I Confess

The release of I Confess in 1953 must have seemed to the Cahiers du cinéma critics who had championed Hitchcock to be a confirmation of all their theories, because it is THE textbook example of the famous “transference of guilt” motif, enacted within the archetypal context of the Roman Catholic confessional.

So André Bazin, although he was not himself a “Hitchcocko-Hawksian”, was surprised when the director told him in 1954 that I Confess was a failure because it lacked humor, evincing a surprising preference for his own English work in this regard (1). Feeling a responsibility to defend the point of view of his young Turks, Bazin was actually the first, in the course of the same interview, to explain the workings of the now-famous “transference” to Hitchcock:

“The translation of such a subtle argument was not easy. Hitchcock listened attentively and intensely. When he finally understood it, I saw for the first and only time during our interview that he had been touched by an idea he had not and could not have thought of himself. I had found the chink in his armor of humor. He smiled delightedly, and I could see the idea working its way through his mind. The more he thought about it, the more he saw with satisfaction how accurate it was, and it was he who went on to find further justification for the theory in the stories of Rear Window and To Catch A Thief. This was the only victory I was able to achieve for Hitchcock’s exegetes, but if the theme does indeed exist in his work, it is thanks to them that he has discovered it.”

Forewarned, Truffaut would be careful during his marathon interview with the Master not to overplay his hand with respect to I Confess, as Rivette had been in his Cahiers review of the film, where he explicitly avoided defending Hitchcock by “arguing the profundity and permanence of his subjects.” What the young Turks were in no position to consider at the time was the possibility that I Confess had played as great a revelatory role for Hitchcock himself as it had for them, even before Bazin explained the workings of “transference of guilt” to him on the set of To Catch A Thief.

That is what John Russell Taylor suggests in his biography Hitch, where we learn that the director told him that Paul Anthelme’s play “Nos deux consciences” had “haunted” him since he saw it in London in the early ’30s. More useful information is imbedded in the largely fictitious account of the film’s genesis in Donald Spoto’s The Dark Side of Hitchcock, where we learn that the play was first sold by the playwright’s nephew to Henri Verneuil. According to the long list of script versions in the Hitchcock Collection at the Margaret Herrick Library, Verneuil’s treatment was the first of many adaptations of Anthelme’s play that would be attempted.

The Truffaut interview makes it sound as if Hitchcock actually heard the story first from Verneuil, but Hitchcock had already been clear about this in his conversation with Bazin. When Bazin referred to Verneuil’s “furnishing” the play to him four years earlier, Hitchcock amended: “sold it.” The situation, then, was like the one that led to Rear Window, a property originally owned by Joshua Logan, who had written a treatment before his agent sold it to Hitchcock – except that thanks to Taylor we know that Hitchcock had first seen “Nos deux consciences” in the early ’30s.

Themes and archetypes are among the ghostly baggage auteur criticism has inherited from its founders, at least one of whom, Eric Rohmer, was a professed Platonist. What makes I Confess an interesting subject for further research, apart from its considerable qualities as a film, is the intriguing possibility that it may have played the role of a material archetype – literally, a template – for the first manifestations of the “transference” theme and its corollary, the theme of confession, in Hitchcock’s ’30s thrillers, particularly The Man Who Knew Too Much and The 39 Steps.

This is a bold speculation on Taylor’s part – “haunted’ is certainly a loaded word in the context where he drops it – but one which is born out in part by the subsequent history of the story’s development in Hitchcock’s hands. Verneuil actually appears to have sold the play to Hitchcock earlier than Bazin believed, in 1947 or 1948. The first drafts were written by Alma Hitchcock and then by William Rose in 1948 while Hitchcock was supervising the writing of a treatment and script for Under Capricorn, where the theme of confession achieves incandescent expression in Ingrid Bergman’s one-take monologue about her brother’s death. (The theme was still only partly present in Shadow Of A Doubt, as Rohmer and Claude Chabrol point out in their Hitchcock, because Teresa Wright never assumes her Uncle’s guilt and there is no redeeming confession at the end (2).)

I Confess was turned over to writer Leslie Storm during the making of Under Capricorn and Stage Fright. Then in 1950, while Hitchcock was working on Strangers On A Train, he commissioned a new script by Paul V. Carroll, which was finished as the director was leaving for New York and Washington to film location scenes for Strangers, armed with a temporary script he had whipped up with Barbara Keon, a former Selznick employee, when Raymond Chandler failed to deliver a usable first draft. Strangers marks the second phase of the revelation of the “transference” theme, which is geometrically embodied in Patricia Highsmith’s novel. But I Confess had already been in development for two years when Hitchcock read Highsmith’s book and bought it to launch his contract as producer-director at Warners, and the two films would appear to have been closely intertwined in their evolution after that.

For example, both stories presented the same problem: how to effect the real murderer’s confession, which would restore the innocence of the “faux coupable,” given that Bruno Anthony was mad and Father Logan, at this point in the development of I Confess, was still slated to die for the crime the sacristan Keller had admitted to under the seal of the confessional? (Hitchcock explains in a 1948 letter to a Catholic fan who has heard a garbled account of the project on the radio that the downbeat ending “may be changed if the murderer confesses and saves the priest.” He then adds: “But this premise would weaken our story.”)

By October of 1950 – in the Hitchcock-Keon temporary script for Strangers and Carrol’s draft of I Confess – the solution was to make the murderer’s confession an acte manque, like Mr. Memory’s confession in The 39 Steps: Bruno accidentally confessing while babbling to the police after the merry-go-round crash, and Keller hysterically confessing when the notice is posted on the prison gates that Father Logan has been executed.

Better versions of this solution would be found in each case – the lighter falling from Bruno’s hand as he dies, Keller mistakenly concluding that Logan has denounced him to the police – in the script Hitchcock hammered out with Czenzi Ormonde during the shooting of Strangers, and in the script that was finally produced by ping-ponging drafts back and forth between Hitchcock and Keon and playwrights William Archibald and George Tabori, before and during the filming of I Confess in Quebec. But the fundamental solution remained unchanged, even after it was decided that Keller’s involuntary confession clears Logan just before Keller is killed by the police, setting the stage for what appears in retrospect to have been the only possible ending for I Confess: Keller’s dying confession and Logan’s intoned absolution. Simple, unexpected and breathtakingly right.

Endnotes

  1. Despite the myth of a box-office flop which Hitchcock started with these remarks, I Confess made money for Warner Bros. It’s possible the director was bitter because, after spending $60,000 of Sidney Bernstein’s money and some of his own to develop the project, he had to turn it over to Warners when independent financing fell through, and his Warners contract denied him a percentage windfall until after a film had recouped 4 times its production budget, which was not the case with I Confess.
  2. Rohmer and Chabrol’s Hitchcock came out in French in 1956 (English translation 1979)