May 29, 2012  |  An Auteurist History of Film
Alfred Hitchcock’s I Confess

I Confess. 1952. USA. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

These notes accompany the screenings of Alfred Hitchcock’s I Confess on May 30 and 31 and June 1 in Theater 3.

Alfred Hitchcock (1899–1980) has thus far been represented in our series by Blackmail (1929) and Notorious (1946). Rather than showing I Confess, frankly, my preference for a film from this period would have been Strangers on a Train or Rear Window, both of which seem to me to fuller expressions of Hitchcock’s personality and genius. Neither film, however, was available in the Museum’s collection. (One of the subsidiary purposes of the series is to point to major gaps in our archival holdings in the hope of remedying them.) Fortunately, Hitchcock’s work is sufficiently rich that even his lesser films have a gravitas that few other directors could claim.

One of the first things one notes about I Confess is its total lack of humor (and charm). (Hitchcock, himself, told Francois Truffaut he thought the film “heavy-handed.”) In their book-length study of Hitchcock, the Cahiers du Cinéma critics (and, later, Nouvelle Vague directors), Erik Rohmer and Claude Chabrol comment that because Montgomery Clift’s priest cannot speak of what he has learned in the confessional, the film is dependent on the various actors’ glances and looks. “Only these looks give us access to the mysteries of his thought. They are the most worthy and faithful messengers of the soul.” Rohmer and Chabrol apologize for their “inflated” tone, but the “majesty of this film invites as much, and leaves little room for humor.” Hitchcock, of course, was a Jesuit-educated Catholic, but one does not get the impression from the totality of his career or what we know of the worldly nature of his life that he spent much time agonizing over religious issues. (Maurice Yacowar, who interprets the film in light of Christian myth, suggests that the title “could be the Catholic Hitchcock facing his maker with appropriate penitence for having squandered his devotions upon the sensations and delights of the secular life.”) In any event, since I Confess dealt quite directly with Catholicism, he had clearly chosen to grant his religion an unrelieved seriousness, atypical in his career. (It has been reported that he was reluctant to make the film, but he was persuaded by his wife, Alma Reville.

I Confess. 1952. USA. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

I Confess also suffers from a certain awkwardness in its rather improbable script. This, however, did not detract from the excellent performances turned in by Clift and Anne Baxter. Although he received an Oscar nomination for his next film, Fred Zinnemann’s From Here to Eternity, Hitchcock’s tortured priest seems much more in keeping with Clift’s strengths as an actor. Hitchcock was not especially sympathetic to method actors, but Karl Malden tended to smooth over any friction between director and star. (Although Malden never worked with Hitchcock again, he did become good friends with Norman Lloyd, who fell from the Statue of Liberty in Hitch’s Saboteur and became indispensable to the director in the production of his television series). Also worthy of praise are O. E. Hasse and Dolly Haas. (Haas was a cinema beauty in pre-Hitler Germany before playing the Lillian Gish role in the British sound remake of D. W. Griffith’s 1919 masterpiece, Broken Blossoms, and later marrying Al Hirschfeld.)

I Confess, whatever its limitations, does take up certain key Hitchcock themes and obsessions, most notably the transference of guilt from one protagonist to another—in this case, from Hasse to Clift. Clift’s inability or unwillingness to articulate what he is experiencing lends an ambiguity to how this is intended here, and Hitchcock seems ambivalent, perhaps more troubled by Catholic issues than he would have cared to admit. Biographer Patrick McGilligan says, “I Confess smolders without ever catching fire.” Admiringly, however, he sees it as Hitchcock’s most compassionate film.