitchcock will only light certain portions of a scene, such as focusing on Clift standing in the middle of an extravagantly decorated altar while also highlighting the section of the massive cathedral ceiling hovering above Clift in an otherwise pitch black church. Naturally the film is overflowing with Catholic iconography and visual metaphors which take center stage during a particular memorable sequence involving Father Logan contemplating his fate. The visuals in the film tell just as much a story as the actors, oftentimes representing the mood of the characters, which would account for the overt darkness on display. It’s as if Hitchcock wants that preverbal dark cloud following Father Logan around to follow the audience as well. In sharp contrast to this is the segment of Baxter’s character of Ruth reminiscing about the past, which has a very soft, light and romantic look. The film was mostly shot on location in the gorgeous city of Quebec, and as a much welcomed added visual bonus Hitchcock takes great pleasure in showcasing the cities old world-esque architecture.
For 1953, a lot of the film’s thematic elements were considered quite taboo, and indeed Hitchcock found himself at odds with not only the Hayes Production Code but also with some church officials where he originally had intended to shoot some of the film who had some major issues with the original script which was very faithful to the play and demanded changes be made. The film even found itself banned in Ireland. What’s also not surprising are the stories of Hitchcock constantly butting heads with star Montgomery Clift during the production as Clift was a method actor which drove Hitchcock nuts, something he would encounter again later in his career with Paul Newman during the production of the equally underrated Torn Curtain (1966). Probably the most famous anecdote involves the filming a scene which had Father Logan simply approaching another character taking well over 2 hours to shoot because Clift wanted to get the mannerisms just right. Whatever Clift’s methods were, they paid off big time, resulting in a phenomenal performance, really one of the best leading men Hitchcock ever had in a film that deserves way more recognition than it gets. I Confess might be missing Hitchcock’s unique brand of humor and while the film might not feature one stand out scene that has gone down in cinematic history ala North By Northwest (1959) or Psycho (1960), as it stands, the film really doesn’t need one. In the grand scheme of things, I Confess should be considered essential Hitchcock.