The Directors’ Chair: The Wrong Man and I Confess

The Directors’ Chair: The Wrong Man and I Confess


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.


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.

Henry Fonda in The Wrong Man

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.

THE WRONG MAN Henry Fonda, Charles Cooper, Walter Kohler, Vera Miles, and Daniel Ocko

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.

Vera Miles

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.”

Vera Miles

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…



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!!

I CONFESS Montgomery Clift
Montgomery Clift

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.

I CONFESS ( 2 ) Strange pillow talk between O.E. Hasse and Dolly Haas
Strange pillow talk between O.E. Hasse and Dolly Hass 

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.

Montgomery Clift and O E Hassee I confess
Alright already ~ spill the beans…or the damned rosary beads

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.

I CONFESS Montgomery Clift 2


— Theresa Brown for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Theresa’s Directors’ Chair articles here.

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.

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4 Responses to The Directors’ Chair: The Wrong Man and I Confess

  1. Bob says:

    Very good write-up … thank you. I saw both of these films for the first time within the last year or so. Loved them both … maybe “I Confess” a little more. Montgomery Clift and Henry Fonda … both great.

    • Theresa Brown says:

      Hey there Bob!

      Thank you so much for reading my essay. I’d have to say I’m partial to “I Confess” as well. Hitchcock has put Monty in such a bind, such a suspenseful bind, I wait with baited breath as to how much he escapes this predicament.

      ThxXx again, Bob.

  2. Jeanelle Kleveland says:

    Theresa, you picked two very dark stories for your article. Both of these Hitchcock films star two of my famous Nebraskans–Fonda and Clift. They each played their parts well. Thanks for the article.

  3. Theresa Brown says:

    You’re right Jeanelle…these are pretty dark fare from Hitchcock. And your Nebraska boys know how to go with the flow.

    Hope you had a great Thanksgiving. Stay safe out there!!


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