#38 in my Ranking of Alfred Hitchcock’s films.
Hitchcock was the wrong director for this material. The movie’s at war with itself. The story is that of a character drama, but Hitchcock films it like a thriller. The material doesn’t really fit the style. And, on top of that, the main character is honestly not that interesting due to his rather extreme passivity. It’s well filmed, and well acted, but there are just a couple of big things wrong with the movie that hold it back.
The biggest problem is really Father Logan himself. Our main character starts the film by hearing the confession of a man who killed another man, Villette. Bound by the seal of confession, the Catholic priest cannot reveal what he heard to anyone. He won’t break his vow as a priest, so he must keep that a secret while urging Otto to go and turn himself into the police. The added wrinkle is that Father Logan had a connection to Villette through a childhood friend, Ruth.
Father Logan’s insistence on not saying anything about what he heard in the confessional is understandable, noble, and laudable. However, it’s the secret dealing with Ruth that makes him passive. Part of that is the fact that the film was made in the 40s.
Logan and Ruth had promised themselves to each other before the outbreak of war. When Canada got involved in the Second World War, Logan joined up and went off. He lost contact with Ruth who, despite her continued feelings for her lost friend, marries Pierre. Logan returns to Canada and meets Ruth again, but Ruth doesn’t tell him that she’s married. They spend a day in the countryside, get caught in the rain, and have to take shelter in a small gazebo next to an isolated house which happens to be owned by Villette who sees them the next morning.
The movie being made in the 40s, there is every indication, and even dialogue making it explicit, that nothing untoward happened between Ruth and Logan. They got caught in the rain, found the gazebo, and fell asleep, and yet Logan is insistent on keeping this secret because it might damage Ruth’s marriage and reputation. I don’t see how. If this movie had been made a couple of decades later, Hitchcock could have left in at least implications of a sexual liaison which would necessitate secrecy, but that’s not what’s actually in the film.
So, Logan ends up trying to defend two secrets. The first, the confession, makes sense, and the second doesn’t. He ends up looking like a lost puppy as people around him try to make things happen and he tries to make things not happen. I think it would have been greatly improved if Hitchcock had laid out a contrast for Logan. He’s willing to spill the beans on the time with Ruth, thinking that her concerns for her marriage are overblown, while keeping to the confessional secret as ardently as he does in the film as it currently is. That way, his insistence on keeping the confessional sacred would stand in contrast to other secrets. Maybe it would have made him less noble, but I think it would have made him more interesting.
The movie moves along where Father Logan becomes the prime suspect in Villette’s murder because of his evasiveness and unwillingness to say almost anything. Ruth’s story to the police also clears up the timeline so that Logan could have done the murder. It’s enough for the police to take Logan to trial, and the movie turns into a courtroom drama for a few minutes. It’s not the most compelling cinema because it’s just an extension of Logan’s continued silence in the face of everything. The plot resolves and Logan gets a moment to show his goodness by granting Last Rites to Otto.
Aside from my problem with the central character, there’s actually a lot to like in the film. Hitchcock uses a lot of stark visuals that recall his early influences from German Impressionism and often feel more like Orson Welles than Alfred Hitchcock. Acting is good throughout, and there are individual moments of tension, especially towards the beginning, as Logan and the police officer played by Karl Malden first meet. We know what Logan knows, but we don’t know what the police officer knows, so it’s a dance of knowledge that grows quite tense.
My central problem though is that the movie is a character drama, and Hitchcock didn’t approach it that way. There’s not much in the movie that lends itself to the thriller genre, and Hitchcock didn’t film and edit the material in a way more conducive to what is actually playing out on screen. This needed someone more like David Lean at the helm. Hitchcock was the best at what he did, but this wasn’t it.