Reticence covers a multitude of mysteries. It’s no wonder that Alfred Hitchcock chose the seal of the confessional to increase the tension in I Confess (1953; for rent on Amazon Prime). The problem for the film is that many (most?) people are not going to understand why the tension exists. My 13-year-old daughter, for example, was frustrated that Father Logan (Montgomery Clift) does not simply tell the police who committed the murder, since Otto Keller (O.E. Hasse) confesses to the crime in the first scene.
Keeping such a secret does seem like a foreign concept in our age, complicated by the fact that clergy have kept other secrets, not because they were sins confessed and absolved, but in order to save or protect themselves. The confessional seal begins to look like one more way to protect criminals. Certainly, Keller seems to use it that way, and even more so as the film goes on. He wants to unload the burden of his crime, and perhaps escape eternal punishment, but he also wants to avoid the temporal punishment of the civil law. And he is willing to allow Father Logan to be punished in his place, since only he and his wife Alma (Dolly Haas) know the truth.
But what is the purpose of the seal, even if sinners abuse it (as they do with all the good gifts of God)? What is the purpose of never revealing what is confessed, which Lutheran pastors promise as well at their ordinations?: “'[W]ill you forgive the sins of those who repent, and will you promise never to divulge the sins confessed to you?’ ‘Yes, I will, with the help of God’” (Lutheran Service Book: Agenda, 166, emphasis added). To whom is the penitent confessing? To God, through the ears of the pastor. And the pastor then speaks not his own forgiveness, but the forgiveness of God in Christ.
In the theology of confession and absolution (at least for Lutherans), there actually is nothing to reveal, because it was spoken, in reality, into the ear of God. The pastor serves in an Office, which is the means by which God delivers His word of forgiveness. The pastor is not functioning in his own name, or giving out his own words. Because of this, the seal of the confessional does not guard mere secrets; there is nothing to guard. The sins of the penitent have been removed “as far as the east is from the west.” As I tell people, if someone—even someone in an official or legal capacity—wants to know what was confessed, that person will have to ask God.
Father Logan not only does not have a choice according to his priestly vows (unless he wants to cease being a priest; who would confess something if there was the chance of it being revealed?), he doesn’t have a choice before the God who forgives. Crimes and criminals belong in human courts, but confession and forgiveness belong in the court of the One who sees hearts, not suspicious behavior or circumstantial evidence.
I Confess is the one film of Hitchcock’s that deals with explicitly religious, and Roman Catholic, themes. Probably for that reason as well, it did not do as well with audiences. Richard Blake writes in his book Afterimage that Hitchcock himself thought he allowed “’his specialized knowledge as a Catholic to get the better of his judgment as a filmmaker’” (quoted on p. 61).
Montgomery Clift is excellent as the taciturn priest, especially when he most likely expects to be found guilty. He is resigned to the jury’s decision, satisfied to do what a priest does, including in his relationship with Ruth (Anne Baxter). “Both as a priest and as a gentleman he cannot speak, even if his silence convicts him of a crime he did not commit” (Afterimage, 64). But Logan is a complex character, with mixed, though unstated, motives about why he does not want to provide himself an alibi, because it involves not just Keller, but Ruth as well. And even more, by Keller’s murder of Vilette, both he and Ruth are free of the blackmail that put them both in danger of compromising information. So when Vilette is found dead, Ruth says to Logan, “We’re free!”
All in all, I Confess is vintage Hitchcock, with its canted camera angles, flawless framing, and layers of intrigue. And whatever Hitchcock thought of the religious themes and whether they succeed, he is able to use the theological point to tell a great story.