Despite a tightly constructed script, diabolical plot twists, and artful black and white cinematography that captivated French New Wave critics, I Confess never did well with American audiences nor is it traditionally listed among Hitchcock's masterpieces. Another variation on the Master's often used theme most directly illustrated in The Wrong Man, the film suffers from its earnest seriousness but most non-Catholics have difficulty comprehending the basic premise, as Hitchcock explained to Truffaut:
". . . We Catholics know that a priest cannot disclose the secret of the confessional, but the Protestants, the atheists, and the agnostics all say, "Ridiculous! No man would rmein silent and sacreifce his life for such a thing."
Hitchcock even goes on to say that he shouldn't have made the picture, but fortunately he blithely ignored the potential box office hit that he took by mining material from his Jesuit upbringing. I Confess contains as much guilt as Psycho, moral dilemmas as Notorious, and unspoken sexual tension as Rear Window without the acclaim of those widely admired masterworks. Anne Baxter doesn't carry the same sexual weight as Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly, or even Janet Leigh; besides, the protagonist is a Catholic priest who strictly follows his vows after ordination. Pre-production censors only approved a much more chaste backstory for the young priest that now seems rather dated. Hitchcock had wanted to incorporate an illegitimate child in the mix, but 1950's morality code ruled that option out.
Instead, a flashback eventually reveals that Father Michael Logan (Montgomery Cliff) had fallen in love with Ruth Grandfort (Baxter) before going off to war and didn't know that she married while he was overseas. After returning, they reunited and end up spending the night together when caught in a storm without means to catch the last ferry back from the island. The property owner discovers them the following morning, and later blackmails Ruth--knowing that the implied scandal would ruin the reputation of both her former lover (now an ordained priest) and her lawyer husband Pierre (Roger Dann). Such a scenario would scarcely raise an eyebrow today, which again causes modern audiences to wonder what all the fuss is about.
What anyone should definitely note are some extremely fine noirish camerawork throughout the Quebec location shooting. Traces of Hitchcock's German expressionist background remain evident with a number of twisted angles that incorporate church architecture--an especially striking one from atop a roof frames an iconic statuette of Jesus carrying his crucifixion cross while Father Logan deliberately strides below. The opening contains the only trace of Hitchcockian wit--a series of "Direction" traffic signs carry us inside an open window . . . dramatic music swells . . . and we see a dead body. Wordlessly, a mysterious figure dressed in priestly cassock slips through the night streets, and soon we are led inside a darkened church, where Father Logan carries a votive candle to light the face of a troubled parishioner.
The worried man is Otto Keller, who tentatively expresses his guilt:
"I have abused your kindness. You who gave my wife and me a home--even
friendship, so wonderful a thing for a refugee, a German, a man without
Keller enters the confessional and reveals that he has killed a man, and thus the premise and drama have established themselves in the opening minutes. Inevitable complications arise when Keller wonders if the priest will maintain his vow of secrisy, giving rise to a diabolical character shift that implicates Father Logan as the prime suspect. Ever the "guilt obsessed" Catholic, Hitchcock once again deals with very real people who all attempt to balance right and wrong; and Father Logan comes as close as humanly possible to following his prescribed righteous path--even in the face of a possible death sentence or lifetime suspicion if insufficient evidence to link him to the murder.
The biggest crime surrounding I Confess is the generally indifferent reception that the film has received over the years. Among method actor Montgomery Cliff's strongest performances, his subtle visual communication has been overlooked for decades simply because it remains undercover with one of the Master's least recognized works. Its inclusion with a fine Warner Home Video DVD box set may help a few more souls to recognize its artistry, but its lack of sexiness and humor likely doom it to undeserved obscurity.