The Confession (1920) A Silent Film Review

A priest hears a confession of murder but is tormented when his own brother is falsely accused of the crime and the real killer flees. Henry B. Walthall plays the man of the cloth who must find a way to clear his brother without revealing what he heard.

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD

I Confess!

Catholic confession has been a popular jumping-off point for crime films for as long as motion pictures have existed. A priest being forced to keep silent while an innocent (sometimes the priest himself) is charged with the crime makes for great cinematic suspense and tension, so the appeal is obvious.

Let the confessing begin.

(Decent Films has a rather thorough breakdown of the confession in cinema, if you are interested in a deep dive.)

The Confession, true to its title, centers on such a dilemma. After an introductory title card explaining the sacred nature of the confession to non-Catholic audiences, we dive into the story. Father Bartlett (Henry B. Walthall) is a beloved priest who has a somewhat wild but good-hearted brother, Tom (Francis McDonald). Tom quarrels with his girlfriend’s brother, Jimmie (Barney Furey), and they come to blows. So, when Jimmie is shot dead, there is no doubt that Tom is the culprit.

Or is he?

Joseph Dumont (William Clifford) has crossed over from Canada on a mission. Jimmie seduced, impregnated and abandoned his sister and he means to have revenge. He seized the opportunity when he saw Tom and Jimmie quarreling and he confesses all to Father Bartlett. Bartlett cannot say anything when his brother is arrested and threatened with lynching but he is confident that Dumont will do the right thing and confess during Tom’s trial.

Meanwhile, Dumont has discovered that Jimmie had actually married his sister and that his revenge has widowed her. Unable to face up to this, he lies on the stand, blames Tom and returns to Canada. Tom decides to take the initiative, knocks out Father Bartlett when he pays a call to his cell and escapes to Canada after Dumont. Father Bartlett follows, hoping to bring his brother back safely and convince Dumont to finally tell the truth.

Innocent Tom is moodily lit.

Will Father Bartlett succeed or is it curtains for Tom? See The Confession to find out!

All in all, this movie was a bit of a surprise for me. It was an independent production and isn’t talked about much these days except as an entry in Henry B. Walthall’s filmography. So, I was pretty happy to discover that The Confession is a little buried treasure.

Even the jail is moody.

I do wish there were better prints circulating because the cinematography and the lighting are moody and effective. I particularly liked the murder scene, which is played in the rainy darkness with flashes of lightning briefly illuminating the action. (It seems that only 16mm prints survive.) I can imagine that this was quite stunning when a 35mm print was running in a dark theater.

In fact, I dare say that the photography by Walter L. Griffin is among the best I have seen in a good stretch. We get the expected shots of the shadows of prison bars but there are also some lovely bits with light filtering through the trees of the Canadian wilderness and dainty flickering flames inside darkened houses. This moodiness may have been meant to cover over a low budget but I appreciate it all the same.

Father Bartlett betrayed.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Henry B. Walthall, a Griffith veteran with an unfortunate tendency to play to the cheap seats. Heck, he played to people on the other side of the city sometimes. And playing a priest who must watch his own brother hang for murder would surely offer a temptation to engage in histrionics.

I am pleased to report that Walthall is surprisingly subtle and opts for the “mental anguish under serene façade” approach, which has aged much better than his broader performances. There are some very nice moments during Tom’s trial when Father Bartlett realizes that he has been betrayed and can do nothing about it. Walthall plays the scene with his eyes and jaw, keeping his composure but horrified at the turn of events.

Tom’s escape in disguise.

(Incidentally, if you enjoy seeing the shoe on the other foot, Walthall played a killer who was more than happy to let a non-violent burglar take the blame for his attack on Lionel Barrymore in The Burglar’s Dilemma back in 1912. And if you want to go further down the rabbit hole, Lionel Barrymore played a killer stricken by his own conscience in The Bells. And Boris Karloff played a supporting role in the latter film and later acted in a movie in which… We can keep this up forever, in other words.)

William Clifford lays it on a bit thick as Dumont but since he’s the killer, I give him a pass. I liked Francis McDonald quite a lot as Tom. He never overplays the pathos and comes off as determined and likable in the face of injustice. McDonald was a venerable old Hollywood supporting player whose career spanned from the dawn of features to Perry Mason and this early work shows why his career was so durable.

The technology known as a “telegram”

In fact, the only fault I can find with this picture is the screenplay. We know that the confession plot was a popular one and that’s not a problem in and of itself but the way the woes pile onto the Bartletts starts to feel a bit artificial after a while. Still, that wasn’t a dealbreaker for me. The major issues are in the grand finale.

Spoiler: The film really goes off the rails during the finale. Father Bartlett is finally returning with the injured Dumont but they need to get to the prison before Tom is executed. Wow, if only there was some way to communicate over those telegraph lines that they whizzed past during the race to the rescue. (And a telegram is actually sent and received during the film.) And Dumont dies before he can say his piece but it turns out that he had a written declaration sewn into the waistband of his trousers all along. Which, I mean, why did he not just hand it over and have Bartlett hire a fast driver to deliver it?

Bartlett on the trail.

This plot would have been outdated in 1911, when the play by Hal Reid was first performed, and I wonder if the whole thing wouldn’t have worked better as a pre-telegraph costume drama. I realize that “Have Dumont’s written confession STOP Do not hang my brother STOP Will arrive in five hours STOP” isn’t quite so exciting but at least don’t set the final race to the rescue on a street that is festooned with communication lines.

I confess that I liked this picture quite a bit. (See what I did there?)

Still, The Confession has a lot going for it and I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. It’s a gorgeous picture and I just hope that a 35mm print shows up somewhere so it can be displayed to best advantage. Both Walthall and McDonald give strong, likable performances. It’s well worth seeing if you are in the mood for a hidden gem of silent drama.

Where can I see it?

Most of the editions have similar picture quality so it comes down to music. ReelclassicDVD and Grapevine both feature custom organ scores for the picture.

☙❦❧

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2 Comments

  1. Meme

    I do realize why writers like to use confession as a dramatic device, but it does still seem a little weird to me. I’m not Catholic, but my mother was raised as one, and my grandmother was very, very religious. So my mom and her siblings always had to go to confession. The thing is, when you’re 10 years old you haven’t necessarily done much sinning in a week, so the kids usually ended up lying to the priest. Impure thoughts and being disrespectful to their parents were the go to sins. Confession is an important part of the Catholic faith, but the funny side of it never makes it into films.

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