The Directors’ Chair: The Wrong Man and I Confess
CAUGHT IN A TRAP…AND I CAN’T WALK OUT
This month’s foray into director Alfred Hitchcock explores him putting characters into such black holes not even light can escape. I’ll give you a double whammy of two films where the legal system and the confessional go through the Hitchcock pretzel-making machine. And there ain’t nuthin’ glossy or romantic about it.
“THE WRONG MAN” ( 1956 ) – KAFKA AIN’T GOT NUTHIN’ ON HITCH
What if a system that is supposed to protect and work FOR us, turns against us? Hitchcock has explored the wrong man theme before, but this time, the man is really…really…wrong.
Sheesh, is THIS one ever a downer. But it’s still Hitchcock, and he shows how one man’s world is turned upside down and inside out. The forces of The Law work against Henry Fonda as a man accused of a crime he did not commit.
With no lawyer and not even that one (Constitutionally-allowed) phone call on his side, Fonda is ground through the legal system like sausage meat. The police are oppressively not so law and order doing their due diligence which doesn’t bolster my confidence in the system. Hitchcock gives a play-by-the-numbers policier with this film.
I like how all the bricks of Fonda’s alibi and whereabouts are laid out neatly and clearly beforehand. We, the audience, see the truth while The Law only sees what things look like, and not what they are. See…that’s a Hitchcock move, giving the audience more information than the characters have. How honestly and innocently Fonda’s Manny Balestrero’s answers questions – a man with nothing to hide. How terrifying events turn against him when all his actions look suspect to fit people’s perceptions. But worst of all is the collateral damage done to his family, specifically wife Vera Miles. Talking to my friend Wendy about the movie she says:
“I find it so SO heartbreaking.
He doesn’t hang, but it’s destroyed
him and her already anyway, so it
doesn’t matter. It’s so dark.”
Miles loses hold of her sanity as Fonda goes deeper and deeper into this Kafka-esque rabbit hole. Hitchcock tells the story in a very straight-forward manner, and takes us to a very deep dark place where the letter of the law drops very heavily. This is grim, folks. You don’t want to be there. But Hitchcock takes you by the hand…
“I CONFESS” ( 1953 ) ~ THE DIVINE BURDEN OR…I’M TOO SEXY FOR THIS COLLAR
Confession is good for the soul? In Hitchcock’s world, that’s iffy. An unstoppable force (the State) meets an immovable object (the Church), two forces in the grip of Hitchcock. When you deal with the State ~ the Law ~ the Police, they let you know anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. (See The Wrong Man). They’ll give up your secrets in a heartbeat and put you behind bars forever. But what if you confess to a priest…
I can just see Hitchcock meeting with his production team now with this simple kernel of an idea:
“What if a murderer confessed to a priest?”
And they’re off to the races.
If you want to get the full ‘Monty’ of the genesis of I Confess based on a play by Paul Anthelme, you can read the article in “Senses of Cinema”. What do you do when a man who confesses to murder implicates YOU in that crime? How galling is it to see a man taunt a priest with his confession of murder by saying: “you can’t tell, you’re a priest!” And as a priest, how bound are you by the tenets of religion, how committed are you to your faith that you say nothing, risking taking the rap yourself? What a pickle to be in. Well, I Confess is a movie about all that. It’s 1953. What young actor can you get to play such a man?
Why, Monty, of course!!
Montgomery Clift. A Place in the Sun is the film he does just before this one. [Could he be making amends for letting Shelley Winters drown? ;-)] Monty would be perfect for this role. It’s such a crime he looks so good with that collar wrapped around his throat; his soulful dark beauty gives way to distracting thoughts about a priest. (I confess!) But he’s perfect for the role because he’s such an internal actor. He can get ideas across without speaking and much of this movie is about NOT speaking. You can believe Monty the Priest has the integrity and deep faith that would prevent him from giving up the murderer…even if it means he himself will be charged with the crime. Clift is shackled to his conscience, but it’s a divine burden he bears.
Human nature will win out. How ironic the murderer condemns Clift for talking, (Monty has not) when it is he who suffers and bursts from not talking. Actor O.E. Hasse plays the weaselly little murderer who seems to want to transfer his guilt onto other people. A wife cannot testify against her husband. Oh yeah, she knows. He made sure of that.
But what better way to lock in that confession than by telling a priest. You kill two birds with one stone: absolution and the priest bears the burden of your crime. And you’re killing birds now, you creep. You can add that to your sins! I Confess is not one of Hitchcock’s sexy romantic technicolor thrillers. No one is being chased across the roofs of Paris or peeping in courtyard windows or crawling over presidents on Mount Rushmore. But it’s well-done and casts thoughts on religion and how deep one’s faith is. When everything hinges on not talking, Hitchcock makes the constraints of the confessional as suspenseful as hiding in a windmill.
— Theresa Brown for Classic Movie Hub
Theresa Brown is a native New Yorker, a Capricorn and a biker chick (rider as well as passenger). When she’s not on her motorcycle, you can find her on her couch blogging about classic films for CineMaven’s Essays from the Couch. Classic films are her passion. You can find her on Twitter at @CineMava.