When Testimony Is Forbidden – A review of Hitchcock’s “I Confess” by Judge Bob McGahey

We invite you to read the review of Alfred Hitchcock’s I Confess written by our very own Judge Bob McGahey for his Judicial District newsletter. The movie plays on the tensions that can arise between law and faith.

When Testimony Is Forbidden

Colorado Rule of Evidence 501 tells us that everyone can be called as a witness – except when they can’t be called, either by Constitution, statute, rules set out by the Colorado Supreme Court “or by the principles of the common law as they may be interpreted by the courts of the State of Colorado in light of reason and experience…” That’s pretty broad, isn’t it? We’re all familiar with the United States Constitution’s Fifth Amendment privilege against self- incrimination.[1] But there are other evidentiary privileges that impact trials and hearing every day. The one that made me think of this month’s movie is what was originally known as the priest-penitent privilege, whereby anything told to a priest as part of a religious confession cannot be testified to without the permission of the penitent.[2]

That privilege is at the heart of I Confess (Warner Brothers, 1953), directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and starring Montgomery Clift[3], Karl Malden, and Anne Baxter. The film is based on a 1902 French play that Hitchcock saw as a much younger man. Hitchcock was raised as a Roman Catholic but had long lapsed from the faith by the time he made I Confess.[4] It is very clear that in spite of his lapsed status, Hitchcock’s upbringing informed much of I Confess. The film was filmed in Quebec City, but that Canadian setting has little to do with the actual action of this movie, although it does provide some wonderfully evocative atmosphere and mood to the film.[5]

Clift pays Father Logan, a Roman Catholic priest. Father Logan employs a German gardener, Keller, and his wife. Keller (O.E. Hasse) also works for a crooked lawyer named Villette. Villette is murdered and two girls see someone wearing a priest’s cassock leaving Villette’s house. In the confessional, Keller confesses to Father Logan that he, Keller, committed the murder, knowing that the priest cannot reveal that information. Inspector Larue (Malden) calls Father Logan in for questioning because of what the two girls saw and discovers a connection between Villette and Father Logan through the priest’s long-ago pre-seminary girlfriend (Baxter). Father Logan adamantly refuses to discuss anything with Larue, who has the priest arrested and charged with murder. Father Logan, staunchly remaining silent, goes to trial in front of a jury. Because this is Hollywood, you can probably figure out how the trial ends, although Father Logan has one more priestly interaction with Keller in the film’s closing moments.[6]

I Confess does not rank with Hitchcock’s greatest films; it doesn’t come close to Vertigo, Rear Window, or North by Northwest. But the interplay between religious dogma, evidentiary privilege, and the law’s stated quest for truth make it a fascinating movie to watch.

And we know that evidentiary privileges can have substantial impact on real-life cases. Recall the case from several years ago where two public defenders in Chicago, believing themselves bound by the attorney-client privilege, didn’t disclose that they knew who the actual killer was when another man was accused and convicted of murder. That wrongly convicted man served twenty-eight years in prison.

Make you think? I hope so.

[1]The same right is guaranteed in Article II, Section 18 of the Colorado Constitution.
[2]This privilege is codified in C.R.S. 1973, section 13-90-107(1)(c) and is broader than the “traditional” idea of Roman Catholic confession. That section reads: “(c) A clergy member, minister, priest, or rabbi shall not be examined without both his or her consent and also the consent of the person making the confidential communication as to any confidential communication made to him or her in his or her professional capacity in the course of discipline expected by the religious body to which he or she belongs.”
[3]Among many other great roles, Clift played the mentally challenged Rudolph Peterson in Judgement at Nuremberg.
[4]There is some evidence that Hitchcock had mass celebrated at his home, made a confession and received last rites near the time of his death in 1980. A funeral mass was celebrated after his death.
[5]Fr. Trent Fraser, my pastor at St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church, is a big fan if I Confess, not just because of the theological aspects of the film, but also because he’s Canadian.
[6]In the original French play, the priest remains silent at trial and is convicted of murder – and executed!