Alfred Hitchcock as one of those very unique, very talented directors. He's able to turn the typical, the usual, even the mundane into something special and fun to watch. Anyone who's ever watched a police procedural has heard of doctor-patient confidentiality, or the same principle between a priest hearing someone's confession. But a whole movie on that simple law-abiding premise? Hitchcock does it again with 1953's I Confess.
Working at St. Marie's Church in Quebec, Father Michael Logan (Montgomery Clift) is in the quiet, empty church one night when Otto Keller (O.E. Hasse), the church caretaker, stumbles in. Keller tells Father Logan that he's accidentally killed a man and doesn't know what to do. Logan hears his confession but doesn't know what else to do. The next morning he visits the dead man's home where Keller has "stumbled" across the body and called the police. Through an unlucky set of circumstances and clues, the police, including persistent Inspector Larrue (Karl Malden), believe Logan is a top suspect. It seems ridiculous, but could Father Logan actually be hiding something? His vows as a priest prevent him from completely exonerating himself as he's unable to tell the police who the killer really is
With some obvious tweaks, 'Confess' bears some resemblance to The Wrong Man, Hitchcock's film made three years later where an innocent man is believed by everyone and their mother to be a killer. But just looking at this 1953 venture on originality alone, 'Confess' gets a lot of brownie points. The whole success of the story -- and Clift's typically fine acting -- depends on that one unique situation. Clift's Father Logan's situation hangs in the balance. Does he maintain his vows and keep Keller's confession secret? Does he save himself, basically renouncing everything he admits he believes in? It is the simplest of plot devices and the most clever at the same time. Hitchcock takes that simple premise and instead of swinging and missing, hits a home run.
One of the coolest things going for this movie was the use of on-location shooting for much of the indoor and outdoor scenes. It took me a little while to realize the story was set in Quebec, and why everyone was either speaking French, had a French name, and why Father Logan seems very American. Interior shots at churches, hotels, and a variety of spots around Quebec give the proceedings an authentic feel that studio shots just couldn't match. Also worth mentioning is Dimitri Tiomkin's musical score. It's obviously a little different from a typical Franz Waxman (Hitchcock's usual composer), but it is effective to build up some tension as everything points to Father Logan being the real killer.
The combination of the ultra-professional in Hitchcock and method acting Clift not surprisingly produced some fireworks on-set during filming. The director grew increasingly frustrated with Clift's botching multiple takes as he tried to get scenes just right. Whatever the process to get to the end result, I thought Clift did a great job with the role. No one did the tortured, flawed individual in the 1950s quite like Montgomery Clift, and he doesn't disappoint. His past comes out over the course of the movie -- wouldn't you know it? It's a checkered past -- and he truly wants to maintain his beliefs and principles, even if it ends up costing him his career, his reputation, and possibly his life if the evidence does enough to convict him.
Beyond Clift as the tortured priest with a moral and ethical decision, the cast is uniformly solid. Hasse as the real killer, Keller, is a despicable human being. He admits to the murder having looked for some easy cash, but then to protect himself basically turns on everyone around him, including guilt-tripping his wife (Dolly Haas). A villain who starts as one thing and develops into another, one who's very easy to hate. Anne Baxter is the mysterious Ruth (what a sexy name, huh?), a woman who may be involved with the murder and Logan's past too. Malden is the dogged police investigator, following the clues as needed in a case with no obvious suspects. Brian Aherne is the chief prosecutor, smelling blood in the water once a suspect is presented, Roger Dann is Ruth's well-to-do and powerful husband, and Charles Andres as Father Millars, the head priest at St. Marie's.
I Confess is not always mentioned as one of Hitchcock's best, instead hiding in the weeds with all his other solid if unspectacular films waiting to be discovered by audiences. It isn't necessarily on par with his best efforts, but it certainly is above average. Definitely worth a watch for his fans, but also a good introduction to Hitchcock in general.
I Confess <---trailer (1953): ***/****