Father Michael Logan (Montgomery Clift) is a priest in Quebec who tonight as he was about to prepare for bed noticed somebody outside entering the church. Concerned, he went downstairs to see what the matter was, only to find Otto Keller (O.E. Hasse), the assistant he had hired out of the kindness of his heart is there, looking deeply troubled as he prayed in one of the pews. Logan asked what the matter was, but the only way Keller would tell was to go to confession, so once they get to the booth the truth emerges: he has just killed a man, mere minutes before. This man was known to Logan and there was no love lost between them yet the tenets of his faith and station require him to keep quiet about what he has heard – on pain of death?
Alfred Hitchcock was brought up a Catholic so the plot of I Confess, based on a play from around fifty years before, meant a lot to him, therefore he was dismayed when the public failed to respond and he wrote it off as a misstep that was not understood by the majority of the potential audience. Not helping was that it was made a more difficult shoot by his star Clift, who was well into his alcoholism and self-destructive behaviour, and Hitchcock was not equipped to deal with someone that damaged, though to his credit he did manage to secure the appropriately soulful performance out of him that benefited the production. That said, Clift's eyes had long before become deep pools of sky blue pain and that contributed as well.
But maybe Hitch was right, there was the feel of an academic exercise about this where the priest cannot break the confession because he has taken an oath, yet then finds himself a suspect in the murder and cannot do anything to exonerate himself lest he break his vows. There comes a point in this where Logan has become so passive that he begins to look less pious and more like a complete idiot, as surely you think there was something he could have done to encourage Keller to confess, or at least set the police on the right track? After a while you're frustrated and willing him on to blab, as one assumes going to the gallows for a crime he didn't commit would be a bigger sin than revealing what he knew.
This was all about the guilt of course, so the film took great pleasure under the guise of serious intent in mentally torturing Logan, even bringing in Christ analogies to make us note the link between one man taking the burden of another man’s crime on his shoulders in order to save his soul – except there didn't seem to be any chance of Keller being let off by the powers of the Almighty, or indeed the powers of Hitchcock. More interesting was the question of what was to be gained by enduring guilt for something you haven't done, a sense of sympathy however misplaced with the criminal, as one sinner's failings were a tragedy for us all to bear, which many would think dragging us into this was a step too far.
Logan gets caught up even further by rather artificial plot contrivances, for the dead man was threatening to expose his love for Anne Baxter as Ruth Grandfort, who for censorship reasons he broke off his relationship with before he became a priest rather than after, which tended to allow the sexual tension to fizzle, not to mention render Logan yet more noble. Not helping was Baxter’s miscasting, she didn’t come across as the type to captivate Logan and she and Clift had no real chemistry, leaving her anguished expressions the sole aspect that would have us convinced she felt anything for him still. Also in the cast on the side of the law were Karl Malden, not bad as the thwarted detective, and better was Brian Aherne as the prosecutor who added a spark of levity to what was a very dour experience, though he did appear to have wandered in from a different film with that demeanour. As an exploration of faith, I Confess was interesting on the surface, but failed to convince when it got down to the big issues it was wrestling with, and as a thriller it was dry. Music by Dimitri Tiomkin.
The sixties started strongly with groundbreaking horror Psycho, and The Birds was just as successful, but then Hitchcock went into decline with uninspired thrillers like Marnie, Torn Curtain and Topaz. The seventies saw a return to form with Frenzy, but his last film Family Plot was disappointing. Still, a great career, and his mixture of romance, black comedy, thrills and elaborate set pieces will always entertain. Watch out for his cameo appearances in most of his films.