Montgomery Clift died of a heart attack at 45 in 1966, ten years after a car accident accelerated the decline already set in motion by his health problems and substance abuse. He is buried in a private Quaker cemetery in Prospect Park. Unless they have a relative inside, or have an in with the Society of Friends, though, the lay Clift fan can’t pay homage without some gate-hopping derring-do. Just down the street is the easier-to-get-into BAM, who are currently unearthing eleven of the legendary actor’s films. One of the highlights is I Confess, the sole collaboration between Clift and Alfred Hitchcock, screening Sunday. A favorite of the French New Wavers, its modest popular reputation makes one’s first viewing of it that much more revelatory, for it truly is a knockout.
Like The 39 Steps, The Wrong Man, North by Northwest, and others, I Confess concerns an innocent man wrongly accused. In the opening scene, Clift’s Father Logan hears a murder confession by his German immigrant caretaker and gardener (O.E. Hasse), who had broken into another employer’s house to steal money, but ended up killing him. The murdered man had knowledge of Logan’s pre-priesthood love affair with a married woman, Ruth (Anne Baxter), and was blackmailing them. His death sets the platonic lovers free, a glaring motive that Chief Inspector Larrue (Karl Malden) cottons on to. Because of the sanctity of confession, Father Logan has to bear suspicion and potential arrest—a perfect setup for Hitch to lay on the dramatic irony and suspense. The hateful caretaker doesn’t trust Logan, and his anxious badgering (“You vill tell them!”) and lack of corrective ethics allows I Confess several moments of timely Kraut Menace scarifying.
Of the director’s films, I Confess most closely resembles The Wrong Man. Both are more rigidly stylized than his British works, but these late black and white films have a cooler, drier quality than his color masterpieces. Hitchcock beautifully renders stately Quebec City using high contrast and Wellesian canted angles that complement the story’s moral dubiety. Several would-be mundane shots—tracking the back of Clift’s head, the murdered Villette winking at Ruth in a flashback—have that peculiar terrifying quality absolutely unique to Hitchcock. They’re like that shot in Psycho of Janet Leigh’s boss crossing the street in front of her; it’s impossible to say in words what makes them stick so.
There’s often something vaguely profane about libidinous Hollywood types masquerading as nuns and priests, but Clift, though a hard-living bisexual, has a palpable innocence and vulnerability behind his eyes that make him a perfect fit as a man of the cloth. The silent dignity of the clergyman who masks his suffering is the same quality that Clift made his own. There’s a mysteriousness to him. Behind even his vulnerability, there seems to lurk unknowable dark currents. Their source, like his gravesite, is not open to visitors.