The murder of a lawyer by a sacristan leads to the wrongful incrimination of a priest encapsulates the plot of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1953 film I Confess. Otto Keller confesses that he has killed lawyer Monsieur Villette to Father Michael Logan. The crux: Father Logan becomes suspected of killing Villette. Because of the seal of the confessional, Father Logan is unable to claim his innocence without inculpating Keller. Although Hitchcock claimed that I Confess was a failure because it lacked humour (Truffaut 200), film critic and theorist André Bazin convinced Hitchcock that I Confess bore strong thematic resemblances with his other films in what Claude Chabrol and Éric Rohmer described as “transference of guilt” (Krohn 1). The “transference” theme was argued by the critics of Cahiers du cinema as the bilateral exchangeability of innocence and guilt between the protagonist and antagonist (Chabrol and Rohmer 115). However, the “transference” theme, when applied to I Confess, reassigns many of the established motifs that have been now been deemed typically Hitchcockian. The idea of ‘reassigning,’ with regards to I Confess, is simply that Hitchcock appoints a different task or role to a particular motif that was established in his previous films. This reassigning of motifs also manifests in Hitchcock’s inversion of the light vs. dark / good vs. evil symbolism. Michael Walker’s Hitchcock’s Motifs will serve as guide for the analysis of the reassigned motif of physical confinement and concealment, found in Hitchcock’s earlier films, to oral confinement and concealment in I Confess. In addition, the reassigned symbolism of the color black from ‘evil’ to ‘guilt’ in I Confess will be discussed by demonstrating how Hitchcock’s opening sequence initiates the inversion of light vs. dark according to Chabrol and Rohmer’s ‘transference’ theme.
Hitchcock’s opening sequence expresses the didacticism of the Church but it also initiates the first inversion of the light vs. dark in I Confess. Hitchcock intercuts ‘direction’ panels forcing the viewer to follow the religious references such as crosses on top of churches or even crosses as shadows on buildings. However, the ‘direction’ panels and religious images do not lead to salvation; they lead to a murder scene, in broad daylight, that the viewer must face with submissive voyeurism as the camera peeks into the room where the dead body lies. The next shot, strangely, is a night shot of Otto Keller, fleeing the scene of his crime. The shot does not function properly in the timeline because both the previous shots and the following shots are composed entirely of day shots. A voluntary lapse on Hitchcock’s part in order to cement the mood, tone and idea that something is and will be amiss. This is again highlighted by the Dutch tilt shot contrasting Keller and his immense shadow on the wall. With its associations to German expressionism and the film noir genre, the Dutch tilt is usually used when a director wants to communicate a break in homeostasis.
The break itself comes in a little farther when Keller confesses his murder of Monsieur Villette to Father Logan. Hitchcock’s inversion of light vs. dark is a stylistic choice based on dramatic purposes. Symbolically, black is associated with the night and therefore evil, whereas white is the opposite, representing purity, innocence and, to a certain extent, piety. This presents Hitchcock with an interesting problem with regards to a priest’s cassock being black. With Father Logan being the ‘hero’ and wearing black the only logical compromise becomes to associate black with guilt. This explains why Father Logan must bring a candle down the church aisle in order to see Keller who was immersed in darkness three minutes into the film. Father Logan’s light, read innocence, is in complete contrast with Keller’s darkness, read guilt.
The inversion of light vs. dark symbolism occurs inside the confessional booth. Entering the confessional has Father Logan sentencing himself to a metaphorical prison, the origin of his oral confinement, which will be discussed later. The lighting inside the confessional adds a prison-like confinement when the bars shine on Father Logan and Keller’s face, the latter being confined in the other confessional booth. But, Hitchcock cross dissolves the conversation of Father Logan and Keller into Keller reiterating his confession to his wife in complete freedom. The dissolve signifies what Chabrol and Rohmer referred to as the ‘transference of guilt.’ The killer no longer has to carry his guilt because as he is now protected by the Church, but subsequently Father Logan is now burdened with carrying the guilt in Keller’s stead. This is properly demonstrated when Keller returns to the Church after having given his testimony to Inspector Larrue the latter who suspects Father Logan. In the sequence, Keller’s suit jacket is black but as he approaches Father Logan who is painting, he takes off his black jacket and thus symbolically and officially transfers his guilt to Father Logan.
Once the guilt has been transferred, the light vs. dark symbolism manifests in the other characters’ clothes. In the second act, during the interrogation sequence, Ruth Granfort is wearing a black dress, confirming that she is guilty of concealing her relationship with Father Logan. Alma Keller also wears a black dress at the end of the film just before she is killed by her husband. Alma has concealed her husband’s murder and therefore is concealing a guilty secret. In addition, Father Logan wishes to shed his guilt and therefore Hitchcock frames him contemplatively looking into a shop at a white suit at the end of the second act. The way in which the inversion of light vs. dark can be corrected is only when Keller has his parapraxis in the final scene of the film. Donald Spoto states: “the film both begins and ends with the killer’s confession. The first is told in the dark, curtained confessional booth […] The final confession is told in broad daylight at the ballroom stage of the hotel” (Spoto 223). Keller’s final confession brings Father Logan’s innocence to light and therefore the symbolism of light vs. dark is reset to its conventional state.
In the final scene, Keller’s guilt is transferred back to him on the ballroom stage, an open space contrasting with where he first confessed in the beginning of the film, the confessional booth. It is in the confessional booth that Michael Walker’s physical confinement and concealment motif is reassigned to oral confinement and concealment. In The Birds, Melanie, Mitch, Cathy and Lydia are confined to the living room during the bird attack. In Rear Window, Jeff is confined to his room and to a wheelchair. In Shadow of a Doubt, Charlie is confined to the garage whilst uncle Charlie tries to poison her with the carbon monoxide gas. But, in I Confess, the characters are orally confined as opposed to physically confined. None of the characters can provide information to the police about Monsieur Villette’s murder because of each individual’s oral confinement. Both Father Logan and Alma Keller cannot divulge their knowledge of Otto Keller’s being guilty of murdering Villette: Father Logan because of seal of the confessional and Alma Keller because of her loyalty to, or fear of, her husband. Ruth Grandfort’s oral confinement stems from Villette’s blackmailing her and Father Logan. Villette discovers Ruth’s want of a romantic relationship with Father Logan and blackmails both of them for a sum of money. Ruth cannot let Villette divulge her want of a romantic relationship with Father Logan for fear of endangering his Priesthood and the reputation of her husband, Pierre Grandfort, an important politician.
As a result, the oral confinement motif subverts Walker’s claim that in Hitchcock’s films the female characters, acting as Oedipal “protective mothers,” conceal the hero from the police, the “searching father.” This stance owes to the fact that the antagonist is hidden from the police in I Confess. Walker explains that the female characters conceal the hero as a form of protection from the police and, as a result, bring forth Oedipal overtones with regards to the physical concealment motif (Walker 115). The example Walker gives is the boat sequence from To Catch a Thief “when Danielle hides Robie under the foredeck of her motor boat” (Walker 115). The overtones manifest in I Confess via the oral concealment motif but Walker’s claim is subverted by Alma’s hiding Keller from the police and Ruth’s confession of her relationship Father Logan. Walker states:
“Concealing the hero […] makes it seem as though he is metaphorically hidden behind a young woman as if he were her guilty secret. […] The woman who hides the hero thus symbolizes the protective mother, and the police the hostile, searching father” (Walker 116).
The concealment motif is explained as being attributed only to the hero. Yet, Hitchcock’s reassigning of the concealment motif renders the hero, Father Logan, endangered by the actions of the “protective mother,” Ruth. In the second act of the film, Ruth is forced by the police Inspector Larrue to explain the nature of her relationship, or “guilty secret,” with Father Logan. The interrogation sequence is initiated by Larrue, the “hostile searching father,” whom Hitchcock films standing up throughout the entire scene. Hitchcock enables Larrue’s dominance and command of the situation by having him look down at the other characters from various locations in the interrogation room. Hitchcock’s emphasis on Larrue’s stature intimidating Ruth results in her revealing Father Logan’s physical altercation with Villette as well as Villette’s attempt to blackmail them both. Ruth again succumbs to intimidation in the courtroom when questioned by the lawyer Willy Robertson. Ruth’s intentions of concealing Father Logan fail because her first confession gives Larrue the motive he needs to arrest Father Logan (Walker 201), and her second confession renders him publicly outcast. Walker’s claim, therefore, applies to the villain in this case. Because Alma hides Keller from the police, the “protective mother” conceals the villain from the “searching father.” Alma is the woman who reveals Keller presence to the police at the end of I Confess and therefore sheds her guilty secret.
Hitchcock’s films seem to be a never-ending source for analysis. The simplistic complexity of his narratives begs for more scrutiny. I Confess in particular is an odd film in Hitchcock’s canon because it breaks the conventions that his audience has grown to understand. Chabrol and Rohmer’s ‘transference’ theme does apply to I Confess however, the result provokes the reassigning of motifs and symbols that had been established by his earlier works. The oral confinement motif and the inversion of symbolism of light vs. dark are only the tip of the iceberg with regards to what can be unearthed in I Confess. But as of yet, Hitchcock’s film remains a misunderstood and misinterpreted classic.
Chabrol, Claude and Eric Rohmer. Hitchcock. Éditions Ramsay. Groupe Horizon. France, 2006.
Krohn, Bill. “I Confess – Historical Note.” Senses of Cinema. Cinémathèque Annotations on Film, Issue 10. 2005. <http://sensesofcinema.com/2000/cteq/confessbk/>
Spoto, Donald. The Art of Alfred Hitchcock: Fifty Years of His Motion Pictures. Hopkinson and Blake Publishers. New York, 1976.
Truffaut, Francois. Hitchcock / Truffaut: The Definitive Study of Alfred Hitchcock by Francois Truffaut, Revised Edition. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks. London, 1986.
Walker, Michael. Hitchcock’s Motifs. Film and Culture in Transition. Amsterdam University Press. Amsterdam, 2005.
Click here for the review of the I Confess DVD at DVD Beaver