Go to almost any Hitchcock discussion site, and you’ll find plenty of commenters who find it unbelievable that a Catholic priest would keep the secrets of the confessional, even if keeping those secrets might lead to his conviction for murder. But that is the premise of Catholic director Alfred Hitchcock’s 1952 movie, “I Confess.”
It is a premise based not only on church teaching, but on centuries of clerical practice. Hitchcock gets it right; his critics get it wrong.
The movie, set in Quebec, follows the travails of Father Michael Logan (Montgomery Clift), who happens to see the parish handyman, Otto Keller (O.E. Hasse), coming into the church late one night. Logan goes down to find a trembling Keller, who insists that he must make his confession. They go into the confessional, where Keller confesses that, in the course of a robbery, he has just murdered a local lawyer, for whom he worked as a part-time gardener.
Logan admonishes Keller to make restitution for the crime, but it becomes clear that Keller intends to keep the money and get away with the murder. Indeed, Keller has always intended to hide his crime, as evidenced by his dressing in a priest’s cassock when he sets out to rob the lawyer.
Because of an eyewitness who testified to having seen a priest — that is, a man in a cassock — near the lawyer’s house around the time of the murder, suspicion soon falls on the city’s priests. Logan’s innocent involvement with his former fiancée (now married to a prominent politician) who was being blackmailed by the lawyer, brings the police to focus on Logan exclusively. They arrest Logan and he stands trial for murder. (Keep an eye out for the cord on the blind just behind the jury box in the trial scene. It looks less like a cord than a noose. Foreshadowing?)
The suspense arises from questions that have roots in age old questions of good and evil. Can Logan keep the seal of confession? Will he be true, even if it means his own death? Will Otto Keller and his meek wife, Alma, continue their lies? Will they respond to the cries of conscience or muffle its sound? Will Logan’s one-time love, Ruth Grandfort (Anne Baxter), protect her marriage and reputation or act to clear the young priest’s name? Will the aggressive policeman, Inspector Larue, ever consider that Logan’s consistent silence might have a source other than his own guilt? In this movie Hitchcock poses the most suspenseful question of all: In the time of trial will I stand firm?
Because not only can’t Logan reveal what Keller told him in the confessional, he can’t even reveal that he heard Keller’s confession. For him to do so, he would need Keller’s clear permission, and Keller is intent on concealing his crime. Here’s what Canon 983.1 says, “It is a crime for a confessor to betray a penitent by word or in any other manner or for any reason.”
Logan, and all the priests before him and all that would come after him, can’t break the seal for any reason. Not to save his reputation or good name or even to save his life.
St. John Nepomucene (1340-93) is the witness and companion for all faithful priests. He was the vicar general to the Archbishop of Prague and the confessor to the queen, the wife of King Wenceslaus IV. The king suspected his wife of infidelity and demanded that Nepomucene reveal the substance of her confessions. Nepomucene refused. The king tortured him, ordering that the priest’s tongue be cut out before he was thrown in to the River Moldau, where he drowned on March 20, 1393.
Part of the power of “I Confess” lies in its restraint. Logan is no heroic figure. He is a small, diffident man, who is plainly anxious and confused by the legal web closing around him. He is not a superhero, but a parish priest. His call is not for spiritual pyrotechnics, but for day-to-day faithfulness to the bonds of baptism and ordination. We recommend this movie (not rated) for all older teens and adults. Make time after the movie for the conversation it will surely spark.