Like the film A Man for All Seasons (1966), Alfred Hitchcock’s film I Confess (1953) shows a good man thrust into a situation where there can be no compromise. Hitchcock (1899-1980) was brought up Catholic, educated at a Jesuit school in London, and he was intrigued by the cinematic potential of I Confess, originally a stage play in 1902 by Paul Anthelme. To make sure he got the film true to Catholic teaching, Hitchcock sought technical advice from Father Paul LaCouline, a moral theologian at Laval University. From Hitchcock’s I Confess one can glean five life lessons, and the dialogue quoted below comes from the film’s screenplay by George Tabori and William Archibald.
I Confess presents Father Michael William Logan, a fictional young priest of the Archdiocese of Quebec, played by Montgomery Clift. Logan has served his country and is now serving God. At the start of the Second World War he volunteered for the Canadian army and saw combat as a sergeant in the Regina Rifle Regiment. In historical reality, that regiment served in the Third Canadian Division storming Juno Beach during the Normandy invasion.
Back from the war, where his bravery earned him a Military Cross, Logan entered seminary. Ordained two years, he becomes ensnared in a murder investigation after hearing the confession of a murderer, Otto Keller, a refugee who is also the rectory’s handyman. Police investigators, led by Inspector Larrue, played by Karl Malden, piece together a puzzle that seems to identify Logan as the murderer.
Throughout the film Logan is haunted by the fact that honoring the seal of the confessional could lead him to be convicted of murder and sentenced to death. It is a standard theme in Hitchcock’s films, an innocent man pursued as though he were guilty, a nightmarish world where the constitutional apparatus of justice, smugly convinced the right man is in custody, stands poised to condemn the wrong man.
Two darkly comic scenes underscore the unsettling truth that things are not what they seem: whether to trust an advertisement for odorless paint; a bicycle tire that only appears to be flat. True to form, Hitchcock keeps the suspense taut until the last seconds of the film. That last scene, not to be spoiled here, shows Logan’s inner wrestling to the end.
- Know how to love. Before the war, Logan had a girlfriend, his childhood sweetheart, Ruth, played by Anne Baxter. Their romance is told only from her point of view, thus underscoring Logan’s reticence. Significantly, Ruth describes Logan as a serious man, serious about love and war. Human relationships, Logan knows, are not to be taken lightly. In his romantic friendship with Ruth, Logan strives to balance his desire for her with an inherited sense of chivalry. Although the movie does not state it explicitly, this well-grounded approach to love and relationship, as well as responsibility, prepares him for committing himself to Christ.
- Be honest. As the police investigation closes in on Logan, he meets with Ruth, now married to Pierre Grandfort, a Member of Parliament. Although she has been married seven years, she still loves Logan. Logan seeks to discourage such emotional attachments and is open and candid with her: “I don’t want you to lie to me, but I don’t want you to lie to yourself.” She repeats that she still loves him and declares that even after all these years, neither of them has changed. “I’ve changed,” Logan insists, adding, “you’ve changed, too.” Her infatuation blinds her to the fact of life represented by his cassock and clerical collar. “I want you to see things as they are,” he patiently explains, “and not go on hurting yourself.” Logan’s human formation has taught him that honesty and humility intersect.
- Be rational. Logan teaches us that discerning one’s calling in life requires not simply our heart, but also our mind. Our feelings may drive us to impetuous acts, while our reason reminds us of our promises and vows. Living out one’s vocation well involves, when possible, careful pacing, sticking to a steady, daily pattern. A priest in Logan’s day would have known from his intellectual formation the dogmatic constitution Dei Filius, the First Vatican Council’s definitive teaching about the harmony of faith and reason. To Inspector Larrue he explains: “I have a methodical mind. I do have to take things one by one.” Later in the same conversation Logan, surely trained in Thomistic logic, points out to the inspector, “A man of intelligence would not be led to believe anything on so little evidence.”
- Be faithful. Logan’s pastor tells a police detective, “Most of his time is given to his parishioners.” In other words, his ordination sets him apart, but not above, to serve others. Logan’s own sense of pastoral vocation is clear. “I chose to be what I am,” Logan tells Ruth, “I believe in what I am.” In the courtroom scene, Logan says from the witness box, “I never thought of the priesthood as offering a hiding place.” He knows that his vocation as a parish priest makes him a public figure, and he knows the responsibilities of his calling, even when his fidelity is strongly tested. “It’s easy for you to be good,” Otto Keller sneers at Logan, and Keller, using psychological projection, repeatedly calls Logan a coward. The film makes clear that being good is a constant interior struggle, and it confirms that cowards cannot live a life of integrity. While Keller schemes to save himself, Logan’s faithfulness to his vocation threatens to cost him his life.
- Know how to sacrifice. Logan modestly describes his wartime service by saying, “Well, I survived.” Logan’s understatement, in Clift’s portrayal, conveys authentic humility. Humility means being honest with oneself, knowing one’s abilities as well as one’s limits. Logan knows that he survived the war with distinction, and he knows how he survived it, courage emerging through fear. Nevertheless, he understands that he has no obligation to elaborate upon his role in D-Day or beyond. During that time of physical and spiritual trial, though, he discerned a priestly vocation. As Ruth observes, his letters home to her, always serious in tone, became fewer and fewer. In weighing how best to dedicate his life, he thus left behind the prospect of a natural good, marriage, for an objectively higher good, seeking and serving God in celibate chastity.
A longer version of this essay appeared in Seminary Journal 15 (Fall, 2009), pp. 74-76.
Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B., is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno. He teaches Church history at Saint Vincent Seminary.