As you may know from reading this blog, I’m a big fan of Alfred Hitchcock. However (and as long as we’re on the subject of confessions), I confess that I started watching this movie expecting something a bit different.
Let me begin by setting the stage. The movie opens with numerous shots of Québec City in all its quasi-French grandeur, lending the setting a European feel. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that the shots are from various angles in the manner of a German expressionist film. Amidst the montage, one shot in particular stands out, because Hitchcock seems obsessed with it uses it over and over and over repeatedly to make a point (no pun intended). It’s a street sign that points (presumably) in the direction traffic should move—like a one-way sign, except this one simply says, “Direction”.
Now, not only do we get a quick glimpse of Hitch doing his cameo in the montage, but the street sign (which seems to grow bigger with each shot) points right to … you guessed it—the crime scene! We look through a window and see the body of a freshly-killed victim. Then we spy someone wearing a priest’s robe leave the building and hurry down the street. The man (because it is a man) ditches the robe and makes haste into a church.
The murderer kneels sweating in a pew, apparently praying or just freaking out. And to the great misfortune of Father Michael Logan (played by the magnificent Montgomery Clift), the man’s misery calls attention to itself. For the man is one Logan recognizes—Otto, a German immigrant caretaker for the church (who also moonlights, if that’s the right word, part-time as a gardener for the victim—a sleazy lawyer called Villette).
Naturally, Otto confesses his deed to Father Logan, not only because he’s disgustingly sweaty and desperate, but he’s sure that Logan will keep his secret, no matter what. Otto basically shares with his housekeeper wife, Alma, this confession and the thoroughly disgusting loathsome way he will keep it secret by using Logan.
Enter the police, as represented by the very cocksure Inspector Larrue (played smarmily by Karl Malden), who by a series of events that I won’t recount here becomes convinced that Father Logan committed the crime. The evidence is flimsy as hell circumstantial, based initially on witness identification (the least reliable form of evidence, which could easily be attacked based on difficulty seeing the man at night) by two girls who never even saw the man’s face. And, of course, small matters like forensic evidence don’t figure into this, because it’s 1953 and who cares about all that?
Add to that the fact that Villette the Dead Lawyer was the kind of guy who kept dirt on lots of people and you really have to wonder, “What the hell are the police thinking?”
Without going into spoilers, here’s the part that I really didn’t believe. Why on earth did Logan bend over backwards to find an alibi in someone who could get hurt, when he could simply tell police, “I was taking a someone’s confession and I’m bound by my profession to secrecy.”
This was what I thought the movie would be about—the conflict between a priest’s duty to a confessor and law enforcement’s duty to solve cases. And while I realize that saying one was taking a confession doesn’t necessarily provide an alibi (by dint of its very secrecy), it would go over a lot better than scrambling for an alibi that ends up screwed due to bad timing.
Finally, as a lawyer, I was simply appalled by a statement a judge makes after a trial. Again, I don’t want to reveal spoilers, but that judge made me want to vomit sick.
And, okay—I get the point about how accusation can translate into guilt in the minds of the populace, even when one is exonerated. It is at that point (and that one alone) that really saved this movie for me. We must be ever vigilant in remembering that (under the British common law system, at any rate) people are innocent until proven guilty, not the other way around.
Due to the stellar performances and despite the fact that this film
made me want to spit nails kill Alfred all over again got under my skin, I’m willing to grant it a single thumbs up. Because, warts and all, it’s a worth a look!