In I Confess, a 1953 film noir by Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980) from Warner Bros., a Catholic priest, Fr. Logan (played by Montgomery Clift) hears the confession of a man who works in the rectory and just killed another man.
That killer had been dressed as a priest and, among other circumstances, points to Fr. Logan as the primary suspect for the police Inspector (Karl Malden) and prosecutor (Brian Aherne) for the murder of Villette, a prominent lawyer.
Because of the seal of confession – that is, when a person confesses his sins to a priest in Confession, the priest must maintain absolute secrecy about anything that the person confesses – Fr. Logan does not and cannot under any circumstances divulge the identity of the confessed killer though he (and the audience) knows it.
Even after Fr. Logan is arrested for the crime and put on trial for murder for it, the priest does not reveal the identity of the killer but only protests for his own innocence.
Hitchcock’s black-and-white film was shot by cinematographer Robert Burks (1909-1968) who would later shoot Hitchcock’s The Birds in 1964. It is edited by German-born Rudi Fehr (1911-1999) who in 1954 edited Hitchcock’s triumphant color feature, Dial M For Murder.
The story in I Confess was based on a 1902 play by Paul Anthelme Bourde (1851-1914), a French journalist who coined the term “decadent” for the avant-garde when he called indecipherable poets such as Symbolist Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898) one in the late 19th century.
The film follows the play which is about a killer who confesses to a priest knowing his crime cannot be betrayed. To complicate matters further, the killer blackmails the priest for a long-ago love affair he had with Ruth Grandfort (Anne Baxter), the wife of a leading citizen, and who still loves him. For the priest, the love affair is in the past though for Mrs. Grandfort it is not.
Clearly, for Hitchcock in I Confess, the priest in this situation is a highly curious figure. By the end of the film, it becomes clear that the seal of confession is a cross for the priest because of his priesthood – and though sins do not always deal with high crime – demonstrates the personified sacramental nature of self-sacrifice that is involved for the priest with each confession he hears. Throughout the film, Fr. Logan is a tragi-comic figure as he simply does not state the obvious of who the murderer is on behalf of social justice and his own innocence, but equally personifying the religious nature of living with and taking on another’s sin particularly when a person refuses their own responsibility and makes amends for it. In I Confess, the murderer has no intention of turning himself in and is content to let the priest under seal of confession take the rap in the courtroom of the law and public opinion.
Fr. Logan never impedes law enforcement’s investigation. He continually states his own innocence for which a jury of his peers is brought in to decide what to believe.
The sin of omission – and in I Confess it is for the gravity of murder – remains with the impenitent Otto Keller (O.E. Hasse) although his loving wife, Alma (Dolly Hass), to whom Keller confessed the crime outside confession’s seal, cannot abide by his secret.
If, despite the seal of confession, crimes can be revealed to government investigators then the sanctuary of the law of the cross is extricated to get at evil – which is not contradiction nor improvement to the confessional box (the priest may ask the penitent for a release from the sacramental seal to discuss the confession) but its obligatory public replacement. As there is often no transparency and plenty of state secrets in and around various government agencies, this becomes no less problematical than breaking down a Catholic (and Lutheran) church’s confessional door.
Although found “not guilty” for lack of evidence to convict, the presiding judge expresses his disbelief in Fr. Logan’s innocence. When Fr. Logan exits the court building, he is followed and faced by a hostile crowd – “Preach us a sermon, Logan!” The prosecutor, as he watches the ugly scene from his office above, is forced to lament his actions: ”Do you think I enjoyed it?” he says, washing his hands. After Fr. Logan is crashed into a car window in the crowd, Alma, Keller’s wife, (her name means “soul”) rushes in towards the priest to tell what she knows – and which an accompanying police guard relates to the Inspector – “She said he was innocent.”
Considered Hitchcock’s once most Catholic of films, I Confess is a tight drama with a truly despicable villain, whose murderous rampages continue. The film is ahead of its time in terms of direction – presaging some of the camera angles, editing, pacing and themes of international crime and psychological dramas that would come to fruition in the decades ahead.
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