Father Michael Logan (Montcomery Clift) is in a bit of a pickle. A man in his town has just been murdered and, immediately afterwards, the culprit – Otto Keller (O. E. Hasse), a handyman who lives and works predominantly at the rectory – confesses to the murder to Logan, within the safe confines of the church’s confession booth. The next day the police are alerted once Keller “discovers” the body during his regular duties, and Logan looks on in pained disapproval, knowing the murderer is free and walking amongst his clergy. What makes matters worse is when a couple of schoolgirls claim they saw a priest fleeing the scene of the crime – Keller wore a priest’s cassock to conceal himself – and Logan finds himself accused of killing the man, not helped by his shaky alibi and motive for wanting the man dead.
That’s right, it’s another story of a wrongfully accused innocent man. Yay. This was made a few years before Hitch perfected the genre with The Wrong Man, so looking back it feels quite redundant, but I Confess does have a nice line in the what-would-you-do? hypothetical, and the hero here is made even more of an improbably nice guy by being not just a priest, but a decorated war hero as well. Clift plays him like a boy scout, all doing-good and bright-eyed, but with absolutely no charisma. This is only my second Clift performance after Red River, and I really don’t rate him as an actor, particularly based on his work here. He’s so damn wooden, keeping one expression on his face throughout and barely belaying the crushing inner turmoil he must be going through. The only way I knew there was anything going on inside at all was because there surely must be due to the story at hand. If they remade this, they could cast Hayden Christensen and I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference, and that’s about the harshest criticism I could give.
Keller is a much better character, although he swings too quickly from desperate man in trouble to opportunistic scumbag, becoming almost unbelievably evil in the last act. Elsewhere, Anne Baxter is great as Ruth, a woman with whom Logan has a relationship they’d both rather keep secret, and Karl Malden does well as the dogged detective who may be a little too driven to solve the mystery. A particular stand-out amongst the supporting cast was Briane Aherne as the chief prosecutor, who is introduced as a fool and a cad – he is disappointed the girls coming in to provide a witness statement are of school age and not some pretty things he can drool over, and later he’s balancing forks on glasses and a drink of water on his head, yet when he gets in the courtroom he’s like a dog with a bone, not letting anyone get away with anything, no matter whom he is questioning.
The plot seems to think it’s much less predictable than it actually is. The middle segment is lorded over by a flashback narrated by Baxter’s Ruth, in which she explains the history between herself and Logan, and it’s awarded a revered, lofty tone because everything we’re told is important and integral to the plot. It’s also entirely concocted of information I’d assumed earlier, via the breadcrumb trail of clues we’re given, so this whole sequence felt like someone was just repeating exposition I was already positive about.
The staging of many sequences is a little on the nose – Logan being asked a question in court that he could answer in a manner that would clear his name fully, but he can’t because Jesus is on the cross on the wall right behind him – but the main problem the film fails to overcome is the sense that Keller is a man worth honouring religious beliefs for. I am not a religious person, but I can comprehend the idea in others, just not quite to the extent shown here. If you’re tempted to watch this then don’t. Go and watch The Wrong Man instead, it tells a much more interesting story, from a better viewpoint, and with a far superior central performance. Other than an interesting premise, I Confess has nothing to offer.
Choose Life 5/10