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I Confess

When an actor would ask Alfred Hitchcock, "What's my motivation?", the director's standard reply was "Your salary." One could easily imagine this exchange between Hitch and Montgomery Clift, the renowned Method actor who appeared in just one film for The Master, I Confess (1953), which not only was a critical and box-office disappointment, but plagued by tension during production, in part because of Clift's erratic behavior. The Broadway-trained movie idol made for an unusual Hitchcockian leading man, and his on-set drinking and total reliance upon acting coach Mira Rostova (who seemed to be directing Monty from the wings, much to Hitch's displeasure) didn't help matters. Nonetheless, Hitch reportedly found Clift — and in particular his alcoholism and latent homosexual guilt — utterly fascinating, and reportedly he was considered at one point for another Hitchcock film, The Trouble with Harry (1956). In I Confess, Clift plays Father Michael Logan, a Quebec priest who is approached late one night by his church's sexton, Otto Keller (O.E. Hasse) — it turns out that the German refugee had attempted to burgle the home of local attorney Vilette (Ovila Légaré), and upon being surprised killed the man. Seeking to unburden his guilt, Keller reveals his crime to Father Logan in a confessional, and later also confides in his wife Alma (Dolly Haas). But once the murder investigation is underway, relentless Inspector Larrue (Karl Malden) starts putting together the pieces, which all point to Logan. Two girls had seen a man leave Vilette's home the night before wearing a priest's cassock. Logan is unable to account for his whereabouts during the murder, having spent a discrete evening with a former lover, the now-married Ruth Grandfort (Anne Baxter). And, under police interrogation, Ruth reveals that she and Logan once had a secret relationship, and that Vilette was blackmailing her to gain political influence from her husband. There is more than enough circumstantial evidence to put Father Logan on trial, but he is bound by sacred oath never to reveal the actual murderer.

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While I Confess ranks (along with The Wrong Man [1957]) as one of Hitchcock's two weakest films of the 1950s — arguably his most prolific decade — it's nonetheless enormously relevant when examined as part of the Hitchcockian oeuvre. Coming off the success of Strangers on a Train (1951), Hitchcock seems to be expanding upon that film's motifs, albeit now in a much more somber, and personal, direction. Among the most central of the director's themes is the question of guilt, and in particular how the actions of one person can transpose guilt upon another. (Hitchcock's Jesuit upbringing cannot be ignored here either, with its obverse tenant that one's sins can be cleansed by the sacrifice of Christ — Hitch simply sees two sides of the same coin.) Strangers on a Train served up a devilish tempter in Robert Walker, who offered to commit a murder Farley Granger was too upright (or perhaps timid) to undertake on his own, while Shadow of a Doubt (1943) presents Joseph Cotten as a murderous uncle who's beloved by his innocent, trusting niece Teresa Wright. Doubles and assumed identities abound in Hitchcock's films, but even if such thematic suggestions are profound, as a work of entertainment I Confess doesn't match its rivals. Perhaps the most fundamental misstep was fashioning a "wrong man" scenario around a Catholic priest, and in particular his vow of silence in confessional — the best of Hitchcock's works generally concern ordinary men placed in extraordinary circumstances, and if the man is a bit extraordinary (e.g., Cary Grant as John Robie in To Catch a Thief [1956]), then at least he's a plausible alter-ego. There is simply something about Father Michael Logan that is too arcane, too reserved, too inert, to be an effective character in a thriller. Hitch's choice of villain is equally against type — as Otto Keller, O.E. Hasse is a panicked, and eventually deranged, immigrant rather than the sophisticated gentleman we expect from The Master. Moreover, that lack of sophistication means a lack of humor as well, and much of the renowned Hitchcockian wit emanates from his glib villains. Rather than operating as a single thread, the film is divided into three distinct parts, with the rising action, an over-long flashback, and the final courtroom sequence. And while the location shooting in the city of Quebec (with interiors shot at Warner in Hollywood) is attractive, the use of a multi-national cast in North America's most European city makes the proceedings seem that much more foreign than familiar. There is no denying Montgomery Clift's talent here — even if Hitchcock wasn't too fond of Monty taking time-outs to ponder such things as walking across a room authentically, his natural acting style amplifies his laconic dialogue, and he's well-matched with fellow New York theater veteran Karl Malden as a quick-thinking, fast-talking cop. But the lack of box-office was too much for Hitchcock to bear, sending the director, in his own words, "running for cover" in need of a surefire hit. He would get it the following year, adapting Frederick Knott's stage play Dial 'M' for Murder. Warner's DVD release of I Confess offers a solid full-frame transfer (1.33:1 OAR) from an excellent black-and-white source-print that's nearly flawless with sharp low-contrast details, while crisp audio is delivered on a Dolby Digital 1.0 track. Supplements include the featurette "Hitchcock's Confession: A Look at I Confess" with comments from Patricia Hitchcock O'Connell and Peter Bogdanovich (20 min.), newsreel footage from the Canadian premiere (1 min.), and the original theatrical trailer. Keep-case.

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