Filming was done largely on location in Quebec City with numerous shots of the city landscape and interiors of its churches and other emblematic buildings, such as the Château Frontenac.
Father Michael Logan (Clift) is a devout Catholic priest in Ste. Marie's Church in Quebec City. He employs German immigrants Otto Keller (O. E. Hasse) and his wife Alma (Dolly Haas) as caretaker and housekeeper. Otto also works part-time as a gardener for a shady lawyer called Villette.
The film begins late one evening, as a man wearing a priest's cassock walks away from Villette's house, where Villette lies dead on the floor. Shortly afterward, in the church confessional, Keller confesses to Father Logan that he accidentally killed Villette while trying to rob him. Keller tells his wife about his deed and assures her that the priest will not say anything because he is forbidden from revealing information acquired through confessions.
The next morning, Keller goes to Villette's house at his regularly scheduled gardening time and reports Villette's death to the police. Father Logan also goes to the crime scene after hearing Mrs. Keller mention that her husband is there.
At the police station, two young girls tell Inspector Larrue (Malden) they saw a priest leaving Villette's house. This prompts Larrue to call Father Logan in for questioning, but Logan refuses to provide any information about the murder. Now suspecting Logan, Larrue orders a detective to follow Logan and contacts Crown Prosecutor Robertson (Brian Aherne), who is attending a party hosted by Ruth Grandfort (Baxter) and her husband Pierre (Roger Dann), a member of the Quebec legislature. Ruth overhears Robertson discussing Logan, and Larrue's detective discovers her identity by following her home the next day after she meets with Logan to warn him that he is a suspect.
Larrue calls Ruth and Logan in for questioning, and Ruth explains what happened, narrating a series of flashbacks: She and Logan fell in love when they were childhood friends, but he went off to fight in World War II with the Regina Rifle Regiment and eventually stopped writing to her, so she married Pierre. The day after Logan returned from the war, he and Ruth spent the day on a nearby island. A storm forced them to shelter for the night in a gazebo, and Villette found them there in the morning, recognizing Ruth as being Mrs. Grandfort. The next time Ruth saw Logan was several years later, when he was ordained as a priest.
Villette recently asked Ruth to persuade her husband to help him escape a tax scandal, and when she refused, he tried to blackmail her by threatening to publicize the night she spent with Logan. She met with Logan on the night of the murder, and they agreed to visit Villette in the morning.
Ruth's meeting with Father Logan almost provides him with an alibi, but Larrue has evidence showing that the murder occurred after their meeting, and the blackmail suggests a possible motive for Logan to have killed Villette.
Knowing he will be arrested, Logan turns himself in the next day at Larrue's office. Keller has planted the bloody cassock among Logan's belongings, and when Logan is tried in court, Keller testifies that he saw Logan enter the church after the murder, acting suspiciously.
The jury barely finds Father Logan not guilty, but the crowd outside the courthouse harasses Logan as he leaves. This upsets Keller's wife so much that she starts to shout out that her husband is the murderer, but he shoots her, resulting in her death. He then runs away and is pursued by police officers. Larrue finally guesses that Keller is the murderer, corners him in the grand ballroom of the Château Frontenac, and unknowingly tricks him into confessing his sins as well as his previous reconciliation. A police sharpshooter kills Keller when Keller tries to shoot Logan, and Keller calls out to Father Logan in extremis and dies immediately after Logan absolves him of his sins.Montgomery Clift as Fr. Michael William Logan
Anne Baxter as Ruth Grandfort
Karl Malden as Inspector Larrue
Brian Aherne as Willy Robertson
O. E. Hasse as Otto Keller
Dolly Haas as Alma Keller
Roger Dann as Pierre Grandfort
Charles André as Father Millars
Gilles Pelletier as Father Benoît (uncredited)
Ovila Légaré as Monsieur Vilette (uncredited)
I Confess had one of the longest preproductions of any Hitchcock film, with almost 12 writers working on the script for Hitchcock over an eight-year period. (Hitchcock had taken time off for the wedding of his daughter Patricia Hitchcock in 1951, and Hitchcock was in the midst of dissolving his partnership in Transatlantic Pictures with Sidney Bernstein.) In the original screenplay, following the source play, the priest and his lover had an illegitimate baby, and the priest was executed at the end of the film. These elements of the script were removed at the insistence of executives at Warner Brothers who feared a negative reaction.
Hitchcock first hired Anita Björk as the female lead after seeing her in Miss Julie (1951). However, when she arrived in Hollywood with her lover and their baby, Warner Bros. insisted that Hitchcock find another actress.
Shooting took place in Hollywood and Quebec in under two months. Hitchcock had planned on using Quebec-area churches at no cost. When the local diocese read the original script by George Tabori, it objected to the priest's execution and rescinded its permission. When Tabori refused to change the script, Hitchcock brought in William Archibald to rewrite it.
Hitchcock, as was his custom, created detailed storyboards for each scene. He could not understand Clift's Method acting technique and quickly became frustrated with Clift when he blew take after take for failing to follow Hitchcock's instructions.
Cognizant of the difficulty non-Catholics would have in understanding the priest's reluctance to expose Keller, Hitchcock said,
We Catholics know that a priest cannot disclose the secret of the confessional, but the Protestants, the atheists, and the agnostics all say, 'Ridiculous! No man would remain silent and sacrifice his life for such a thing.'
Alfred Hitchcock's cameo appearance occurs during the second minute—right after the opening credits—as he walks across the top of a steep stairway.
The film was banned in the Republic of Ireland because it showed a priest having a relationship with a woman (even though, in the film, the relationship takes place before the character becomes a priest).
The film was entered into the 1953 Cannes Film Festival.
I Confess was a favorite among French New Wave film makers, according to filmmaker/historian Peter Bogdanovich.
Film critic Sarah Ortiz, has described I Confess as "the most Catholic film of Hitchcock's films."
I Confess was adapted to the radio program Lux Radio Theatre on September 21, 1953, with Cary Grant in Montgomery Clift's role.