Saturday, April 25, 2015

Hitchcock's I CONFESS

I'm reminded with Alfred Hitchcock's I Confess of the opening narration from Mean Streets (also a film by a deeply Catholic filmmaker, how deep Hitchcock was compared to Scorsese is a discussion for another review), saying "You don't make up for your sins in the church. You do it in the streets, you do it at home, the rest is BS and you know it." In this story, a man, Otto Keller (O.E. Hasse), who is close with the Church but not a priest, confessed to Father Logan (Monty Clift) that he has killed a man.

Being a man of the cloth and the Church, he can't tell the police about this; It also doesn't help that Logan has a past relationship with a woman (Anne Baxter) who is now (unhappily) married to a local big-wig, and there are some implications of blackmail in the past. Keller could be the type to just be glad to get away with murder simply, but that isn't so much the case - he holds it over the Father, like a kid in a school-yard who has told a secret to another kid and gets to gloat it over him. Don't tattle, or you know what'll happen!

The point Hitchcock is making here isn't something craven like 'Catholicism is stupid'. That may be a thought that crossed my mind once or twice watching it - though without this crux of the faith, that a man who hears confession while in that little box can't say anything outside of it, there wouldn't be much of a film. Hitchcock, as well as the head of the 'Breen' production office (i.e. Censors), were Catholic and took this conflict to heart. So I Confess has this conflict so strong, and is conveyed by the characters caught up in this lie, that it helps push the film forward in a way more as an intellectual tale more than an emotional one.

This is not to say that Hitch doesn't go for emotional moments here, heavens of course he does. Indeed it's almost so extreme one wonders if he's doing it in a mocking way, such as when Ruth (Baxter) has her flashback when speaking to the police about her past with Logan, and there's a romantic style to the filmmaking that is like Vertigo if it was less obsessive and more... sweet, saccharine. Truffuat apparently said in his interview with Hitchcock years later that this was like Hitchcock showing her possibly lying, that there was *more* there between the man and woman, her version of events. Of this, I'm not so sure. So much of the film is told in a straight-forward way, very dramatic, very seriously, that I just take that long flashback - mostly done well with kind of a silent film tone outside of the spot-on narration - that I just take it as a director going for a "sunny" time of the past sort of thing, that one moment we can see Clift smile as Tiomkin's music swells with "joy" of a sort.

Indeed the problem that some may have - and others did when it was released - is that when one comes to a Hitchcock movie, the expectation is for some fun with the is-he-or-not murder type hijinks. Hopefully a look at the synopsis, or just a handful of the film-noir-like stills, will show this is a far cry from Stewart in the wheelchair in Rear Window or Grant in the cornfield in North by Northwest. If anything this is like the test run for The Wrong Man, one of (for my money) his most underrated and powerful examinations of murder in the REAL world (not the 'Movie' world, so to speak, of other 50's thriller fantasies). Though maybe not as rigorous in exploring the theme of conscience over life and death, I think Hitchcock a few years later in Wrong Man got the balance between the emotional and intellectual sides of the script and actors better than in I Confess (hell, Clift even, at times, kinda looks like a younger Fonda). For as much as there is to think about the subjects relayed here, and certainly in a religious context, I didn't always FEEL for the characters, if that makes sense.

Nah, it's not Harry Lime... but it'd be kick-ass if it was, eh?
This is not to say the actors don't try either. It's hard not to see so much conflict in Clift's face, in practically every scene. I'd almost argue there's SO much going on with him, he veers towards the over-the-top in his nuance and internalizations, if that makes sense. More conventional but still appealing are the turns by Baxter, Malden as the cop, and (my favorite) Hasse as the murderer. All of them are exemplary.

And maybe I'm not totally sure what is missing from it being one of the top Hitch films, as the French critics said at the time, those veering from the pack who dismissed it as minor work. I can't see it as a 'minor' work at all - very few of those in the director's cannon - and on top of the cast rarely missing a beat there's the unique setting of Quebec, which gives the story an old-time type of feel. If not for the appearance of an (ironic?) movie theater or cars, one might think it was from the 1800's. For a moment or two, anyway.

Perhaps I wasn't ready for something THIS somber; the funniest moments are unintentional, as a priest's bike falls over in the office at a tense moment, or, most especially, the crowd at the end looks on so harshly veering to the point of the manic. Or it could be making things a little less... chaste, if that's the word, between Clift and Baxter; the script faced the censors - ironically from another ex-Jesuit schoolboy as Mr. Breen, and a plot point about an actual affair instead of just an emotional one was nixed along with an illegitimate child, for me I could do without the latter but the former really would've raised the stakes.

I don't know if it's the BEST Hitchcock cameo, but... damn if it don't look astonishing.

I Confess is a serious film, about what a sin *really* means, and I was glad to take it on those terms, and certainly to see a director known at the time for escapist fare to go for something that posed real questions, of what point IS the breaking point. And it does get better as it goes along to its masterful climax. I just wish it had... more, of what I don't know. A rewatch years from now may be in order, though it just goes to show how much is expected sometimes of Alfred Hitchcock.

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