What would you do (we might ask ourselves) if you were faced with the nearly impossible choice: to save your life, but possibly lose your soul; or lose your life, but possibly save your soul? It’s the perilous, gut-wrenching moral situation we would all prefer to never have. And it’s the premise of Alfred Hitchcock’s glorious black and white noir thriller I Confess.
Alfred Hitchcock is one of the greatest filmmakers in history. He was the winner of many awards, including five lifetime achievement awards, and nominated five times for, though never winning, an Academy Award as Best Director. His film Rebecca (nominated for 11 Oscars) won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1940. Despite never winning a directing Oscar, Hitchcock’s psychological subtlety and stylistic innovation on the silver screen earned him acclaim as a cinematic master. His film Vertigo is currently voted the critics choice as greatest film ever.
In 1953, Hitchcock, known as “the master of suspense”, shot I Confess on the streets of Quebec City. It was the only film he made in Canada, and a rare venture forth for an on-location shoot, as he preferred to build large sets in studio and remain in California. In I Confess a young priest named Fr. Michael Logan (Montgomery Clift) hears the confession of a man named Otto Keller – whose name sounds a lot like “killer” – who has committed a murder. Then Fr. Logan becomes the prime suspect himself, and can’t reveal the real culprit because of the seal of confession. This is also a rare film in which Hitchcock’s Catholic background explicitly informed his story-telling.
The situation becomes even more complex as it is revealed that Fr. Logan’s alibi would risk compromising the reputation of a married female friend (Ann Baxter). His silence also seems to point to a motive for the murder, putting Fr. Logan in an impossible situation. He could simply tell the Inspector Larrue (Karl Malden) the true facts, save himself, and condemn the actual murderer. But for reasons buried in his innermost conscience, he does not.
Throughout this trial, his character emerges as the quintessential “Christ-figure”, suffering his own version of the paschal mystery for the sake of truth and out of fidelity to his vocation. It is not without feelings of chaos and confusion. Not only does he face legal conviction for murder, he suffers the visceral rejection and scorn of the people of Quebec City. Out of a variegated love for different people, he remains silent when he might defend himself. Like the mysterious suffering servant figure in Isaiah, he is afflicted yet opens not his mouth (Is 53:7).
There is only one course of action that Fr. Logan chooses. He bears his cross patiently, remains faithful to the promises of his priestly ordination, and hopes that a ray of mercy will penetrate the just/unjust imbroglio in which he is hopelessly enmeshed. This ray does, of course, arrive, but in the unanticipated way that the action of grace is wont to occur. In the meantime, he must undergo his via crucis.
I Confess shows us that holding ourselves to a higher “justice”, a higher truth, a higher love, can sometimes call us to suffer. Yet, as we know about the Christian story, even if the sense of abandonment is acute and seemingly final, mercy is never far away, but labouring, subtly, even in a Hitchcockian manner, working all things to the good.
The screening of “I Confess”, starring Montgomery Clift, Anne Baxter and Karl Malden takes place at Regis College, Toronto this Wednesday, Sept 28, at 7pm. Hand-out reflections and a short optional discussion to follow.
A series of film screenings, curated by John D. O’Brien, S.J., is taking place on Wednesday evenings until October 26. Dedicated to the Year of Mercy, these films develop the theme “justice and mercy shall embrace”. For details, see Regis College Film Series