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In the summer and fall of 1951, Alfred Hitchcock oversaw the development and rewriting of two film projects. The first to be ready would be his next film, his follow-up to Strangers on a Train (1951). As it turned out, I Confess (1953) won the race and The Bramble Bush was later abandoned altogether. (A 1960 film with that title is unrelated.)
It may also be that I Confess won because it was the more personal of the two competing properties. While The Bramble Bush was a wrong-man story with political overtones drawn from a recent novel, I Confess, based on an obscure French play, was much more meaningful to Hitchcock as it dealt with Catholic guilt. Hitchcock had been raised Roman Catholic and was fascinated by the play's story of a priest who hears a murderer's confession yet cannot reveal it even when the priest himself is falsely charged with the same crime. The play by Paul Anthelme had been written in 1902, with the rights inherited in 1947 by Anthelme's nephew, who in turn sold it to writer-agent Louis Verneuil before it found its way to Hitchcock.
The huge coincidences in the plot presented something of a problem for audiences, as did the crux of the yarn itself -- the refusal, or inability, of the priest to clear himself by simply telling what he knows. Hitchcock later admitted that he hadn't foreseen some non-Catholic audience members having so much trouble empathizing with the priest's dilemma. "The trouble with I Confess [is] we Catholics know that a priest cannot disclose the secret of the confessional, but the Protestants, the atheists, and the agnostics all say, 'Ridiculous! No man would remain silent and sacrifice his life for such a thing.'"
The director also thought that the film suffered from too much solemnity. "The final result was rather heavy-handed," he said. "The whole treatment was lacking in humor and subtlety. I don't mean that the film itself should have been humorous, but my own approach should have been more ironic, as in Psycho  -- a serious story told with tongue in cheek."
Hitchcock possibly also remembered I Confess not too fondly because of the difficulties he had with Montgomery Clift, who stars as the priest. On one hand, Clift was going through a serious drinking problem, and co-star Anne Baxter later said Clift was so disconnected from his job that he sometimes just offered a blank stare when Baxter needed more of an emotional response in a tense dramatic scene. Baxter attributed this to the drinking.
But more than the drinking was Clift's method acting -- something that did not jibe with Hitchcock's approach at all -- and his reliance on his acting coach Mira Rostova. She was with him at all times, especially on the set during filming, and this became a source of major tension. Clift was much more concerned with getting Rostova's approval of his work than Hitchcock's. And he would go over his lines with her rather than with the other actors. Malden was the only member of the cast or crew to become somewhat close to Clift, and he acted as go-between between Clift and Hitchcock. But even Malden eventually grew frustrated with the attention Clift demanded from Rostova. When scenes between Malden and Clift were over, Clift would look not to Malden to discuss what they had just done, but rather to Rostova, ignoring Malden completely. Malden seethed, but kept it to himself. Hitchcock later summed it up simply: "There are some actors I've felt uncomfortable with, and working with Montgomery Clift was difficult because he was a method actor and a neurotic as well."
All that being said, Clift turned in a fine performance, helped no doubt by the fact that he happened to be close friends with a monk living in a Quebec monastery. He proved a valuable resource, and Clift spent a week before the shoot living at the monastery as research. "Priests walk in a special way because they wear robes or habits," Clift said. "When they walk they push the material forward with their hands." In this and many other tiny ways, Clift fully inhabited his role as the priest. The actor was also at the top of his game at this time; I Confess would be sandwiched between A Place in the Sun (1951) and From Here to Eternity (1953), both of which landed him Oscar® nominations (two of five in all).
Hitchcock also wasn't thrilled with having Anne Baxter in the cast -- not that he didn't like her personally, but he simply had preferred and already hired Swedish actress Anita Bjork for the part. But when Jack Warner discovered that Bjork had an illegitimate lover and child, he blew a gasket, not wanting a repeat of the PR disaster that had recently fallen upon Ingrid Bergman. Warner replaced Bjork with Baxter, and Hitchcock only met with Baxter a week before filming began in Quebec. Baxter later recalled that Hitchcock had her dye her blonde hair an even lighter shade. "He was very particular about wardrobe and hair," she said. "I felt I wasn't as pretty as he wanted a woman to be in his films, and as he wanted me to be. There was a lot of Pygmalion in him, and he was proud of how he transformed actresses. When I arrived, everything happened so fast that they didn't design a new wardrobe for me; they altered Anita Bjork's clothes. Naturally, I was a little overwrought about the haste, but he simply said, 'Anne, it's only a movie!'"
The leading lady wasn't the only change imposed upon Hitchcock. The screenplay originally had the priest being executed at the end, and then proven innocent. But Warner ruled against this for fear of offending Catholics. The studio also nixed the original plan of having the priest have an illegitimate child from a pre-ordination affair. That particular plot point was a big source of what had attracted Hitchcock and Clift to the story, but there was nothing they could do.
All the exteriors and almost all the interiors were shot on location in Quebec. The rain was real -- not manufactured by effects men. A hotel stood in for itself. Detectives and kitchen workers in one scene were played by the real thing, as were many extras throughout the picture. Hitchcock was going for naturalism in I Confess -- perhaps not to the degree that he would in The Wrong Man (1956), but close to it.
Critics didn't buy it. The New York Times' Bosley Crowther complained of dragginess, writing, "It is not the sort of entertainment that one hopefully expects of 'Hitch.'" Variety, too, said in its opening line that the film was "short of suspense."
To be fair, I Confess never attempts to be a traditional Hitchcockian suspense film. It is much more of a character study and a naturalistic examination of an impossible situation. That's one reason it's one of Hitchcock's least-known pictures and an intriguing one to discover.
Producer: Sidney Bernstein, Alfred Hitchcock
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: George Tabori, William Archibald, based on a play by Paul Anthelme
Cinematography: Robert Burks
Art Direction: Ted Haworth, John Beckman
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
Film Editing: Rudi Fehr
Cast: Montgomery Clift (Father Michael Logan), Anne Baxter (Ruth Grandfort), Karl Malden (Inspector Larrue), Brian Aherne (Willy Robertson), O.E. Hasse (Otto Keller), Roger Dann (Pierre Grandfort), Dolly Haas (Alma Keller).
by Jeremy Arnold
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