The Archivist XXXIX: Faith vs. Injustice in Hitchcock’s THE WRONG MAN and I CONFESS

The Archivist — Welcome to the Archive. Following the infamous “Format Wars” (R.I.P. VHS), a multitude of films found themselves in danger of being forgotten forever due to their admittedly niche appeal. Thankfully, Warner Bros. established the Archive Collection, a Disc On Demand & Streaming service devoted to some of the more idiosyncratic pieces of cinema ever made. Being big fans of the label, we here at Cinapse thought it prudent to establish a column devoted to these unusual gems. Thus “The Archivist” was born — a biweekly look at some of the best, boldest and most batshit motion pictures the Shield has to offer. Some of these will be recent additions to the collection, while others will be titles that have been available for awhile. With over 1,500 pictures procurable on Warner Archive (and more being added every month), there’s no possible way we’ll get to all of them. But trust me when we say we’re sure going to try.

Warner Archive has recently graced us with a pair of Alfred Hitchcock thrillers new to Blu-ray, I Confess (1952) and The Wrong Man (1956). Now available to purchase, these are among the more serious films from the Master of Suspense.

Thematically, the pairing is an apt one. Both deal with the trials endured by men who are wrongfully accused of crimes. Rather intriguingly, both characters are Catholic, one a priest and the other a working family man. Each of these films is great, but while The Wrong Man is the better known of the pair, it was I Confess which more deeply resonated with me.

The Wrong Man [1956]

In this true-story based narrative, a hardscrabble family is put through a miserable trial when patriarch Manny Balestrero, an honest and hard-working musician, is mis-identified by several witnesses as a criminal. Manny’s gaunt appearance apparently bears a resemblance to the actual perpetrator of a series of armed robberies, and he gets pinned for the lot.

As the police interrogate the wrongfully accused Manny, they repeat their reassurance that an honest man has nothing to fear and that only a guilty man need worry. That myth is rightly shattered. Hitchcock knew better. Honest people always have something to fear when being processed through a flawed justice system.

The law’s motto is “innocent until proven guilty”, but despite its best intentions, it doesn’t really operate that way. All it takes is mere suspicion for a whole family’s lives to be plunged into chaos and darkness. The police apprehend and book Manny, and detain him in jail for the night, then hold him on a $6000 bail which I could not afford today, much less in 1956 dollars. His extended family post the bail, which is literally the only way that he can have the freedom to try to collect evidence to support his alibi. Then he has to hire a lawyer to mount a costly defense, despite having two kids to feed and living paycheck to paycheck. With mounting debts and hidden doubts, his wife Rose (Vera Miles) gets more and more depressed and withdrawn, eventually needing institutional medical care.

All of this because of a passing resemblance to another man.

The film reminds me of Kubrick’s masterpiece Paths Of Glory in the sense that both are about honest men being trampled by the wheels of an unstoppable machinery of injustice that’s too big to fight. Both films are rage-inducing and can be difficult to watch, but that’s the appropriate response to seeing injustice unfold.

In the end, Manny, who is Catholic (we see earlier that he carries Rosary beads), can only rely on his faith to see him through, and he prays to God for divine intervention. In narrative and cinematic terms this kind of Deus ex Machina is frowned upon as a cheat, but when human justice fails, only God’s justice remains.

(Mild spoiler alert:) The film ends on an odd note, taking a rather sour detour that’s squarely at odds with a traditional narrative, but it’s important for a couple reasons: honoring the the facts on which the true life case was based, and more generally reinforcing the important realization that there are no victors in this kind of situation — even if a person is found innocent of alleged crimes, they’re still punished — the ordeal takes a very real toll with lasting consequences.

I Confess [1953]

The Wrong Man is an empathetic film that puts you in its protagonist’s shoes and makes you feel his fear and anger, yet it was surprisingly the lesser known I Confess that I found even more intriguing and thoughtful. I’m no Hitchcock expert, but of the baker’s dozen of his films that I’ve seen (which are, generally speaking, his better known ones), I’d rank I Confess very near the top of the list.

The plot’s device revolves around the Seal Of Confession — what a priest hears in the Confessional, he is not at liberty to divulge to others. Father Michael Logan (Montgomery Clift) listens to a confession of murder perpetrated by a member and employee of his church. The priest is so close to the case, in fact, that the clues align to point to him as the primary suspect. It emerges that the victim was someone with whom the Father might have a motive, relating to a love affair with his old sweetheart Ruth (Anne Baxter) which preceded his priesthood, the details of which could have an embarrassing impact on his ministry, not to mention Ruth’s reputation, regardless of how things pan out.

Starring opposite Clift is one of my favorite old school character actors, Karl Malden, as the police detective who, despite finding it distasteful to interrogate the priest and his friends, does whatever is necessary to try to piece together the clues.

In the same way that Christ could have ended his floggings or come down from the cross, Father Logan could have, at any moment throughout his questionings, accusations, and trial, ended the madness by simply revealing the name of the actual killer. Instead, he remains faithful to his priestly silence, standing by his beliefs steadfastly and accepting the punishment for another man’s transgressions, even as unjust condemnation rains down upon him from all sides.

As I learned from the featurette that accompanies the disc, Hitchcock ran into problems when trying to get the film approved. One of the censors was Catholic and balked at the idea of the priest being killed in the end (as is the case in the play on which the film is based). While it’s unfortunate that he apparently failed to see the Christ symbology pertaining to his own faith, the film is, thankfully, not negatively impacted.

The ending as filmed is enormously effective despite the compromise, and still demonstrates the idea of a blameless sacrifice. The film is an effective tale of martyrdom that mirrors Christ in several respects. The young priest takes on the burden of another man’s sin, remains silent in the face of accusers, and willingly accepts his fate despite his deep inner turmoil and anguish.

Stylishly shot in Quebec in a fashion that makes use of the city’s unique Old World architecture, I Confess is a taut and thought-provoking film that I can’t recommend highly enough.

The Packages

Warner Archive released their new Blu-ray editions of The Wrong Man and I Confess on Jan. 26 and Feb. 16, respectively. The discs carry over the 2004 DVD editions’ 20 minute featurettes produced by Blue Collar Productions and featuring a bevy of guests like Peter Bogdonavich, Richard Shickel, and others; along with HD Trailers.

Special Features and Extras — I Confess

Hitchcock’s Confession: A Look At I Confess (20:43)

Gala Canadian Premiere for I Confess Newsreel Footage (0:59)
 Vintage newreel depicting Hitchcock’s arrival for the film’s Quebec premiere

Trailer (2:49)

Special Features and Extras — The Wrong Man

Guilt Trip: Hitchcock and The Wrong Man (20:19)

Trailer (2:35)


With top notch presentations, these two classic Blu-rays from the Master of Suspense are emotionally engaging and rewarding character explorations that grapple with faith and injustice.

A/V Out.

Get it at Amazon:
 The Wrong Man [Blu-ray] | [DVD] | [Instant]
 I Confess [Blu-ray] | [DVD] | [Instant]

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