From the day a French priest landed with Jaques Cartier on what would become Canadian soil, the Roman Catholic Church would play a central part in the governing the daily lives lived in the Province of Quebec. From running education and health care to great influence in legal matters, Catholicism was near omnipresent in Quebec prior to the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s. Prior to this cultural upheaval, master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock would put the Quebec Archdiocese on trial in his 1953 thriller, I Confess.
The customary director’s cameo is followed by the clever use of direction signs which take us through the shadowy, cobblestone streets of Quebec City to the scene of a freshly-murdered corpse and the fleeing shadow of a robed figure. We follow this mystery man back to a rectory where Father Logan (Montgomery Clift) witnesses his arrival. Logan investigates and discovers the man is a familiar face, German gardner and handyman Otto Keller (O.E. Hasse). Keller admits in confession that he has killed local lawyer Villette (an uncredited Ovila Legare) in an impulsive robbery gone wrong.
It’s not long before suspicion of the murder is cast on Logan as Keller has planted the bloody robe in his quarters leading to his arrest by the hard boiled Inspector Larrue (Karl Malden). With the priest unable to defend himself due to the sanctity of the confessional, his only hope lies in the further testimony of Ruth Grandfort (Anne Baxter), the wife of a Quebec politician who had a fling with Logan many years ago and still harbours feelings for him. Her story only incriminates him further however as it is revealed that Vilette had been blackmailing Ruth about their relationship for years, giving Logan a solid motive.
With the trial commencing and all eyes on whether Father Logan will be the first Catholic priest to be sent to the gallows for murder, Keller fears that Logan’s silence may not be ironclad and may just commit one more murder to be sure.
I Confess continues the classic Hitchcock theme of an innocent man wrongly accused by the law. Unlike those other films however, Logan has virtually no way to clear his name lest he break his religious vows. It was a difficult premise for non-Catholic viewers to swallow as Hitch would later admit. This paired with a lukewarm performance by star Montgomery Clift make for a rather passive protagonist and an overall lacking story. Maybe it’s the method acting, but Clift seems to be inhabiting a different movie than his co-stars, playing his scenes with what some might describe as restraint, but come off more as disinterest.
It’s hardly a dull affair though, as the film is populated by a stellar supporting cast including Anne Baxter who utterly captures the audience where Clift often fails. With her honour on the line and caught in a loveless marriage, her stakes are somehow made more compelling despite her not facing capital punishment. Karl Malden positively relishes his role as the delightfully headstrong Inspector Larrue. He may be imported from your favourite Hollywood Film Noir, but you’ll hardly care as he sells each and every one of his scenes with zeal and a spark of Hitchcock humour that seems to be missing from the rest of the film.
I’d be remiss to say that old Quebec City has likely never looked better as rendered here by cinematographer Robert Burks. The usual postcard-friendly and colourful colonial sights are transformed into unsettling shadows likely containing more deadly secrets than shown in this work. Being a pre-revolutionary Quebec, there’s a much more English presence throughout than it’s contemporary cousin even in court and parliament scenes. The French language is restricted to one scene between Ruth and her maid, and Quebecois accents are limited to some supporting characters and bit parts.
Like many other great Hollywood directors, Hitchcock’s Canadian-set effort is far from among his best. A recasting of the lead and a fine-tuning of the screenplay would have served this tale well. Even so, Hitchcock half-baked is still a much finer dish than many others well done.