One aspect of Hitchcock’s films that has always irked me is his over-reliance on back projection and matte paintings. It’s jarringly evident in the later films, such as ‘Topaz’ or ‘Torn Curtain’ where horribly artificial studio-bound sequences contrast harshly with second-unit location footage.
‘Shadow of a Doubt’ – one of my favourite Hitchcocks – was shot chiefly on location and benefits from it immeasurably. The small town atmosphere is one of the key elements that makes it such a great movie. Much of ‘The Trouble with Harry’ was filmed on location in Vermont and the colour and vibrancy that results establishes the tone of the film beautifully.
‘I Confess’ and ‘The Wrong Man’ both use location shooting to maximum effect. They were released just three years apart (1953 and 1956 respectively), both are variations on one of Hitchcock’s favourite themes – the innocent man wrongly accused – and both are free of the dark, absurdist humour present in even such cynical Hitchcocks as ‘Psycho’ and ‘Vertigo’. They are arguably the darkest films he ever made.
‘I Confess’ was shot in Quebec, Canada, and from the outset the city’s distinctive architecture becomes an integral part of the fabric of the film. The steep, narrow cobble-stoned alleyways through which the murderer flees during the opening sequence could be a metaphor for the tortured mind of Father Michael Logan (Montgomery Clift), our morally compromised hero.
Logan knows that shady lawyer Vilette (Ovila Legare) has been killed by – I would say ‘spoiler alert’ but since Hitch has the guilty party make the eponymous confession five minutes in, I’m not really giving anything away – German immigrant Otto Keller (O.E. Hasse), but can’t say anything since it was Hasse himself who told him … in the sanctity of the confessional.
Hard-nosed copper Inspector Larrue (Karl Malden) isn’t impressed with Logan’s evasiveness, particularly when it comes out that Vilette was blackmailing Ruth (Anne Baxter), the wife of a D.A. Pierre Grandfort (Roger Dann) over her relationship with Logan, with whom she was in love before the war and still has feelings for.
With Keller, a verger at Logan’s church, continually torturing him with his very presence, Logan’s behaviour grows increasingly erratic, convincing Larrue that Logan is the guilty party. ‘I Confess’ is – pardon the pun – a something of a curate’s egg: part psychological character study (Keller’s fear and guilt provide counterpoint to Logan’s inner turmoil), part detective thriller (Larrue locks horns with his superiors who are decidedly uneasy at him pointing the finger of suspicion at a man of the cloth), part courtroom drama (Logan ends up in the dock, barely able to lock eyes with Keller, who’s seated amongst the crowd), part melodrama (Ruth’s histrionic narration of her ‘past’ with Logan feels like it was spliced in from a Douglas Sirk production), and the whole thing pays off with an archetypal Hitchcock set-piece (a chase through the kitchens and ballroom of a plush hotel).
When ‘I Confess’ works, it works well: Montogomery Clift and Karl Malden give fine, understated performances; the internal struggle of Father Logan is realised effectively; Hasse gives a venal but strangely compelling account of Keller, trace elements of corroded humanity occasionally evident amidst his increasing desperation.
It’s the middle section that lets things down badly, however, the script handing over the film’s narrative to Anne Baxter (a last minute casting decision after the studio nixed Hitch’s first choice*), who runs the gamut of misty eyes, trembling lips and pained expressions. It’s a hammy performance made worse by the naturalism of Clift and Malden’s acting, and it over-emphasises a character who serves, at best, as a plot device.
Hitchcock expanded on the themes and concerns of ‘I Confess’ in ‘The Wrong Man’. I’m tempted to describe ‘The Wrong Man’ as the flipside to ‘I Confess’, but that wouldn’t be quite right. ‘The Wrong Man’, avoiding the pitfalls of melodrama that beset ‘I Confess’, is definitely the A-side.
*Anita Björk, a Swedish actress Hitchcock had admired in Alf Sjöberg’s adaptation of Stringberg’s ‘Miss Julie’. Studio bosses were concerned that Björk, as an unmarried mother, would attract the wrong kind of publicity and the role went to Baxter. A damn shame, on all levels.
Tomorrow: ‘The Wrong Man’ – Hitchcock’s scariest film?