The plot of this film involves three of the Top Four Idiotic Practices of the Catholic Church: confession, celibacy, and absolution. (The fourth, actually Number One: Papal infallibility.) Montgomery Clift hears a confession of murder from the janitor of his church. Monty tells him he must go to the police, but the bastard doesn’t, and through several plot twists and turns the priest is suspected and then indicted, and then convicted for the murder. The bad guy, Otto Keller, wonderfully played by O.E. Hasse (whose numerous character roles stretch all the way back to the classic The Last Laugh), is one of the more loathsome villains I can recall. Not only does the coward not confess, he hounds the priest, fully expecting the man to betray his vows and turn him in. He taunts the priest. He browbeats his mouse of a wife. This is a real-life villain, an ordinary man capable of the most craven behavior.
So there’s the confession part. I can understand that a priest or pastor should keep confidences, like a lawyer or a doctor, but there are limits. Going to the gallows for this asshole? No way.
Then there’s celibacy. Anne Baxter is in love with Monty, and of course they can’t marry. Really stupid policy, and it’s devastating the Church, has arguably made it a sanctuary for homosexual pedophiles. I dare you to watch a scene early on with Monty celebrating Mass with an alter boy beside him, and not think of the ongoing scandals. That image won’t be going away for a long, long time, if ever.
And to top off the silliness, at the end when the real murderer is dying in the priest’s arms, he asks for absolution … and the priest gives it! Oh, so convenient, to be able to walk into a confessional and be absolved of your sins. The Catholics aren’t the only ones with this repulsive doctrine. Most Protestant sects also think that, though you have led a thoroughly vile life, if at the last minute you repent and accept Jesus, you are okay! Man, that’s a license to do any damn thing you want to do! Sincerely repent at the last second, and there you go, straight to Heaven. Repulsive notion, to me.
As for the film itself, for me it’s really handicapped by all the above. Like, who gives a shit about this man’s moral dilemma? Not me. It’s well-written and acted, and looks great, and that’s all the good I can say about it.