Hitchcock on Catholic Guilt: “I Confess” (1953) starring Montgomery Clift, Anne Baxter, & Karl Malden

German refugees, Otto Keller (O.E. Hasse) and his wife Alma (Dolly Haas), work as caretaker and housekeeper at a Catholic rectory in Québec City, Canada. While robbing the house of a lawyer (who he sometimes works for), Otto ends up killing the man. Racked w/ guilt, he heads to the church where Father Michael Logan (Montgomery Clift) is up late. Otto confesses to murder; he says he wore a cassock that night as a disguise. After two schoolgirls come forward as witnesses, the police question all the local priests. Inspector Larrue (Karl Malden) suspects Fr. Logan from the start, sensing that he’s hiding something. It turns out that the deceased was blackmailing Ruth (Anne Baxter), who grew up w/ Logan and loved him before he went off to fight in WWII. She loves him still, though is married to a politician.

Fr. Logan: I never thought of the priesthood as offering a hiding place.

Sir Alfred Hitchcock (who was raised Catholic) told a New York Times reporter in August 1952, that he chose Québec for filming because “in no American city do you find a priest walking down the street in a cassock.” This movie was based on the 1902 play “Nos deux consciences” by Paul Anthelme, a journalist. In the play, the priest and his lover had a baby, and the priest was hanged at the end. These elements had to be removed from the movie b/c of the Hays Code. I Confess was banned in Ireland b/c it showed a priest having a relationship w/ a woman (even though it took place before the character took orders). The screenwriter (George Tabori) wanted the script to be a subtle dig at the McCarthy hearings, as it centered on a man unable to tell the truth when questioned by authorities. Tabori found that Hitchcock only wanted to make a thriller. Peter Bogdanovich noted that this is a favorite of French New Wave directors.

Hitchcock created detailed storyboards for each scene, as was his custom. He couldn’t understand Clift’s Method acting technique; he became frustrated after the actor blew take after take, failing to follow instructions. Tension occurred over Clift’s insistence on having his acting coach (Maria Rostova) by his side. Hitchcock found that Clift didn’t listen to him at all. Karl Malden, who was friendly w/ Clift, found the process difficult. Clift would immediately turn to Rostova for feedback after each scene. Clift was drinking heavily also; he’d come on-set hungover (which wasn’t unusual for leading men in Hollywood’s Golden Age). As a closeted gay man, I’m sure he had a lot of pressure on his shoulders.

This isn’t your typical Hitchcock- it lacks the sly humor, memorable music, and (of course) the suspense he was known for. However, it’s atmospheric, moody, w/ a thread of foreboding running throughout. French is spoken a bit by supporting characters. There are towering old churches, crosses and crucifixes of all styles, marble statues, and houses of Parliament. There is a flashback section that’s quite engaging, where you see a lighter side of Clift and Baxter. I liked Clift and Malden together; they project very different energies. Malden famously played a priest in On the Waterfront; fans of The West Wing know him as President Bartlet’s priest. Baxter has her hair dyed blonde (which I thought was distracting) and wears some stylish outfits, thanks to Orry Kelly.

[1] Forced into complicity with the murderer, Father Logan behaves as though he is guilty despite his innocence…

[2] The movie is a somber psychological drama, and the story of a forbidden love, and perhaps a Christ allegory (the priest has to suffer for another man’s sins- he has to bear his own cross).

[3] When the camera sweeps up to a full screen view of Clift’s face and you see those glowing, brooding eyes, you fall under their collective spell.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

2 thoughts on “Hitchcock on Catholic Guilt: “I Confess” (1953) starring Montgomery Clift, Anne Baxter, & Karl Malden

  1. When I was a kid, Malden was the American Express spokesman on TV. But he’s all over twentieth-century / postwar film and TV as a character actor.

    I find it fascinating when I read that these mid-century actors had their acting coaches on set with them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, having coaches (incl. those provided from their studio- like w/ Marilyn) must’ve been OK to an extent! It’s odd to think of this now, except maybe w/ kids/teens or those international actors who are learning English.

      Liked by 1 person

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