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

Hitchcock on Family Life: “Shadow of a Doubt” (1943) starring Teresa Wright & Joseph Cotten

[1] Joseph Cotten is the perfect charming monster.

[2] As for Teresa Wright, she finds some good notes as well in playing off of Cotten… …those kids are just the right icing to the cake the film cooks up.

[3] One of my favorite elements in the movie is the ongoing dialogue between Henry Travers and Hume Cronyn, avid mystery readers who are constantly discussing the best ways to murder each other. Apart from being a bit of comic relief… it also demonstrates how lightly people think of murder and murderers… until they encounter them face-to-face.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

Young Charlie: We eat and sleep and that’s about all. We don’t even have any real conversations. We just talk.

Charlotte “Charlie” Newton (Teresa Wright) is bored w/ her uneventful life, living in Santa Rosa, CA, w/ her family. She knows exactly what they need- a visit from her well-traveled/sophisticated Uncle Charlie Oakley (Joseph Cotten), her mother’s younger brother. Out of the blue, they receive a telegram from Uncle Charlie announcing that he is coming to visit. Uncle Charlie creates a stir as the new man in the small town, dressing stylish and charming locals. Young Charlie begins to notice some odd behavior on his part. Two strangers, Graham (Macdonald Carey) and Saunders (Wallace Ford), come to interview the Newton family, saying they were chosen for a national survey. It turns out that they are (undercover) detectives!

Uncle Charlie: The whole world’s a joke to me.

Uncle Charlie: I guess heaven takes care of fools and scoundrels.

One reason Sir Alfred Hitchcock considered this to be his favorite movie was that he loved the idea of bringing menace to a small town. Hitchcock believed that the expensive and sturdy, but weathered and worn, look to the house would give the suggestion that the Newton family could be anyone, an average American family in any American town. Edna May Wonacott (book-loving/chatty Ann) and Estelle Jewell (Young Charlie’s friend Catherine) were locals of Santa Rosa, where the movie was filmed. Many of the extras were also locals of the town. The story is lightened up by the patriarch, Joseph (Henry Travers), and his eccentric neighbor, Herbie (Hume Cronyn- in his first movie).

Young Charlie: We’re not just an uncle and a niece. It’s something else. I know you. I know you don’t tell people a lot of things. I don’t either. I have a feeling that inside you there’s something nobody knows about… something secret and wonderful. I’ll find it out.

In his interview with François Truffaut in 1967, Sir Alfred Hitchcock said the dense, black smoke coming from the train that brings Charles to town was a deliberate symbol of imminent evil. Some viewers may have missed his cameo; he is playing cards on the train w/ his back to the audience. The waltz tune is Franz Lehár’s “the Merry Widow;” the nickname of the killer is the Merry Widow killer. Charlie’s sister, Emma (Patricia Collinge), mentions that he’d had an accident on a bike as a boy; his personality changed after the accident (getting into mischief). I learned that Collinge wrote the romantic scene in the garage between Young Charlie and Graham.

You can watch the movie (for free) on YouTube!

“The Asphalt Jungle” (1950) starring Sterling Hayden, Louis Calhern, Sam Jaffe, Jean Hagen, & Marilyn Monroe

Doc: One way or another, we all work for our vice.

This much-loved and critically-acclaimed crime drama (released June 1st 70 yrs ago) barely broke even at the box-office. MGM only earned $40,000 according to studio records and Louis B. Mayer hated it. Critic Thom Andersen noted it as an example of “film gris,” a sub-category of film noir w/ a left-wing narrative. It was nominated for four Oscars, including Best Director and Screenplay. Since its release, it has been remade three times and its realistic storyline copied in many films. There is an ensemble cast- something rare in the 1950s.

Emmerich: …crime is only… a left-handed form of human endeavor.

Director John Huston first met actor Sterling Hayden in DC, during a protest against the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) investigation of “subversives” in the film. Huston said: “I’ve admired you for a long time, Sterling. They don’t know what to make of a guy like you in this business.” Huston was honest with Hayden about his chance for the lead role. Hayden landed the role of Handley, his first major starring role (over the objection of MGM chief Dore Schary). Hayden’s gritty performance proved naysayers flat wrong. According to Huston, Hayden didn’t have anything to worry about: “The next time somebody says you can’t act, tell them to call Huston.”

Dix: Why don’t you quit cryin’ and get me some bourbon?

When an intelligent criminal, Erwin “Doc” Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe), is released from prison, he seeks a $50K investment from bookmaker Cobby (Marc Lawrence) to recruit a gang of specialists for a $1M dollar jewelry heist. Doc is introduced to lawyer Alonzo D. Emmerich (Louis Calhern) who offers to finance the operation and buy the gems immediately after the burglary. Doc hires the safecracker Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso), driver Gus Minissi (James Whitmore), and Dix Handley (Hayden) who will serve as the hooligan. Handley’s loyal girlfriend, Doll, is played by Jean Hagen. Marlyn Monroe plays Emmerich’s mistress, Angela; she was unknown when the film was made and plays a small role. Monroe regarded this as one of her best performances.

[1] The multi character interplay sticks in the mind…

[2] The mastermind of the heist is not such a bad guy, the getaway driver loves cats, the safecracker has a wife and young baby, the “hooligan” is a misplaced sentimentalist who only wants the old farm his family lost…

[3] Hayden, with his big body and tough demeanor, was perfect for film noir. He is a legitimate tough guy, nobody to fool with.

[4] Stylishly photographed in stunning black & white by Harold Rosson, The Asphalt Jungle has joined the ranks, alongside “The Killers” (1946) and “Out Of The Past” (1947), as the finest noir ever made.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

“The Narrow Margin” (1952) starring Charles McGraw, Marie Windsor, & Jacqueline Wright

Once in a while a low-budgeted film from Hollywood gives off an unmistakable aura of big-time talent. The screenplay is taut, direction swift and performances crisp and clever. Continuity is paceful and tense, with a touch of glib humor…The New York Post

…pungent performances and inventive direction… the cramped train settings are put to striking dramatic effect through expert camera work and cutting. Refreshingly, there are convincing sound effects and no hammering musical score…The New York Journal-American

...Charles McGraw never relaxes his grim tension in a highly effective performance as a vigilant cop…Marie Windsor, a sultry beauty seething with vicious evil…The other girl is Jacqueline Wright, who cannot be described further without spoiling one of the surprises in the story…The New York Times

This is a B movie (check it out on YouTube for $3.99) shot in just 13 days w/ a mere budget of $230K in 1950, but released by RKO Pictures in 1952. Director Richard Fleischer decided to use a handheld camera; this was one of the first films to do that. To save money, the train sets were fixed to the floor and the camera was moved to simulate the train rocking. When a mobster’s widow decides to testify in front of a grand jury and provide names in a racketeering case, she is forced undercover. Two cops reach Chicago to escort her to LA; the mob are on their trail almost from the start. Several shady/gun-toting men are on the train attempting to make sure the widow never reaches her destination.

Brown: Well, what kind of a dame would marry a hood?

Forbes: All kinds.

Howard Hughes screened it in his private projection room; the film stayed in that room for more than a year b/c he forgot about it! Hughes loved the film, but thought he could improve it by removing the scenes w/ Det. Sgt. Brown (Charles McGraw) and Mrs. Neall (Marie Windsor) and reshooting them w/ Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell. However, Hughes sold his interest in RKO before he could carry out this plan. This was Windsor’s breakout part; most casting agents said she was “too tall, too voluptuous, and just too sexy” for any role besides “the other woman”. She was a former beauty queen from Utah who eventually became known as “the queen of the Bs” (as she could very convincingly be the femme fatale). Fans (incl. TCM host Eddie Muller) love the hard-boiled dialogue between McGraw and Windsor (considered some of the best in noir).

“Cry of the City” (1948) starring Victor Mature & Richard Conte

In NYC, thief turned cop killer- Martin Rome (Richard Conte)- arrives in the hospital badly wounded. A slimy lawyer, W.A. Niles (Berry Kroeger), tries to convince him to confess to another crime- a jewelry heist and killing the shop owner. Marty’s young girlfriend, Teena Riconti (Debra Paget), secretly visits him while he’s asleep. Later, Niles threatens Marty by saying he’ll find Teena and force her to confess in aiding w/ the robbery (as its known a woman was involved). When Marty is moved from the hospital to the jail, he escapes. Lt. Candella (Victor Mature) and Lt. Collins (Fred Clark) are on his trail. This case is personal for Candella (who is also Italian-American), knows the Rome family, and grew up in the same poor/immigrant neighborhood as Marty.

I had enough of that when I’m a kid. Crummy tenements, no food, no clothes. -Marty explains why he chose a life of crime

Oh, save it for the jury, Marty. Who do you think you’re kidding? l was brought up in the district too. I’ve heard that dialogue from you poolroom hotshots ever since l was ten years old. Get hip… only suckers work… don’t be a square… stay with the smart money. Let the old man get the calluses digging the ditches. No food… no clothes… crummy tenements. You’re breaking my heart, Marty. -Lt. Candella replies

You shouldn’t miss this gem of a film noir from director Robert Siodmak! I had tears in my eyes at the end; it’s captivating from its start to the (powerful) finish. Not only is it very well-made, it has a moral message (which is not dealt w/ in a pedantic manner). The characters (many of whom are European immigrants and first generation Americans) are fleshed out nicely, even the minor players. Veteran film noir-writer Ben Hecht worked on the script, though he is uncredited; this is a common practice in Hollywood even today. Quentin Tarantino is known for punching-up dialogue on several movies from different genres.

Victor Mature is surprisingly competent in the lead in what must be surely one of his best roles. Richard Conte is simply superb in a complex and tricky role. His method is one of economy and subtlety and a lesson to screen actors.

-Excerpt from IMDB review

I’ve haven’t seen Mature before; he’s 6′ 2″ and muscular w/ a striking profile, dark hair, and thick eyebrows. To modern audiences, he resembles Law and Order and SATC actor Chris Noth. Candella is usually on the move; he is a man who commands attention w/ his body and voice. In contrast, Conte (star of the lesser-known noir Thieves’ Highway) is much shorter w/ a slighter build. He is also handsome and has a strong screen presence. Marty is often confined, wounded by cops’ bullets, though his mind and eyes are always moving. There are many fine supporting characters (few who also speak in Italian), adding to the strength of the film. Classic film fans will notice a young Shelly Winters, one of the many ladies Marty has charmed.

Siodmak was a master of noir, as he blended German Expressionism w/ contemporary styles found in American film. He created atmospheric and memorable movies, perhaps most notably The Killers (1946), starring Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner. Though born in Memphis, Tennessee to Jewish parents who were visiting on business, Siodmak spent his youth in Germany, and even worked in banking (his father’s business) for a time. He also tried his hand at acting, which didn’t work out. When Hitler came to power, he joined his friend- Billy Wilder- in Paris and worked on editing and filming. In 1940, Siodmak was on the last ship leaving France for America on the eve of Germany’s occupation of Paris. His experience in France enabled him to create quality films which looked good on a low budget.