I Confess : Hitchcock in Quebec

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Today, except from the fact that I was working at 10:30 and really was about to slap someone in the face, today is really one of my most favourite days of the year? Why, because we celebrate what would have been Alfred Hitchcock’s birthday. For the occasion, of course, we ought to watch some of his films, but we, movie bloggers, also have the chance to participate to the Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon hosted by Coffee, Classics, & Craziness.
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When I saw the announcement for this blogathon I didn’t hesitate a minute to participate. The hardest part was actually to choose what to write about. Not because there is nothing to say about Hitch (au contraire!), but because there are too many possible subjects. I had already written a tribute to him in my earlier articles, but if I only think of his films, there are so many I want and still have to write about.
Well, I finally decided to take you with me on a trip to the old, charming and very catholic Quebec City of the fifties. I Confess, one of Hitchcock’s most underrated American films, is the one I’m going to explore for the occasion. I’ll convince you that it’s, in a way, one of his best films and one of the most worthy for any Hitchcock’s fans.
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I Confess was released in 1953. Apart from Hitch, the movie team was composed of Montgomery Clift, Anne Baxter, Karl Malden, Brian Aherne, Roger Dann, Charles Andre, O. E Hasse, Dolly Haas, Judson Pratt, Ovila Légaré and Gilles Pelletier: the actors, George  Tabori and William Archibald: the screenwriters who adapted the play by Paul Anthelme, Dimitri Tiomkin who composed the music, Rudi Fehr who took care of the editing, and Robert Burks, the cinematographer.
I Confess is set (and was filmed) in Quebec City. The main story goes like it: A man has been murdered and his murderer, Otto Keller (O. E Hasse) goes to the church to confess his sin to his “friend” Father Michael Logan (Montgomery Clift). Because of the “law of silence” Father Logan can’t reveal what he has heard in the confessional. That begins to be problematic when, due to two little girls’ testimony, Inspector Larrue (Karl Malden) starts to suspect him to be the murderer. Ruth Grandfort, his ex-girlfriend, is convinced of his innocence and is ready to reveal a lot to save him.
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I Confess was described by film critic Sarah Ortiz as being the most Catholic films of Hitchcock’s films. That goes without saying as the religion indeed has a major part to play in the film. Without it, we wouldn’t have any story, and we wouldn’t have this very clever plot element. Think about it. Isn’t that a great idea: a priest who cannot reveal a murder due to the Law of Silence, being even ready to sacrifice his own life. Someone had to think about it. Hitchcock himself had a Catholic education and  understood perfectly how things worked in the world: he couldn’t choose a better place than Quebec City, then very religious and conservative, to set his story. As a matter of fact, most of French-Canadian movies shot during this period all have something very catholic, even if it’s not necessarily the central subject. On a bitter note concerning the Catholicism, the movie was, on its released, ban by the Irish Republic as it showed a priest having a relation with a woman (however, this one has his relation before he becomes a priest…).
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But this very Catholic period in Quebec is not often remembered as a good thing. It was indeed very conservative and the province of Quebec was then in a sinister period, being governed by Maurice Duplessis. This period was called in French “La Grande Noirceur” (The Big Darkness). No liberties, except for the church who had an immense power. Fortunately, we managed to run away from it in the 60s with the Révolution Tranquille (The Quiet Revolution). But we can feel this sinister atmosphere in the film. I Confess is indeed one of the less funny Hitchcock’s films, aside from father Benoît and his bicycle. However, in his interview with François Truffaut, Hitchcock admitted that this film should have contained more humour. Maybe it was one of the factors why it wasn’t  a Box Office success… Was it TOO serious?
In an interview with the New-York Time, Hitchcock also revealed that he chose to shoot this film in Quebec City because “in no American city do you find a priest walking down the street in a cassock.” That’s quite true, which, once again, proves the omnipresence of the Catholic Church in the Quebec of the pre-sixties.
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The cast for I Confess was quite interesting as it was not a typical Hitchcockian cast. Hitch, indeed, liked the re-use the same actors (James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Cary Grant, etc.). But none of the I Confess actors had starred in one of his films before and would after. Also, he used a “method” actor, Montgomery Clift, for the main character. And we know he wasn’t particularly fond of method actors. To answer your question, yes, he had a difficult time with Monty during the shooting. Anne Baxter, yes, is blond (well, in this film) like Hitchcock liked it, but she isn’t the same blond type as Grace Kelly or Tippi Hedren were. I think the most interesting and relevant part of this cast is the use of two French-Canadian actors: Ovila Légaré and Gilles Pelletier (by the way, the only member of the cast who is still alive today). But we’ll come back to them later.
Montgomery Clift, even if Hitchcock wasn’t too convinced by him, did a great job in the role of Father Logan. His acting game is honest and fine. It is not overshadowed by the other great actors of the cast and he is in perfect harmony with the film itself. The only problem: he’s much too much handsome to be a priest! Ahah! Not that I have any prejudice about priest, but, you know, one can be disappointed. 😉
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It’s thanks to this film that Anne Baxter became a very favourite of mine. As a matter of fact, this film is my favourite of hers. She’s just fantastic. She touches you and reaches your heart. She embodies the strongest emotions of the film. I sometimes can’t believe I used, a long time ago, not to care about this actress. Her sad eyes are adorable and her low voice is spellbinding.
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It is always a pleasure to see Karl Malden in any films, even if, in this one, he doesn’t have a very sympathetic role. But, whatever the type of character he is, he is always great. We don’t have to wonder if he will be, we know he will. I have to say, he is one of the most convincing actors of the film. Monty Clift is great, but we know he’s acting, pretending. Karl Malden is more natural. He just is what he has to be.
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The presence of Brian Aherne, a most intriguing actor, is quite intriguing.  He plays someone who can change very easily due to the circumstances. As a crown prosecutor in court , he will terrify Ruth Grandford, but in his everyday life, he is a friend to her. Brian Aherne is an actor with no pretension who fitted perfectly in the role of Willy Robertson. François Truffaut himself admitted to Hitchcock that Robertson was one of the most interesting characters of the film. Interesting fact: his first wife, actress Joan Fontaine, starred in two Hitchcock’s films: Rebecca and Suspicion.
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O. E Hasse, a German actor, was well chosen as a German immigrant. His character is quite dumb and annoying, I have to say, and Hasse succeed to be this way brilliantly. We just really feel sorry for this guy, just like Father Logan does. Dolly Haas, who plays his wife was an American-German actress. The name of her character, Alma Keller, was chosen in remembrance of Alma Reville, due to her physical ressemblance to Hitchcock’s wife. Alma is the most sensible character of the film. She is a good person and, just like father Logan, is ready to sacrifice herself, but this time, really to save someone, not only because of a “law”. If Anne Baxter was very touching, she is too.
I won’t talk about all the actors, but I have to mention the presence of Ovila Légaré and Gilles Pelletier, the two French-Canadian actors who were chosen to star in the film. Imagine the privilege to star in a Hitchcock’s film! They both don’t have a very big part, but those are both important for different reasons. Olivia Légaré plays the role of Villette, the man who has been murdered. We only saw him in the flashback scene, but all the story turns around him. Gilles Pelletier plays the role of Father Benoît, who will make us laugh with his bicycle. He’s probably the most sympathetic character and actor of the lot. To give you some historical facts, Ovila Légaré also was a singer. In the 50s, he also starred in Le Père Chopin, Un homme et son pécher, Le Curé du Village and Le Rossignol et les cloches (as a restorer – my favourite role of his). As for Gilles Pelletier, he is the brother of Denise Pelletier, an important French-Canadian actress. I saw him recently in La grande séduction, which is known as one of the best French-Canadian films.
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I Confess‘ cinematography, conducted by Robert Burks, simply is a masterpiece. I have to say, among all black and white Hitchcock’s films, I think this one has the most beautiful cinematography. Curiously, Burks also took care of the cinematography of To Catch a Thief, which is, for me, visually, the most beautiful Hitchcock’s color film. He also was the cinematographer for Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, The Trouble with Harry, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), The Wrong Man, Vertigo, North by Northwest, The Birds and Marnie. Hum, I think Hitch appreciated his work. And he was right! Robert Burks won an Oscar for his work in To Catch a Thief (very well deserved).
I Confess is visually stunning. The way Burks shows the old Quebec City to the spectators’ eye is mesmerizing. He creates a dark and mysterious atmosphere by making contrasts with the darkness and the light. He films the church and the crosses in very interesting angles. I Confess has a very “film noir” aesthetic, and it’s probably for this reason that it sometimes is considered to be a noir. The best example of it would be the opening scene. As for the opening credits, those shows us the Château Frontenac, an important symbol of the city, which was an idealistic way to introduce the film.
To add a sonorous ambiance to this mysterious illustrations of Quebec, Dimitri Tiomkin composed an effective musical score. It is not remembered has the most famous score from an Hitchcock’s film (Tiomkin wasn’t Bernard Hermann), but his music does the job and he understood what he had to do.
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It’s unfortunate that I Confess didn’t have a bigger success on it’s release. It’s a brilliant an entertaining story. It has an immense suspense like every Hitchcock’s films. Even today, it’s still snubbed by many. What do people need? On a better note, I Confess was a favourite among the directors of the New Wave (that includes François Truffaut, of course). So, it’s a proof that it can be appreciated by people with great tastes. This film, I like it more and more each time I watch it. It’s the kind of film you discover something new every time you watch it. When I saw it for the last time, yesterday, with my mother, this one thought it was an excellent film. And she’s not François Truffaut! So “normal” people can also like/love it.
I had the chance, last winter, to see it on big screen. One word: stunning. It’s thanks to this experience that I realized how it was visually beautiful. Also, the fact that it doesn’t only take place in Quebec, but that it was really filmed there is quite appreciable for someone like me, who has often been there (last time, I was waiting for my parents who were stuck in the traffic – er – not as thrilling as an Hitchcock’s film…). It’s always nice when you watch this film and you recognize the places. But it’s the fact that it was directed by Hitchcock that make the whole lot so special!
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Anyway, it’s a film that deserves many more chances! I was here today to honour Hitchcock, but also to honour one of his most underrated films, because it deserved to be.
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A big thanks to Coffee Classics and Craziness for hosting this wonderful blogathon.
Don’t forget to read the other entries as well!
Happy heavenly birthday Hitch!
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21 thoughts on “I Confess : Hitchcock in Quebec

  1. Good write up! 🙂

    I was really caught out by this film since it rarely gets a mention when discussing the Hitchock canon but I found it to be a deeply engaging and understated film, and stands as one of his more underrated works.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I haven’t watched this one yet, but you have convinced me to try an get the DVD as soon as possible!
    I love the shout-out to Robert Burks! A favorite of mine. Awesome cinematography in To Catch a Theif.
    You’ve made a wonderful case for I Confess, bravo!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great review Virginie. You’re right it’s an underrated film. I think it is because as you said it wasn’t a typical Hitchcock film – not much humor and no actors from Hitch’s stock company. I’ m glad Hitch tried something different ,

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I always feel bad for I, Confess. No one seems to like it or appreciate it that much, and I must admit I need to give it a second chance myself. It’s a very different cast, as you pointed out — I have a hard time remembering that Anne Baxter was ever a Hitchcock blonde! Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

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