24 July 2008

To Kill For

"If we only had $2,000 our troubles would be over," says the killer in Alfred Hitchcock’s I Confess (1953). It can be–or it can at least seem to be–just that simple. One lump sum of money can wipe away debt, or buy all the things we need or allow us to flee to a new life. It doesn’t even have to be an impossibly large sum. It can be a mere pittance to a wealthy person, maybe just the equivalent of an average worker’s monthly salary. 

The trouble is how to get it? Expecting to win the lottery is not realistic. Better to imagine an unexpected windfall from a will, the discovery of a rare artifact, or the sale of novel. So many of us are $2,000, or $50,00 or $500,000 away from freedom. Or so we think. Meanwhile the yearning for that magical lump sum can imprison us. We lose track of what we do have and how we can build on that towards better days. Sometimes all it takes is hard work and sticking it out. Quick fixes are so often a false idol we wrongly worship.

This is actually a helluva digression from the story of I Confess, which is hardly about the actual murderer at all. It instead focuses on the wrongly accused (there’s that Hitchcock theme again) a Catholic priest who is in fact the killer’s confessor. Not only did he not do it, he knows who did and because he was told in confession, can't reveal what he knows. Talk about a triple whammy!   Montgomery Clift gave a typically strong performance in the lead role. He managed to express so very much while playing perhaps one of the most stoic characters in the history of film.

This is arguably Hitchock's’ most underrated movie, deserving as it does, a place alongside his more celebrated works. The theme, as I’ve suggested, is quite familiar to the legions of Hitchcock’s fans and the denouement is pure Hollywood, deviating 180 degrees from the original stage play. What sets I Confess apart, aside from Clift, is where Hitchcock put the camera.

The opening shots are masterful. Quebec in black and white–specifically,  it’s architecture, its streets and so many signs with the word “Direction” within an arrow. Then night time, pan into a room where there’s a body on the floor, apparently in a pool of blood. Now follow a man walking hurriedly down cobblestone streets, looking for all the world like a priest. The tone, the mood, and the atmosphere are set. The camera follows the rest from always the right perspective and angle.  The faces are always shot so as to tell more than words possibly can. Vintage Hitch.

While there are standard dramatic elements in I Confess, there are also surprises to this story.  More important than the revelations of the story is the manner in which it is told.

The cast includes Anne Baxter who does little as the blackmailed ex-love of Clift. Indeed, next to Clift, the rest of the cast is comparatively pedestrian except for German actor O.E. Hasse as the killer. Hasse’s Keller is a man just $2,000 away from a better life, and he’s willing to kill for it, and he’s happy to let Clift take the fall for it.  Another German, Dolly Haas is heart breaking as the killer's wife.
These were rare English language appearance by Hasse and Haas.  Hasse was magnificent because he managed to simultaneously garner both are sympathy and antipathy.

I Confess.  A dark film with dark themes that is one of Hitch's best.

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