Wednesday, April 3, 2013

I CONFESS (1953)

Twenty-five years ago, when first watching I Confess, I confess to being decidedly underwhelmed. Yet I couldn't figure out why. 
It has a first-rate pedigree: directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring Montgomery Clift. An A-picture all around, one that shouldn't be anywhere near this blog. And unlike other, lesser Hitchcock movies of the era -- Stage Fright and Under Capricorn come to mind -- I Confess just seemed like it should have been better than it appeared to be. So when it recently ran on TCM, the time had come to give it another shot. Maybe I was the problem. 

I wasn't.



"You would have to drag me into this mess."



On the surface at least, I Confess is tailor-made for Hitchcock, not to mention Clift's patented tortured-soul routine. Rev. Michael Logan hears church handyman Otto Keller confess to a murder. Taking the rules of the confessional seriously, Logan refuses to go to the police -- even as he himself, through circumstantial evidence, becomes the prime suspect.

An innocent man suspected of a crime he didn't commit: if that's not the quintessential Hitchcock set-up, I don't know what is. Add Karl Malden as the detective hot on Logan's trail, and Anne Baxter as Ruth Grandfort, a woman with a secret pertaining to the murder victim, and you've got the makings for a dandy suspense movie. 

I said "makings," not "finished product."
The boy or the blonde --
which one will he choose?
 I Confess lacks the emotional connection Hitchcock had for, say, Vertigo or Rear Window. Bearing little of the director's visual flair, the movie just kind of sits there, piling up character after character, creating tedium rather than tension. (One priest seems to exist just to provide a running gag involving his bike.) Even the extras stand around dully, as if waiting for their coffee break. At times, you wonder just who this movie is really supposed to be about. Warner Brothers certainly didn't want to let the movie-going public know, taking great pains in the posters (see above) to hide the fact that Clift played a priest. And the I Confess tagline -- "If you knew what he knew, what would you do?" -- suggests someone in the publicity department fancied himself another Cole Porter. 


In addition to being really awkward,
this still from I Confess doesn't
have anything to do with
the movie itself.
As for Ruth Grandfort, the mysterious blonde -- well, pre-seminary school, Logan and she were a couple. After Ruth married another man, a certain Monsieur Villette (the eventual murder victim) wrongly believed that she and Logan were having an affair. Villette then spent the next several years threatening to blackmail her even though it wasn't true.

All of this could have been avoided if Ruth had told her husband the truth upfront -- Look, I went for a walk with an old boyfriend who wants to wear the white collar, we got caught in the rain, sorry I'm late. In an unsuccessful bid to free Logan, Ruth finally spills her story to the cops. 

This is where I Confess really jumps the rails. Told in flashback, her confession (I get it!) is a one-reel short unto itself. No detail is too mundane, no word of dialogue too banal, to be omitted. (Didn't these cops ever hear of, "Just the facts, ma'am"?) Making it more insufferable
Now that's vertigo.
is Dimitri Tiomkin's sappier-than-Log Cabin Syrup score, flooding the soundtrack with tsunami-like precision. 
One brief sequence, however, stands out: Ruth's memory of walking down her front stairs to meet Logan. Gauzy and processed just slightly in slow-motion, it captures perfectly the dreamy reveries of love. It's reminiscent of a similar situation in Raging Bull when Robert De Niro first sees Kathy Moriarty. The camera focuses on her legs splashing sensually (in slight slo-mo) in a swimming pool when the soundtrack suddenly drops out. If only Hitchcock had told Tiomkin to put down his baton for ten seconds!

Like many movie composers, Dimitri Tiomkin seemed to have been angling for a hit single -- call it "Love Theme from I Confess," an excessively-angelic chorus slurring its indecipherable lyrics -- which appears immediately under the credits and never quite lets go. Music plays a vital role in Hitchcock movies, but it's supposed to be in a good way. Romance -- unless mixed with danger or pathology -- was never Hitchock's strong suit, anyway. This was the Master of Suspense, after all, not of Love. Or love as most people outside a psychiatric hospital consider it to be.


Can you imagine that nose
if this had been a 3D movie?
There are a few scattered pluses found in I Confess, mostly in any scene involving Karl Malden as Inspector Larrue. Instead of playing him as a 1953-model Javert, Malden's take on Larrue is a cop simply doing his job, following the evidence where it takes him. Taking no personal pleasure in the case, he's kind enough to buy lunch for Logan when the latter turns himself in to avoid being arrested at church. (That moment follows a lengthy, pointless montage of Logan walking around town, eventually passing a movie theater running The Enforcer, which just happens to be a Warner Brothers picture.)


Rev. Top Gun
Then there's Montgomery Clift, the least-likely  man of the cloth since Little Richard dumped rock & roll. Ironically for a Method actor, Clift doesn't really inhabit the role of Rev. Logan as much as he stars in it by his very presence. It's a problem similar to that of Tom Cruise, to whom he bears an uncanny resemblance. (I Confess was shot a few years before Clift's physically and psychologically-damaging car accident.) Low-key to the point of being nearly invisible, Clift is interesting, but I couldn't tell you why -- or even if he was good or mediocre or neither. Maybe, like most people, he just is.

Right down to its Quebec location shooting, I Confess is one of the more unusual entries in the Hitchcock canon. (I had to use that phrase sooner or later.) But unusual doesn't necessarily make for successful. In later years, Hitchcock would claim that I Confess didn't resonate widely because non-Catholics couldn't wrap their heads around the sanctity of the church confessional. This, coming for a guy whose greatest movies were preposterous if you spent two minutes thinking about them. 

No, the problem with I Confess is that it's too straightforward. And Hitchcock is at his best when a little bent.



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