Sunday 31 January 2021

Alfred Hitchcock - I CONFESS considerations - Scholar Ken Mogg on Hitchcock's 'possibly most audacious' film (USA , 1953)

Montgomery Clift, I Confess

The universal 'compulsion to confess'.


                                    - Eric Bentley, The Life of the Drama



'A priest must not even hint at what he has heard in a confession, even under the threat of death.'


                                    - Father George Leonard, Catholic 

Information Office, London



Symbolism was not so much a distinct style as a state of mind, a feeling, a way of looking beyond appearances.


                                    - Symbolist Europe: Lost Paradise  (Visitor's Guide, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts)



That the film text of I Confess is deliberately enigmatic, raising numerous questions of interpretation of facts and motivation while withholding evidence which would make a preferred reading salient, is nowhere more apparent than in the treatment of Villette.


                          - Deborah Thomas, "Hitchcock's I Confess as Enigmatic Text", CineAction#40



THE CHARACTER NAMED VILLETTE - the murdered man in Alfred Hitchcock's I Confess(1953) - is no more than a cipher. Inspector Larrue (Karl Malden) verbalises this when he says: 'No one seems to have known this Villette.  And yet, he was a lawyer, he had clients. Not one of his clients had any information to give about [him] …'  And, without words at all, Ruth Grandfort (Anne Baxter) merely exchanges puzzled looks with her new husband Pierre (Roger Dann) when Villette mysteriously joins the line of guests at their wedding.  We never do learn how he managed to crash it.  Almost certainly, Ruth isn't feigning not to know him. Only later, when she and her ex-lover Father Michael Logan (Montgomery Clift), just returned from the War, get caught in a storm on Villette's property and take shelter in his summerhouse overnight, and he assumes that she is having an illicit affair, does he enter her life as her blackmailer.  Very possibly, then, I Confess is Hitchcock's most audacious film - and, I would argue, none the less effective for that.  Audacity in a good cause, even if just the telling of a good story, was something Hitchcock excelled at.  In any case, whoever said that a Symbolist work of art must 'explain' itself?  The effect is everything.


Roger Dann, Anne Baxter, I Confess



I Confess is a Symbolist work because it has something important to say that is beyond words; it shows us something about our condition that is otherwise ineffable - except perhaps in the formulations of a thinker like Kant or Schopenhauer.  (Note: Hitchcock told biographer Charlotte Chandler that he had been 'very much influenced by the Symbolists'.)  Indeed, Schopenhauer's philosophy was adopted by many Symbolist painters and writers not just for its 'pessimism' but because Schopenhauer saw art as like a refuge, albeit transient, from the world's malign 'Will' - which is essentially ungraspable.  Similarly, I Confess is artfully constructed to lead our thinking - more accurately, Inspector Larrue's - in one direction that turns out to have been inadequate and mistaken.  The logic of Larrue's thinking leads him increasingly to suspect that Father Logan is Villette's killer; we watch the case mount against the priest and we want to tell Larrue that he is wrong, for we have heard the sexton at Michael's church, one Otto Keller (O.E. Hasse), confess to the killing - yet there is nothing that we can do.  (This is a familiar situation for Hitchcock's audiences to find themselves in!)  


O. E. Hasse, I Confess

Moreover, the two adversaries - Father Logan, Inspector Larrue - are well-matched: you could say that Larrue has a strength second only to Logan's with his Faith.  If the success of a fiction film often depends on the story having a strong central situation, or conflict, then I Confess is well-positioned to succeed with its audiences.  Hitchcock was reportedly disappointed when that didn't generally happen on the film's initial release - the prejudices of audiences are not always predictable, and in this case non-Catholics couldn't always, or fully, get their minds around the concept of the inviolability of the confessional.  Nowadays, I Confess, seen on its own terms, is plainly something of a masterpiece.



I Confess speaks to everyone.Eric Bentley once noted astutely: 'Though it lead to the gallows, we will not deny ourselves the pleasure of saying, before the curtain is down, "Very well, inspector, yes I amthe demon barber of Fleet Street."'1 Note the use of a theatrical metaphor. Bentley uses it to draw attention to 'the connection between theatricality and the universal "compulsion to confess"'.  Tellingly, the final scene of I Confess takes place in an auditorium at the foot of a stage.  In Rope (1948) the flamboyant Brandon, after being exposed, is told by his co-murderer, the submissive Phillip, 'It's what you wanted - somebody else to know.' (We may gather that it was precisely Brandon's flamboyance that drew Phillip to him.)  


I Confess contains not one but four (or more) unburdenings or 'confessions'. Father Logan's, for all his suffering, is of course made only after the dying Keller (shot by the police in the above-mentioned auditorium), has received the last rites and has told all.  But, in addition, Ruth Grandfort's flashback represents not so much her confession of her relation to Michael before she married as of how she had deceived him afterwards by not telling him that she had married Pierre.  Though this confession doesn't help Michael's alibi, as Ruth had supposed it would (it is palpably subjective, besides), it does help to reconcile her to Pierre who now can better understand her feelings.  And again, timid Mrs Keller comes to see in Michael's suffering an image of her own - but when she can no longer bear the knowledge of that suffering, nor of her husband's guilt, she speaks out - and dies for her trouble. Nothing is guaranteed.  Someone in Under Capricorn (1949) quotes a famous hymn of William Cowper: 'The Lord moves in mysterious ways,/ His wonders to perform.'  Seemingly, one of the things I Confess is about is a need to (be able to) pray.


Of the San Francisco seen in Vertigo (1958), I once wrote: 'With its missions, forts, shops and art galleries, the city represents perennial human concerns - a city seen sub specie aeternitatis.'  In a masterstroke, it was appropriated by Hitchcock as part of that film's Symbolism. Similarly, the fortress appearance of Quebec City in I Confessserves as symbolically both City of the World and, with its many churches, would-be City of God (to use the language of St Augustine).  Driven primarily by their territorial ambitions, and their differing religious affiliations, the French and the British clashed here repeatedly in the 17th century.  Behind the opening credits of I Confess, the city's skyline, dominated by the imposing Château Frontenac, draws closer across a stretch of water that seems to forbid nearer proximity.  However, a siren-like choir calls the camera on, and - suddenly, magically, by the power of film - we are able to 'occupy' the city for a time during which a representative tale of human emotions is unfolded.  However, the film ends with the camera now retreating from the city; the hoped-for vision of harmony and compatibility has receded again.  What I call Hitchcock's use of Vague Symbolism has done its work for now.


Having called I Confess a masterpiece - see above - I should say that I totally agree with Bill Krohn when he defends the film's ending (just before the camera recedes) as 'breathtakingly right'2- despite Hitchcock's misgivings when he wasn't allowed to follow his original intention of having Logan wrongfully hanged, whereupon Keller, too late, would have confessed all.  Recall that in the film as we have it, a dying Keller does confess, then Logan intones his absolution.  (A further subtle touch of Hitchcock's here is how we see a lingering shadow of doubt suddenly pass from the faces of both Father Logan's superior and of Ruth.  The latter turns abruptly to her husband and says, 'Take me home, Pierre' - and we realise that she had half believed, or hoped, that Logan had indeed killed Villette in order to protect her name, which might have shown that Michael still secretly loved her.3)  



The basis of I Confess was of course Paul Anthelme's/Paul Bourde's 1902 drama, Nos deux consciences(Our Two Consciences), which Hitchcock said had 'haunted' him since he saw a production in the 'thirties, though it's unclear where.  The play was always relatively obscure, possibly because in its time it was seen as just one of several stories or melodramas in which a cleric, or would-be cleric, is tempted by love (Hall Caine's 1905 novel The Christian was another).  Someone has listed typical recurrent themes of melodrama, including 'Modern Magdalens' (male and female)4, 'Parsons in Love', and 'The Truth About Virtue' - elements, or hints of them, all detectable in I Confess and in its ingeniously constructed source play whose potential Hitchcock had sensed.  


Furthermore, a 'suffer-in-silence' motif in melodrama and in film (including several by Hitchcock) is very effective dramatically, and goes way back.  It's the basis of Tennyson's narrative poem 'Enoch Arden' (1864) which inspired many novels and films, including another novel by Hall Caine, The Manxman (1894), and its two film versions (1916, 1928 - the latter directed by Hitchcock).5  The same motif underpins the theatrical warhorse Madame X (1909) and its several film versions.  Lastly, I think of the novel The Silence of Dean Maitland (1886), about a man-of-the-cloth with a guilty secret, which was filmed at least twice, both times (1914, 1934) in Australia.


In a suitable context the motif lends itself to a story that recognisably amounts to one about a modern Calvary, like Christ's. Hitchcock does not shun that implication.  At one point he goes out of his way - with a high downward-tilted long-shot - to show Logan in torment passing through a street on his way to pray; the shot incorporates a statue on a church rooftop of a bowed Christ carrying His Cross. Although Robin Wood wonders if the shot isn't 'pretentious', it doesn't seem that way to me.  Rohmer and Chabrol have written of how Hitchcock's films show 'the interchangeable guilt of all mankind' (italics in the original), and it's surely only a truism that, metaphorically, we all have our individual Crosses to bear, and that the historical Christ stands in for all of us. (You don't have to be a Believer to see that!)  


Equally, I discount Hitchcock's own (rare) self-doubt when he wondered aloud to Truffaut whether he hadn't been 'heavy-handed' in his handling of the I Confess story.  Arguably, that only says something about the very nature of Christian faith.  (Conceivably, a Buddhist might have treated the issue of faith rather differently, while still fully respecting the material, of course.)  Notwithstanding Hitchcock's claim that 'the whole treatment was lacking in humour and subtlety', it's hard to imagine a more appropriate approach - given the material, as I say.  (The script went through many drafts.)  I know that St Paul spoke of spiritual clowning or 'playing the fool in Christ', but that doesn't seem to me the way of Roman Catholicism, which is what's available to the character of Father Logan -  if he is to stay in character, that is.


So, besides the 'iconic' nature already mentioned of Quebec City in Hitchcock's film, are there further reasons for his choosing it?  Obviously, he wanted to keep the 'Catholic' atmosphere of the story's French original. In the end, he may have had little choice.  By his own account, Quebec City was the only city in North America where priests still wore the cassock in public (image below).  That sight would have been a considerable part of the story's visual appeal for Hitchcock, informing the key scene of Logan's torment just described. Montgomery Clift paid careful attention to how priests walked.  He noted: 'Priests walk in a special way because they wear robes or habits.  When they walk they push the material forward with their hands.'  It turned out that Clift was friends with a young French monk, Brother Thomas, who only recently had taken his final vows in a cloistered monastery outside Quebec.6  



Just before the filming of I Confess, Clift spent a week at Brother Thomas's monastery.  There he attended Mass each morning at four.  He later told Patricia Collinge (who had played the mother in Shadow of a Doubt) how moved he was by the solemn dignity of the services 'in that great chapel'.  He observed the monks at work and at prayer.  'Some of them, like Thomas, have a fundamental sense of reverence - of tenderness - seeming to believe like [the poet] Blake that "everything that [lives is] holy".'  Clift of course imbues Logan with great strength and dignity.  (Note: I've seen it suggested that some individuals enter the cloistered life because they see it as providing a retreat from a world that is too hard for them.  I suspect that Father Benoit in I Confess, with his 'collapsing' bicycle, is a gentle caricature of such a person - thus a foil to Logan.)  Much of the principal photography for the film took place in the narrow streets of the old quarter of French Quebec.  And, yes, the settings, like those of Vertigo, combine to be 'representative'.  Pierre Grandfort, a politician, is shown 'on the job', speaking before his peers in the Parliament Building, on 'Parliament Hill'.  Logan and Ruth arrange to meet aboard the well-known ferry that crosses the St Lawrence to Lévis (below).  Elsewhere in the film, we see the forbidding walls of the Citadel de Quebec and pass inside the Halls of Justice for Logan's trial. 



The final climax occurs in the city's dominating Château Frontenac, where Keller dies.  And Logan's church, Sainte Marie, is in fact the Eglise Saint-Zépherin de Stadacona: Stadacona was the name of the native village which stood on the site that is now Quebec City - rather like how in Vertigoa key scene takes place in the Mission Dolores, the site around which the city of San Francisco grew.  (Hitchcock's expressionist inclinations never left him.)


The scene on the ferry is particularly lovely. As the water slips past, as if we were leaving all onshore cares behind, Michael joins Madame Grandfort on the public deck.  Both she and Michael are aware that the police want to know who she is, and about why she spoke with him outside Villette's house on the morning of the murder. Dimitri Tiomkin's music plays sweetly - in contrast to the suitably dramatic chords the score employs elsewhere - thus evoking the vanished days of Ruth and Michael's earlier relationship which is given some lovely scenes of its own.  In fact, it is to that relationship that Ruth, although married, still clings.  (Pierre Grandfort will ask later, 'What does one do when one's wife is in love with a priest?')  


This assignation, it appears, was instigated by Ruth, and takes place on board the ferry named the 'Louis Jolliet' after an early explorer, born in Quebec.  It soon appears that Michael will need to convince Ruth that a man of conviction who has taken his Holy Vows cannot stray from them: 'I chose to be what I am'. But Ruth resists!  Thus the scene does carry its load of dramatic conflict, and is far from being what Hitchcock abhorred, a 'no-scene scene'.  As well, he loads it with one of his masterful ingenuities, bringing us further inside the action.  It works a bit like a three-card trick.  When Michael notes that the police at this very moment may be watching them, Ruth can't stop herself from glancing nervously around at the nearby passengers.  There are three - and two of them do seem to be looking at Michael and Ruth with some interest.  (A priest on a boat talking to an attractive woman would be of passing interest, no doubt.)  The third is leaning on the ferry's rail, seemingly preoccupied with rolling himself a cigarette. But then, who can tell?!  Or perhaps Michael and Ruth are just being paranoid?  


In fact, Hitchcock would have noted how American propaganda shorts of the time were warning audiences to watch out for Communists 'in our midst'.  In this case, Ruth's suspicions are quickly confirmed.  In the very next scene, the man with a cigarette is reporting to Inspector Larrue about how he had observed Michael and Ruth on the ferry, and Larrue congratulates him for his work.  Such smooth continuity is not separable from Hitchcock's tight rein on the audience.

Karl Malden (Larrue), Montgomery Clift,
I Confess

Another lovely scene, although brief, is the soft-focus flashback of Ruth coming down a spiral stairway to greet her lover, Logan, outside her home.  Here the stairway echoes the one in Elia Kazan's A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). Kazan's film is set in another French-American city, New Orleans, and Hitchcock, with his eye for such visual details, astutely saw the possibilities.  Logan later descends a curving staircase of a different kind, in the Halls of Justice, to face an angry mob who believe him an adulterer, if not a murderer.  ('Take off that collar, Logan!', one of them mocks.)  Then, below, the emotional intensity doesn't diminish, as the police are barely able to hold back another jeering crowd in the street, and Logan stumbles, his elbow starring a car window.  Steps and stairs are in fact ubiquitous in I Confess, like another version of the Stations of the Cross.  Pointedly, we're shown Logan walk up a flight of stairs to enter a church where he prays for help and guidance.  



All of these things are only contributions to the film's rich texture.  According to American Cinematographer (December 1952), 'Hitchcock selected [Quebec City] because of its quaint Old World quality and its architecture of mediaeval flavour.'  (With parallel logic, but otherwise in total contrast, he elected to open North by Northwest in New York City -  though I, for one, am not convinced that its modern look makes the 1959 film superior.) Everything in I Confess is depicted in as authentic a manner as possible.  'No attempt was made to "dress up" the sets on … location interiors.  Doors and woodwork with shiny surfaces were allowed to remain that way and not dulled down as they would have been ordinarily …  Not only were the buildings authentic as named, so, too, were the people … For instance, the manager of the Château Frontenac was portrayed by the real manager of the Château Frontenac. Chefs and waiters in that world-famed hotel are the same men you would [have seen working there] …'


In the same vein, Hitchcock isolates the transient details of everyday: a policeman poised awkwardly on a flight of steps; a snatch of parliamentary rhetoric heard through a half-open door; a romantic moment on a dance-floor interrupted by an announcement of war; a juror blowing his nose in one corner of the screen while, close by, another juror combs his hair.  And as Father Logan's tribulation grows, the details become grimmer, or more earthy.  Logan's alibi is effectively quashed by an autopsy report involving the contents of the dead man's stomach; police stride grimly to their cars past a mounted black cannon; a girl on crutches passes Logan in the street; and a headless dummy taunts him from behind a harshly-lit store window.  When Logan enters Inspector Larrue's office to give himself up, the policeman is seated at his desk preparing to eat a hurried meal, a napkin tucked into his collar.



As I've said, Clift's performance bespeaks a marvellous dignity and strength.  A fine scene is that one in Larrue's office.  Both men show an obvious respect for each other, yet the priest knows that he is bound to avoid every temptation to speak in his own defence, or to justify himself, however slightly, to this policeman who becomes increasingly irritated and puzzled by the other's non-cooperation.  (Does Larrue suspect that there's a possible reason for it, other than the evident one that the priest is guilty?  Purely in dramatic terms, he appears out of his depth here.) In the courtroom, Logan's strength is likewise on show, again with both an appearance and a reality for Hitchcock's audience to appreciate.  Asked how he explains the blood-stained cassock found in his room, Logan answers roundly, 'I can't say!'  (Shortly afterwards, accused of violent murder, he answers no less ringingly, 'No!') His very vehemence might have condemned him, as if he were here confirming that he was capable of killing someone if suitably provoked.  As it is, the jury, while acquitting him, speak of having 'grave suspicion' that Logan is a killer.  Note: they aren't referring to his war-service, which is another ambiguity of this Symbolist film.  (A similar ambiguity had earlier figured in Hitchcock's post-War Rope.)  The phrase 'I can't say!' is the right one.  The devout Logan is led to it unerringly.      




1.  Though Bentley probably didn't know it, there was once a French multi-murderer, Joseph Vacher (1869-1898), known as the French Ripper, 'Jack l'éventreur français', who, after he was arrested, suddenly chose without explanation to confess all his crimes.


2.  Bill Krohn, "I Confess- Historical Note", 'CTEQ Annotations on Film' (Melbourne Cinémathèque), Issue 10, November 2000.


3.  The character of Ruth resembles Yvonne, the fiancée of the dedicated young Resistance fighter named Pierre, in Hitchcock's wartime short Aventure Malgache (nominally 1944, although possibly not released then).


4.  A magdalen (from Mary Magdalene) is a person who has committed a sexual imprudence, then repented.  A Modern Magdalen was the title of both a 5-reel 1915 film and of its source, a 1902 play by C. Haddon Chambers.  Note: in an early draft of I Confess, there is an illegitimate child.   


5.  In both Hitchcock's The Manxman and I Confess, we hear a woman tell her lover, 'We're free!' - which proves to be far from the case.


6.  Information about Montgomery Clift comes from the fine biography by Patricia Bosworth, first published in 1978. 


Editor’s Note: This is the fourth essay on Alfred Hitchcock by scholar Ken Mogg published on Film Alert 101. The previous essays are Thoughts on Hitchcock's VERTIGOHitchcock's VERTIGO: Its cinema sources  and Hitchcock Considerations - On his style They may be found if you click on the essay titles.

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