After watching the relative silliness of The Birds (1963), I decided to back into Alfred Hitchcock’s more tried and true cinematic offerings. Ah, you might be thinking, he watched Psycho (1960). Nope. Vertigo (1958)? Guess again. North by Northwest (1959)? Keep going. Rear Window (1954)? Dial M for Murder (1954)? Wrong and wrong. Did you know that the famous director was born and raised Catholic? While the Church certainly did not come to mean a whole lot to his life overall, unfortunately, he did get his wife Alma Reville to convert to the Faith after their nuptials in 1926, being Confirmed in 1927. Though he lapsed like so many seem to, he did have a full Catholic burial when he died in 1980. If any of you, my dear readers, are avid fans of the “Master of Suspense,” then you will probably know where I am going with this little diversion. Today, I am talking about a lesser known of his productions, a 1953 film called I Confess.
Somewhere in the benighted streets of Quebec City, Canada’s capital, I Confess opens with a murder. No surprise there as this is Hitchcock. A shadowy figure flees the scene, and we follow it to where it eventually ends up, entering a church. This last part is observed by Father Michael Logan (Montgomery Clift) from the parish rectory. When he goes down to investigate, he discovers that it is Otto Keller (O. E. Hasse). Otto is the parish caretaker, and in the confines of the Confessional he admits to killing a lawyer named Villette (Ovila Légaré) for money in Villette’s possession. Otto then goes to his wife, Alma (Dolly Haas), and tells her what he has done, including his confession to Father Logan. She is worried because, as immigrants and both in the employ of the parish, they are risking too much. Otto calms her down, though, telling her that Father Logan cannot say anything because he is a priest and they are bound to silence. The next day, Father Logan walks to Villette’s office and is greeted by a mob of people and police all investigating the scene. His presence is noticed by Inspector Larrue, who also observes Father Logan leaving with a woman. This is odd behavior for a priest. When Inspector Larrue returns to the station, he is met there by two young girls who inform him that they had seen a person they thought was a priest leaving the scene of the crime. Adding to the suspicion cast on Father Logan is when Larrue’s detectives follow the woman Father Logan had met that morning, Ruth Grandfort (Anne Baxter), to the rectory. She had gone there because her husband, Pierre Grandfort (Roger Dann), had hosted a party attended by Crown Prosecutor (remember, Canada is still part of the British Empire at this point) Willy Robertson (Brian Aherne). At the soiree, she overheard Pierre and Willy discussing the possibility of Father Logan’s involvement in the murder. So, why would she care? The story comes out when her and Father Logan come in for official questioning. As told in backstory, before he entered the priesthood, Father Logan and Ruth had been in love. This was also preceding World War II, and before their relationship could be cemented through marriage, he had gone to fight. He returned changed, a fact that he explained to her one day, the last day that had spent together. They had also chosen a picnic in the countryside to do so, but were waylaid on the way back by a sudden storm. They sought shelter in a farmer’s gazebo, and spent the night under its relative protection. The land where they stayed happened to belong to Villette. Seeing as how Father Logan had chosen his life, and Ruth had gone on to marry a well-off member of the fledgling Canadian legislature, Villette sensed an opportunity for blackmail. Villette threatened Ruth, and Ruth asked Father Logan to intercede for her. For his part, Father Logan did not say much outside of confirming Ruth’s story. In the eyes of Larrue, this is motive for Father Logan, who, the next day, turns himself in instead of allowing himself to be arrested. At the trial, though, Father Logan is found not guilty by reason of insufficient evidence. This does not please the mob gathered outside the courtroom, and they begin to turn on the priest. This upsets Alma, and when Otto believes she is about to tell everyone that it was her husband who had murdered Villette, Otto shoots her dead. After giving last rites to Alma, Father Logan takes off in pursuit of Otto. Father Logan, along with the police, catch up with the criminal in a hotel ballroom where they hear Otto finally give in and blab about his involvement in Villette’s death. Father Logan pleads with Otto to give himself up, but Otto blames the priest for everything that happened and opens fire. The bullets miss Father Logan, but the police end up killing Otto.
There is a lot of Catholic stuff going on in I Confess. I will break it up into temporal and spiritual matters. Temporally, the film says much about the state of Church in the years immediately following World War II. Many of the men who returned home from combat felt disillusioned with civilian life. It is understandable. The propaganda on both sides of the conflict elevated the fighting to a higher plane. For the Allies, the struggle against fascism was quite literally an age-old battle of good versus evil, with the Allies the former and the Axis Powers the latter. When you are in service of such a cause, it does something to you. There is a reason why the generation that fought in World War II and built the United States after it is referred to as the “Greatest Generation.” There was a sense of mission. For a great many of those men, priesthood was the way to continue to serve that cause. This is how the film explains Father Logan’s calling. And a calling it is. Earlier today this subject came up with my spiritual director, who is also a priest. As I get older and remain (to this point) unmarried, I get more people asking me why I do not join the priesthood. There are so many, even among Catholics, who look at doing so as a choice akin to picking out a pair of socks or deciding what to cook on a Thursday night. From birth, I have felt God beckoning me to a family life, it just has not worked out for me to this point in my life. My spiritual director, like Father Logan, felt a different tug. These things happen as a result of actively seeking God in our lives and asking Him what He would like for us. The rest of the choices He leaves safely to our own whims. Hence, wear those argyle socks proudly while you chow down on fried chicken.
In talking about the calling of Father Logan in I Confess, I supposed I unintentionally slipped into spiritual matters. This theme is continued when you look at Father Logan’s actions. Hitchcock chooses a brilliant protagonist to examine the burden of Truth. Please note the capitalization. Father Logan knows who is actually responsible for Villette’s murder, and yet his vows to uphold the sacredness of the Confessional prevent him from saying anything to prove his innocence. It is a mental exercise, to be sure, and one I have heard other priests discuss among themselves. The theory is that, if they are ever presented with somebody admitting to a heinous crime like murder while in Confession, that they should encourage the perpetrator to turn him or herself in to the authorities. To a non-believer, this might seem like a silly excuse. However, such an act is not their story to tell. Besides, the burden of truth is not actually on the person who hears the Confession, but rather the one doing the confessing. By not telling of his guilt, Otto is lying and sinning. It is compounded when he lets Father Logan be arrested and go to trial. And yet, Father Logan is willing to go to his own crucifixion in order to protect the sanctity of his beliefs. Hitchcock displays this masterfully by showing Father Logan on the way to turning himself in before his arrest in the shadow of a sculpture depicting Jesus on the way to Calvary, and again while on the stand in court with a Crucifix overhead. Jesus carried the weight of our sins to the Cross, and as an imitator of Christ, Father Logan is prepared to do the same. God sees this, and spares him. What an incredible testament to faith.
I Confess is not a film for everyone. Given the period in which it was made, there is nothing objectionable about it. It is a little slow-moving, though. Hitchcock gradually builds the tension, as he always does so well. We, the audience, know that Father Logan is innocent, and the entire time you want him to just say what he knows. But that would not be in keeping with the sense of duty that he has lived by for his entire life. It seems increasingly that the word “duty” is a pejorative, as if there is something wrong with carrying out the principles to which you are called. Luckily, Father Logan is not among this number, and it makes his triumph in the end sweeter.