Torn between conscience and duty, what is Fr. Michael Logan (Montgomery Clift) to do when the shadow of suspicion falls on him rather than the man who confessed to murder in his confessional? In Alfred Hitchcock’s I Confess (1953), a tortuous internal struggle begins for the young priest, especially considering that the guilty man, Otto (O.E. Hasse) is a friend and worker in the rectory of his Quebec parish.
Only Logan and Otto’s wife, Alma (Dolly Haas) know the truth, but there’s another complication eating away at the young priest – the victim was a sleazy lawyer attempting to blackmail him and former flame, Ruth Grandfort (Anne Baxter) for a liaison that the lawyer stumbled upon before the war and Logan’s ordination into the priesthood. With the past threatening to fall like the Sword of Damocles upon their heads, Logan and Ruth feel relief at this fateful intervention but before long, lead investigator, the wily Inspector Larrue (Karl Malden) has his suspicions raised by the testimony of two young eyewitnesses claiming to have seen a priest in the vicinity of the crime.
Under sufferance, Ruth reluctantly spills their back-story to Larrue, hoping to expunge her own torment whilst exempting Logan from any blame; sadly she only provides the police with an even stronger motive for suspecting Logan’s involvement. For his own part, Logan remains committed to offering as little useful testimony as possible, sworn to preserving the sanctity of revelations unburdened in the confessional.
An increasingly unstable Otto makes life exceedingly difficult all round however; the cowardly act of a marginal man of no consequence, his theft-turned-murder eats away at his own conscience but is overruled by his instinct for self-preservation.
Hitchcock’s film, though a far cry from his later masterpieces, remains a remarkable entertaining film, full of quality in every department. As ever under the master’s tutelage, the performances are first-rate, though detractors of Clift may disagree; his intense gaze, as always, is present, as is that barely-moving visage, renowned as a model of self-containment. But there’s always been something hypnotic about Clift as an actor; perhaps the turmoil endured in his personal life made his portrayals of men like Logan somehow more compelling, those wounded eyes ensuring an empathetic response every time.
Malden pitches his performances perfectly; rather than overplaying him as a wearied soldier or a man capable of excessive insightfulness, he ensures Larrue is a believably efficient, formidable force. Baxter evokes sympathy as Ruth, the woman torn between her long-nourished flame for Logan and her happy loveless marriage to the accommodating Pierre (Roger Dann).
Hasse deserves special mention as the increasingly reprehensible Otto who becomes more so the closer he gets to believing he might get away with his crime, his callous moral neglect – even allowing Logan to take sole responsibility and lying under oath – taking on treacherous, monstrous proportions by the end.
Finally, Hitchcock employs two brilliant artisans to complete his vision: the effortless ingenuity of often-used cinematographer Robert Burks, who provides the visual polish with atmospheric, noirish nightscapes complimented by a host of ominously tilted low shots aimed at the city’s gothic spires; then there’s veteran composer Dimitri Tiomkin’s classy running musical commentary, perhaps over-emphasising emotions at times but igniting the film with a dramatic boldness that becomes a defining force as the suspenseful, strangely moving conclusion nears.