In 1986, Tabori – widely championed as one of Europe's greatest theatre directors when he died in 2007 – gave an interview with a German newspaper in which he said: "I was never a particular fan of Hitchcock's work." The problem, he explained, was that he had grown up as part of generation of European filmmakers who still had aspirations and ideals about cinema. Hitchcock, on the other hand, just wanted to entertain. The way Tabori envisioned it, I Confess was meant to be socio-political parable for McCarthyite terror – "Hitch listened to my ideas, but ultimately he just wasn't interested."
I can tell why Tabori might have said that, but I also reckon couldn't have been more wrong. Even without Tabori's final touches, I Confess is Hitchcock's most European film: continental arthouse with a dash of British humour, barely touching the American gothic that became Hitch's trademark.
Set in French-speaking Quebec City, it starts with a dramatic collage of street signs that would have pleased Walter Benjamin, culminating in a camera swoop through an open window: a man lies murdered on the ground. Next, a shot straight out of Fritz Lang: a shadowy figure in a cassock walking down old-world cobblestones. As he turns a corner, the murderer discards his ecclesiastical robes and packs them in a bag.
In the next scene we see the man in a church, confessing his crime to a real priest: the murderer is Otto Keller (OE Hasse), a German refugee who works as a lay caretaker at the church. Father Michael Logan (Montgomery Clift) promises to keep the sacramental seal but we already know what's going to happen: the churchman will end up as the prime suspect in the case. Will he keep his oath, or break it to save his life?
Cahiers du Cinéma rated I Confess more than any of Hitchcock's other films; Eric Rohmer called it "a modern masterpiece". You can see why: for those who like to break their films down into structural parts, there's plenty to admire. Keller's confession is neatly mirrored by that of Logan's girlfriend (Anne Baxter) from pre-priesthood days, now married. She tells the police that the victim had been blackmailing her, and that she saw Logan on the night of the murder to seek advice. It's meant to serve as an alibi, but the timing doesn't quite match up, and her testimony only ends up incriminating the priest further.
As it happens, this bit is also where the film's flaws are hardest to ignore. In Tabori's original script, Father Logan gets revealed to be the father of an illegitimate child and is executed at the end – too much for the producers to handle. But without those revelations, the plot starts to sag a bit. What exactly is Logan's teenage sweetheart being blackmailed for?
It would be absurd to pretend that I Confess can match Strangers on a Train for suspense, The Birds for thrills, or North by Northwest for wit. There's a fairly amusing running gag involving a dopey priest on a bike, but even he looks like he would rather edge out of the reel. Instead, it offers something we don't usually turn to Hitchcock for: seriousness.
Lead actors matter in Hitchcock's films, but mainly because of what they do, rather than what's going on inside them. Here it's different: it's almost as if the former Jesuit schoolboy Hitch is caught off-guard, not so much confidently directing as being slowly mesmerised by Father Logan's inner turmoil. Hollywood's original method actor before Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift filmed with his acting coach just out of shot, but his performance is a masterclass in subtlety. He interiorises so much, you sometimes start to wonder if he's acting at all.
Clift's understated style is brought out even more by the contrast with theatrically-trained Hasse, who does more melodrama with his eyes in the first minute than Clift in the entire movie. When Keller overhears his name mentioned by police, he swooshes around like a camp Count Dracula doing a double take. Contrast that with Clift's character being declared innocent by the judge at the end of the movie: for a few seconds there's no reaction whatsoever, then Father Logan breathes the softest, aspen-leaf sigh of relief.
In the work of someone so exhaustively appreciated as Hitchcock, you wouldn't expect to find forgotten masterpieces but I Confess is one. It might never catch fire, but it smoulders gloriously.