****/**** Image B Sound B Extras B
starring Montgomery Clift, Anne Baxter, Karl Malden, Brian Aherne
screenplay by George Tabori and William Archibald
directed by Alfred Hitchcock
by Walter Chaw Just the visual beauty of Alfred Hitchcock's I Confess speaks volumes for its inclusion on the short list of the master's masterpieces. This is one of the most astonishing-looking films in all of black-and-white cinematography, its palette of greys a veritable vice press on the already-quailing Montgomery Clift. A late, breathtaking montage wherein Clift, walking the streets of Quebec (filmed on location by the great Robert Burks), crosses a silhouette of a statue of Christ on His last walk to Calvary defines by itself character and theme: Hitchcock's wrong-man obsession clarified as Catholic guilt transference. The power of Hitchcock's best films is a potent mixture of audacious cinematic genius and the suspicion that original sin makes mistaken identity merely the intrusion of cosmic judgment. (It's inevitable and you must have done something at some point to deserve it, besides.) There's something greater at work in Hitchcock's films, the presence of the director asserting itself always--and a connection is struck in I Confess between that directorial control and a sort of implacable karmic omnipresence. For Hitch, filmmaking is Old Testament stuff, and I Confess is a little of that old-time religion.
Father Logan (Clift) hears the confession of gardener Otto (O.E. Hasse), who's just donned the vestments and killed his employer. An employer, as it happens, who was blackmailing Ruth (Anne Baxter), a woman with whom Logan had an affair prior to the war and before the call of the cloth. Because of Catholic law, Logan is forbidden to act on his knowledge in any way--even if it's to protect himself once the attentions of tenacious Inspector Larrue (Karl Malden) put him, in a manner of speaking, up on the cross. The film is one of Hitchcock's least subtle works, laying aside his wryness in favour of the sort of earnestness that most often registers as pretension. In I Confess, though, this feels a lot more like tortured self-examination.
The film turns on one moment where silly, vain Ruth tells Larrue all that she knows in an attempt to exonerate Logan, only to get him deeper in trouble. Hitchcock's preoccupation with the unreliability of certain kinds of communication, then, finds explication in the theory of Catholic confession (Otto's to Logan, Ruth's to Larrue), which goes hand-in-hand with a look at the roots of his mistrust of ritual and rules and possibly offers a glimpse into Hitchcock's predilection for casting women in the role of temptress fatale. Eves (literally sometimes, as with Eva Marie Saint's "Eve Kendall" from North by Northwest) wield their sexuality by design or by accident in Hitchcock's films, affording the Hitchcock protagonist knowledge (remembering Rod Taylor's assumption of the gaze after Tippi Hedren relinquishes her power traveling across Bodega Bay in The Birds) as well as a certain, awful power that mainly succeeds in rendering his women mute, stunned, domesticated at least and often dead. In I Confess, Ruth is the dispenser of Sophocles's "terrible knowledge" ("How terrible is knowledge when it brings no profit to the wise"), and by her concession to the rules of society in "confessing" to the authorities, she exacerbates Logan's dilemma in his maniacal adherence to the letter of Catholic law. I Confess isn't a play for sainthood for Logan--just the opposite, I'd suggest: the drama here is Adam and Eve's expulsion from Paradise. As with Christ's Passion, it suggests that a deity (Hitchcock and his fallen perception of the Catholic godhead) more interested in sadistic, constipated testing than in actual choice preordains every great fall and every great suffering.
So the hero of I Confess is Otto's terrified, long-suffering wife Alma (Dolly Haas), her hopeful name--which she shares with Hitchcock's own wife--recalling at once the Catholic plea for charity and her function in the film as the one true martyr. Tellingly, it's neither Larrue (bound by the laws of man), nor Logan (bound by the laws of god), nor Ruth (bound by the laws of sex) who transgresses across societal boundaries, but Alma alone. She betrays Logan's vows for him outside a courtroom where Logan's just been exonerated (to the universal displeasure of a gathered, stone-throwing throng), breaking her marital vows (man, God, sex) in the same breath. Like any good Greek prophet, Alma is promptly struck down for her heroism. She's the true avatar for Hitchcock--the Roger Thornhill analog, if you will, blithely stepping through the embedded conventions of her culture to, ironically, restore order. And though I Confess is relatively unique among Hitchcock's later films as a piece almost entirely free of irony and humour, it finds a moment of exquisite black comedy at the very end when Otto climbs on a stage and exorcises the mystery MacGuffin. What we're left with is a fairly vicious excoriation of man's futile attempts to turn chaos into order, each tactic we use (law, superstition, tradition, ritual) washing out as every bit as arbitrary as the One Way signs arrayed at cross-purposes at the beginning of the film. I Confess is Hitchcock's very public confession, with his confessional the confines of the theatre and his Father confessors the audience, rooting for Logan to stop being such a silly goose.
Warner's Academy ratio DVD of I Confess is a weaker technical effort in the studio's "Signature Collection," much to my dismay. Cinematographer Burks, who shot about a dozen films with Hitchcock (most of my favourites, as it happens, including The Birds, Vertigo, Marnie, North by Northwest, The Wrong Man, Strangers on a Train), deserves as distinct a transfer as his camera's carefully contrasted eye would allow, but the images here seem overly sooty and ill-defined. While grain is minimal, the negative betrays signs of degradation, though it probably goes without saying that this presentation is a vast improvement over any of the VHS versions floating around out there. The 1.0 Dolby mono audio is similarly muddy, if clear enough to hear the dialogue with ease.
Laurent Bouzereau's "Hitchcock's Confession: A Look at I Confess" (21 mins.) assembles the usual suspects--Peter Bogdanovich, Patricia Hitchcock O'Connell, Bill Krohn, Richard Schickel--for another go-round. Production anecdotes are recounted and a good long while is spent deconstructing the much-argued "romantic" dream sequence set to Dimitri Tiomkin's trippy, exceptional score in which Baxter's romantic fantasy is projected onto the screen as a menacingly sensual staircase descent. Tales of how the film was censored by the Catholic hoi polloi are reasonably edifying, especially as how their not allowing Logan to be martyred actually lends an extraordinary amount of ambiguity to the dictums of the true faith. Praise is effusive for Clift and well deserved--I Confess is a rare Hitchcock that's nearly stolen by a single performance. (The more you know about Clift, I dare say, the better his performances become.) A "Gala Canadian Premiere for I Confess" (1 min.) shows Baxter escorted by Hitchcock in a snowy Quebec sans Clift in newsreel footage that is largely interesting for the level of discomfort Hitch exhibits posing with the assembled rabble. A misleading trailer (3 mins.) in excellent condition rounds out the disc. December 12, 2004.