I Confess

Not rated yet!
Director
Alfred Hitchcock
Runtime
1 h 35 min
Release Date
28 February 1953
Genres
Crime, Drama
Overview
Unable, due to the seal of the confessional, to be forthcoming with information that would serve to clear himself during a murder investigation, a priest becomes the prime suspect.
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VJ Morton2
Right Wing Film Geek



(Reviewers' Site/Bio)
  • Virginia Film Festival — 2006

    Virginia Film Festival — 2006

    … if I don’t get started, I’ll never get finished.

    Anyhoo, I had an absolutely terrific time last weekend in Charlottesville at Revelations: Finding God at the Movies.

    TRAPPED BY THE MORMONS (Ian Allen, USA, 2005, 4) — Hard to see why this movie needs to exist. There’s an inescapable aura of self-congratulation in creating something intentionally campy (or rather in re-creating something that exists as unintentional camp). This bothered me more than I expected to, and I couldn’t join in the laughter. It actually worked a little better as a straight-up horror film about Evil Kidnappers of Any Religious Persuasion.

    ORDET (Carl-Theodor Dreyer, Denmark, 1955, 10) — Yes, it’s still a masterpiece. Before the (film-breakage riddled) screening, Danish film scholar Anne Jespersen said Johannes sounds even odder to Danish-speakers than he does to us foreigners. Armed with that knowledge, I noticed that I actually understood Johannes better than the other characters. It was the slowness and formality of his speech, and the way his dated vocabulary and syntax had more in common (I confirmed this with her) with the other Germanic languages than contemporary idiomatic Danish.

    TENDER MERCIES (Bruce Beresford, USA, 1983, 9) — Robert Duvall was in person to introduce the film (and his THE APOSTLE, which I didn’t see). After entering the theater and walking down the aisle, he took the seat *right in front of yours truly.* While he was being introduced, I pulled out my program and a pen, and got Duvall to sign it on the page for TENDER MERCIES. The film itself is one of the most subtly moving films I’ve ever seen, and I was choked up helplessly when we get to a conversation, speaking vaguely, near the end in a garden where Duvall’s faded country singer and his wife (Tess Harper) make clear what distinguishes the two of them, without having an argument per se. MERCIES (which takes its title from the Psalmist) is almost entirely the dramatic equivalent of reaction shots — all the most-dramatic events (marriages, deaths, recordings, etc.) occur offscreen, as if human drama is not about what we do but how we react to what the offscreen Narrator does. You could, in fact, make a stage play of this with minimal changes — just two or three sets you could reliably “cut” between. And for an actor who can’t sing, Duvall is a pretty good singer, which is a good choice for a character who’s drank away his career and for a story that is primarily about his comeback as a man, not as an entertainer. On a directorial note: I recently saw BREAKER MORANT again. Beresford is awesome when his material consists of precisely observed “small stories” of particular times and places (you could toss in BLACK ROBE and DRIVING MISS DAISY). Not so much otherwise.

    I CONFESS (Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1953, 7) — Hitchcock once said that if he were to make CINDERELLA, the audience would start looking for a body in the carriage. That reputation hurts this film, and I felt obliged to come to its defense from some fairly nasty attacks in the post-film discussion (though I did genuinely like it more than I expected to on this, my first viewing). Yes, I CONFESS isn’t “suspenseful” in the sense that NORTH BY NORTHWEST or REAR WINDOW are. It so obviously isn’t even trying for this that I think we have to assume Hitch was trying to make a Gothic romance like JANE EYRE (or REBECCA) — the threatening shots, with scores to match, of churches oppressively towering over the viewer like The Old Dark Castle; the harsh black-white contrasts (far sharper than I think anything else in his ouevre); the love triangle with an absent (sorta) 3rd side; the exotic setting. I wish Hitch had made more films with Ann Baxter. Glad he didn’t make more with Montgomery Clift.

    AMAZING GRACE (Michael Apted, Britain, 2007, 4) — A big fat hunk of liberal historic issue wish-fulfillment (abolitionism). Combined with typical biopic shapelessness (Wilberforce). And the highlight-reel approach to history (letters that “catch up” the viewer with fates of the historical personages). I wish this film had noticed that Britain had the world’s most-efficient and productive free labor, making its declaring war on the slave trade consonant with its economic interests. I wish this film noted that slavery hadn’t been practiced in the British Isles since the Dark Ages. I wish this film noted that abolition within the Empire happened just a few years before everyone knew the Americans would abolish the slave trade. And the moment … I will be vague … involving Michael Gambon and a ticket to Epsom was so pat and practiced as to become ridiculous.

    ONE PUNK UNDER GOD (Jeremy Simmons, USA, 2006, 3) — Contrary to my expectations, this program was just the first two episodes of a reality-TV show, rather than a freestanding doc. I’d seen enough after one episode. Like most reality-TV, it’s more interesting when it’s being unintentionally revealing about its very self-conscious subjects and/or makers. In this case, Jay Bakker is a textbook case of where you will go if you separate “agape” or “caritas” from any and every tie to tradition, to sin, or to judgment, more of a mirror or reverse-parallel of his father (or rather, The Liberal Image Of His Father) than you’d ever guess, but I don’t think that’s what the makers or Bakker himself intend. So I left, as I thought I might, after the first episode (what the grade refers to) so as to be in time to catch another film I thought I’d check out in commercial release, just a block away …

    DEATH OF A PRESIDENT (Gabriel Range, Britain, 2006, 8) — I’ll need to discuss this in more depth than I have time for right now (I wanna finish this post in one sitting). In the meantime, just put in the combox (or post to the group) “V-Mort please explain.” And let me get away (for now) with “Mea Culpa. Anybody who thinks this movie is exhortatory has shit for brains.”

    DEVI (Satyajit Ray, India, 1960, 9) — I wish it could mean more for me to say that this is my favorite Ray film (I’d only previously seen PATHER PANCHALI). But DEVI had me sold from its brilliant opening credits — the threatening-sounding sitar music; the progression of an idol from all-white (form) to painted (representation) to mask (present). And my inability to read Devanagari actually helped, as it turned the letters into an art element rather than words. Like the rest of this Freudian-Chekhovian chamber drama, the credits are artful and clear, both clever and not in-your-face. Theme: Being thought of as a god is a burden that would crush a mere man … (VJM continues, beyond Ray’s intent) … so it is one only a god could actually handle.

    THE RAPTURE (Michael Tolkin, USA, 1991, 8) — I have friends who take the “to hell with you, you sick sadist”-approach to God. And while I obviously don’t think you can make it intellectually satisfying, THE RAPTURE makes it make more emotional sense than any movie I’ve ever seen, makes it something other than an adolescent pose, though I could imagine other stories and situations where refusing to love God makes emotional sense. Times change. When I saw THE RAPTURE on theatrical release with a Calvinist Evangelical friend, we split vigorously — I liked it a lot and Curt hated it, though our discussion mostly went in another direction (Perseverance of the saints, or the P in TULIP).

    THE GOD OF A SECOND CHANCE (Paul Wagner, USA, 2006, 6) — This is purely a subject-matter grade (the local angle for me doesn’t hurt), as this film is not more than the greatest episode of Frontline ever. But CHANCE is that. It gets off to a shaky start (literally, too much amateur hand-held footage before we know who’s who), but it quickly finds its subject matter and focus (ditto) around a couple of black churches and ministries, and several of their members in Washington’s Anacostia neighborhood. Its achievement is simple — show a part of the world and introduce us to people we might not otherwise see. To document.

    TEN CANOES (Rolf DeHeer, Australia, 2006, 5) — This aboriginal folk tale is funny at times and has the same anthropological value as GOD OF A SECOND CHANCE. But all the layering of stories-within-stories served no discernible point to me, except giving more words to the annoying voiceover narrator (his style is perfectly reproduced here and it gets REAL aggravating when uses childlike terms such as “people who cover their willies”). Particularly since the narrator specifically says he’s telling the story to us for pedagogy’s sake, just like the 2nd-level protagonist is telling the 3rd-level story to someone else to teach him a lesson. But the only one we’re given has something to do with jealousy between men in a polygamous society, something whose specific point to a viewer today outside some remote corners of Utah is obscure at best.

    THE MILKY WAY (Luis Bunuel, France, 1969, 9, formerly 7) — I was truly not theologically literate enough to see how brilliant this film is when I saw it for the first and only time on home video about 15 years ago. With his density and dry allusiveness, Bunuel’s sense of humor is so much like my own (I could say the same of Hitchcock) that this theological pilgrimage following two tramps on the Trail of St. James is right in my wheelhouse. Bunuel has a (not unjustified) reputation as the Village Atheist and Scabrous Surrealist. But this film, along with SIMON OF THE DESERT and NAZARIN (plus hearing CS Lewis scholar and presenter Terry Lindvall read after the film from the end of Bunuel’s autobiography “My Last Sigh”) makes it clear that Bunuel was much more interesting and subtle than that. It does no injustice to this pilgrimage film to say that Jesus is the most attractive character in it and Bunuel does and says nothing against Him or distorts anything in the Gospels. And the director pays Him the ultimate Bunuelian praise — we see Him with a razor and get a closing shot of His feet.

    THE SACRIFICE (Andrei Tarkovsky, Sweden, 1986, 9, formerly 8) — I have come to love Tarkovsky over the years, but I can’t honestly recommend THE SACRIFICE (or any but his earliest films) to the casual fan or anyone not prepared to commit to multiple viewings, much thought and a great deal of patience. Like all of his films, THE SACRIFICE feels obscure and self-indulgent at first but becomes shorter with each successive viewing. This weekend was my fourth, albeit my first on the big screen and in a theater, you get much more of a sense of, e.g., how thoroughly drained of color and light the middle section of the movie is, and I’m not talking about the distracting use of black-and-white in a scene or two. When Alexander wakes up (?) from the dream (?) with the witch (?) and we’re back at something like a conventional natural “look,” the contrast is truly eye-popping and startling and makes what follows far more believable than the range of the cathode ray tube could. Still … what is this thing Tarkovsky has with couples floating in mid-embrace? I remember thinking as I was watching this: what would my newly-Orthodox and sick of movies bud Rod Dreher think of this very Orthodox movie. Erland Josephson (another brilliant display of angstwringing by a Bergman actor) gives an early speech/manifesto about modern man losing his way that is cut right from the tradition of such Rod favorites as Kirk, Chesterton and Solzhenitsyn.

    IN YOUR HANDS (Annette Olesen, Denmark, 2004, 5) — TC

    TRAVELLERS AND MAGICIANS (Khyentse Norbu, Bhutan, 2005, 7) — TC

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  • I am like … SO there, dude
    (”I Confess” is briefly mentioned in this.)

    I am like … SO there, dude

    I haven’t gone to the Virginia Film Festival, a four-day Thursday-Sunday fest in Charlottesville, since 2003. It’s not like Toronto or the DC FilmFest at all, which showcase new work. Instead, it has an annual theme and shows an eclectic mix on that theme — classics, new films from the festival circuit, some upcoming prestige releases, indies-and-documentaries, and a silent or two. But the 2004 fest was the weekend before the presidential election, and so getting the days off work was not an option. I forget why I didn’t go in 2005.

    But this year — I. Am. Psyched. I got the brochure in my mail yesterday, and the cover page icon said “Revelations: Finding God at the Movies.” The Virginia fest is usually a much more relaxed fest than Toronto — there’s only about 4 or so films or presentations or events going on at any one time. But still, the lineup is so mouth-watering that there’s something worth seeing in every time slot, and dilemmas in a few. There’s classics I haven’t seen (DEVI, I CONFESS); classics I have seen but never in a theater (the DeMille KING OF KINGS, Bunuel’s THE MILKY WAY, and … ahem … ORDET); classics I never get tired of (LIFE OF BRIAN, THE SEVENTH SEAL, THE SACRIFICE), important recent films (THE APOSTLE and THE RAPTURE, which I have seen; IN YOUR HANDS and TRAVELLERS AND MAGICIANS, which I have not); upcoming films (10 CANOES, AMAZING GRACE, 10 ITEMS OR LESS) and several intriguing docs/experiments/presentations (ONE PUNK UNDER GOD, about Jim and Tammy Bakker’s son; GOD OF A SECOND CHANCE, about the black church in DC; the recreation of TRAPPED BY THE MORMONS; Hollywood on prayer; black religiosity)

    If you live anywhere near Charlottesville, make plans to spend at least part of the weekend there. I live about 110 miles away; so I will be staying there in town, even though UVa has a home game that weekend.

    ADDENDUM: I should make it clear that the festival clearly understand “God” in a very ecumenical way (which is obviously fine in programming a film festival), with films about Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, etc. But by my count, there’s also about six films that set off various of alarm bells in the descriptions and what you can find at the film’s Web site (like A FLOCK OF DODOS and KEEP NOT SILENT).

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The Federalist Staff2
The Federalist



(Reviewers' Site/Bio)

  • Behind Our Lack Of Personal Responsibility Is A Refusal To Confess Sins
    (”I Confess” is briefly mentioned in this.)
    Dead actors rise out of old film cans to remind us who we once were. Alfred Hitchock’s “I Confess” was released in 1953. A flawed gem, the movie could hardly be made today. Who would be its audience? In these times of extravagant mercifying, the film would likely resonate, even among Catholics, as simply a trademark suspense drama that hinges on the seal of the confessional. Eric Rohmer called “I Confess” “a modern masterpiece,” not only for its cinematic intelligence and deft thriller-craft, but for the gravity that animated it. Montgomery Clift, Ann Baxter, Karl Malden, and German actor O.E. Hasse resurrect a culture still mindful of basic themes of Judeo-Christian life: the dogged weight of sin, and the urgency of repentance. Mortifying the ego, crucial to the penitential spirit, offends a psychologized culture that fobs personal wrongdoing onto scapegoats. Poverty, politics, environment, social structure, the blameless unconscious—all of it sidles into the dock to stand bail for individual responsibility. By contrast, the power of the keys confirms the very personal nature of sin. And the curtained confessional stands as the emblem of a moral universe remote from the temper of our time. A Lost Paradigm for Personal Responsibility A life-long Catholic, Hitchcock filmed his morality tale in Quebec. The Catholic Church’s ascetic and spiritual practices were on the cusp of decline in the early 1950s, but Quebec still claimed a coherent religious culture. It had not yet yielded to the times. Participation in the Sacrament of Penance—as it was then called—was still a barometer of moral consciousness. Participation in the Sacrament of Penance—as it was then called—was still a barometer of moral consciousness. Among the observant, a confessor’s ears are God’s ears. The priest may never speak of what God has heard through him. He may not refuse to hear a confession. Neither is he even permitted to reveal that a particular individual ever entered the confessional, no matter the cost to his own life or reputation. Every confessor, then, is at the mercy of the penitent. The seal makes a cunning plot device. The action of “I Confess” pivots on that note. Father Logan (Clift) represents the moral order, violated by a murder moments ago. Otto Keller (Hasse), a refugee befriended by Logan, slips into church late one night asking to make his confession. He has just killed a man in an attempted theft gone bad. Murder cries out for penance greater than a few obligatory Hail Marys. Divine mercy does not abolish divine justice. If his contrition is sincere, Keller must at least put the money back. Refusing to Confess Means Doubling Down on Evil In the confessional box, a penitent is his own judge and prosecutor. But psychological man demands absolution on his own terms. Keller makes excuses: life is hard for refugees (“a man without a country, alone”). He meant only to steal, not to kill. He needed the money so his wife—ruining her hands charring—will not have to work so hard. He cannot put the money back without exposing himself. Why bother—the owner is dead. And to turn himself in would be intolerable. In the confessional box, a penitent is his own judge and prosecutor. But psychological man demands absolution on his own terms. Fr. Logan is indifferent to his litany. The killer’s rebellion against penance smolders into malice. He connives to frame his confessor. Plot and subplot intertwine in Hitchcockian fashion to entrap the innocent priest. Suddenly, Keller’s conscience-stricken wife blurts out the priest’s innocence. She had known the truth all along; her silence, a parallel to Logan’s. But where his silence was an act of virtue, hers was a sin by omission. Maddened by fear of discovery, Keller shoots her to keep her quiet. She dies asking for Logan’s forgiveness. Like Cain, Keller can find no rest. His sins have found him out, propelling him toward a defiant crescendo of violence. The staginess of his death is pure Hitchcock, but the moral twilight he has entered is real. He cannot shoot his way out of it but, instead, is killed trying. His dying whisper to the man he would have destroyed is “Forgive.” Logan closes Keller’s eyes with the ancient formula: “Ego te absolvo.” It was the consummate gift. © Estate of Peter Fink / Art Resource, NY Absolving the Guilty, Blaming the Innocent We are not in Quebec of the 1950s any more. Could a Fr. Logan be portrayed sympathetically today? Or would insistence on penance mark him as an authoritarian representative of an outmoded patriarchal order? Could his moral demands be seen as contributing to Keller’s disintegration? Might Keller’s refugee status mitigate his crime? Answers are all around us. Cues to the impoverishment of any traditional sense of individual accountability arrive daily with the news. A few examples. When a “refugee” stabbed to death a 22-year-old Swedish social worker in an asylum center in January, the commissioner of police welled with sympathy for the murderer: Well, you are of course distraught on behalf of everyone involved. Naturally, for the person killed and her family, but also for a lone young boy who commits such a heinous incident. What has that person been through? Under what circumstances has he grown up? What is the trauma he carries? This entire migration crisis shows how unfair life is in many parts of the world. We have to try to help solve this best we can. A second Swedish official implicated overcrowding in the center as a plausible element in the killing. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon absolved last month’s murder of a young Israeli woman by two Palestinian students—pipe-bomb makers—with a statement that it is “human nature to react to the occupation, which often serves as a potent incubator of hate and extremism.” Politics and human nature, pious alibis, transfer fault from the guilty to the innocent. Norwegian bureaucrats determined that rape by refugees is strictly a cultural custom, like gorging on haggis or bull running. Remedial lessons will fix it. In December, Andrew Higgins reported in the New York Times: Henry Ove Berg, who was Stavanger’s police chief during the spike in rape cases, said he supported providing migrants sex education because ‘people from some parts of the world have never seen a girl in a miniskirt, only in a burqa.’ When they get to Norway, he added, ‘something happens in their heads.’ In their heads is an awareness of themselves as a subjugating force. These are not supplicants. They are behaving as conquering armies do, raping. But Berg, his imagination wiped clean of the seven deadlies—wrath and envy chief among them—brims with distorted largesse. An Iraqi migrant raped a ten-year boy in a swimming pool in Vienna. His defended himself with Western psychologizing. He was at the mercy of a “sexual emergency.” Without sex for four months, he suffered from “an excess of sexual energy.” Alert to the leanings of the culture he trespassed against, he confessed to “a mistake.” There was no need to call his sin by its right name. Substituting Spectacle for Sacrament Prevailing culture lulls us from viewing ourselves as agents of our own moral predicaments. Rather, we are victims of difficult situations. Pope Francis’ promiscuous hawking of mercy, disconnected from acknowledgment of personal sin, epitomizes the modern inversion: “I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars. You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else.” Small wonder that parish priests report an steeper drop in confessions on Francis’ watch. Under this flexible dispensation, the word sinful is out, injured is in. Palliative theatre jostles aside the old confessional box and the symbol system it sustained. Philip Rieff, writing “The Triumph of the Therapeutic” in 1966, saw it coming: At the breaking point, a culture can no longer maintain itself as an established span of moral demands. Its jurisdiction contracts; it demands less, permits more. Bread and circuses become confused with right and duty. Spectacle becomes a functional substitute for sacrament. Spectacle displaces cultural memory and substitutes, also, for a society’s ability to function on its own behalf. A people who have abandoned a sense of sin are incapable of responding adequately when they are sinned against. Instead, they extend even to their enemies the remissions they offer themselves. ]]>
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  • Pop Culture Keeps Resurrecting This Deathly Gregorian Chant
    (”I Confess” is briefly mentioned in this.)
    November, as nature declines to the starkness and death of winter, is traditionally commemorated as the month of the “poor souls” by the Catholic Church. For 29 days, the church prays with special emphasis for the departed who have not yet attained the bliss of Heaven. On November 2, the Feast of All Souls, a priest would traditionally say, and the faithful all attend, three Masses, hearing the Latin “Dies Irae” sequence (a special, poetic form of prayer) each time. Dies irae, dies illa / solvet sæclum in favilla: “Day of wrath, dreadful day / where heaven and earth in ashes lay…” But use of the sequence was not limited to that day, much less that month. Rather, it could be heard year-round in every funeral Mass. Out of this Gregorian chant born in the 1200s grew a musical death stamp, employed across the gamut of musical forms from powerful symphonies to video game soundtracks. Thomas of Celano, who is popularly credited as the source of the text, could little have expected his composition would be better recognized in the twenty-first century from its appearances in “Halo” and “Sweeny Todd,” or even a shoe advertisement, than the place it resided for most of a millennium: the Roman Catholic funeral Mass. A Frenchman named Hector Berlioz with an addiction for the overly dramatic is largely responsible for the former; a church afraid of inspiring fear is sadly responsible for the latter. (Of the many changes coming out of the Second Vatican Council, the “Dies Irae” sequence was removed from the funeral Mass because it had too “terrifying” of a message.) In a world where classical music laments its own demise, it is almost ironic that the theme whose life it guaranteed is now the musical spelling for imminent destruction and death. A Gentle Tune of Doom All things considered, it is not shocking a tune so old remains so popular. With Hollywood spewing endless CGI-drenched end-of-the-world scenarios that movie-goers eagerly lap up, the drama of the “Dies Irae’s” opening text is not all that scary or foreign. A day of wrath, with the world disintegrating into ash? Scenes from more than a dozen action movies describe that scenario. Someone about to decide the fate of the entire world? Pick a supervillain (or hero). The sequence was intended to remind the listener of epic endings, final judgment, and possible damnation, to encourage living a good life and avoiding sin, a task it filled ably for centuries. But now, it paints a picture only as real and as inevitable as the latest Avengers megabattle. Sung in the traditional Gregorian chant, especially in the context of a funeral Mass celebrated in its centuries-old Latin form, the aural effect is far different than what the opening notes assume. The tune falls and rises in calm waves. The thunder of the opening words, never echoed in the melody, subsides into a sorrowful but hopeful plea for mercy, closing with a prayer for eternal rest. The tenor of the entire Mass is one of sorrow, yes, but a sorrow tempered by hope and peace. How, then, did the “Dies Irae” become the doom tune of the TV world? As new choral and symphonic settings of the Requiem Mass became popular, the text of the sequence inevitably called for dramatic settings. Mozart’s opening for his “Dies Irae,” inscribed on the score gracing his monument in Vienna’s Zentralfriedhof, on through the trombone’s plaint in the stanza Tuba mirum and the powerful Rex tremendae, remain awe-inspiring to this day. Verdi’s “Requiem” took the “Dies Irae” in a frenetic, thunderous direction. Others, such as Gabriel Fauré and Maurice Duruflé, refrained from including the “Dies Irae” in their “Requiems,” keeping the religious purpose of the text superior to the drama it could invite. But these settings all remained within the context of a Mass, and while they employed the text, they did not utilize the melody we still know. From Tragic Hope to Deathly Despair Berlioz is perhaps single-handedly responsible for the change. His “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath” from the “Symphonie Fantastique” (1830) tore the “Dies Irae” from the funeral Mass, interspersing and finally combining it with the dance theme of the witches’ diabolical funerary orgy. Numerous composers soon followed his lead, and the “Dies Irae” became a freestanding symbol of death and despair. It also inspired creativity. It features in Franz Lizst’s “Totentanz” (“Dance of the Dead”) (1849) and “Mephisto Waltz” (1859-62), both of which formed the base of the score for Ben Stevenson’s popular ballet “Dracula.” It lilts through Camille Saint-Saens’ “Danse Macabre” (1874), where skeletons rise from their graves on Halloween and dance while Death plays the fiddle. Sergei Rachmaninoff seemingly loved the tune, and was not content to use it merely where a composition’s title spoke of funerary topics. Not only does it feature in his symphonic poem “Isle of the Dead” (1908), it also appears in his wildly popular “Variations on a Theme of Paganini” (1934), as well as in each of his three symphonies (1895, 1906-07, 1935-36), his choral symphony “The Bells” (1913) (using the poem of the same name by Edgar Alan Poe), and his “Symphonic Dances” (1940). A somewhat lighter-hearted treatment can be found in Michael Daugherty’s “Dead Elvis” (1993). Other examples abound. ‘Dies Irae’ Enters Film The “Dies Irae’s” first famous film credit came in “Citizen Kane” (1941), via direct quotes at critical moments and heavily influencing the primary theme. (Bernard Herrmann, the composer, was purportedly much inspired by Rachmaninoff’s “Isle of the Dead” in creating the movie’s score.) Oft-noted cameos are present in cult classics such as “The Exorcist” (1973) and “Poltergeist” (1982). It introduces Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” (1980), immediately setting the tenor of the film. Neil Lerner, in his book “Music in the Horror Film: Listening to Fear,” dubbed this use of the theme “one of the most blatant imaginable instances of music’s power to act as independent generic signature.” (When Kubrick was looking for a theme to signify death while the film was in pre-production, composer Wendy Carlos suggested the “Dies Irae”; the director was so enthralled that he reportedly listened to it over a hundred times and insisted on its use.) Film composers employ the theme both as a subtle hint and a dramatic foretelling, sometimes unconnected to any religious undertone, and at others expressly because of it. In Alfred Hitchcock’s “I Confess” (1953), the theme follows the murderer from crime scene to confessional, signifying both the death of the human victim and the death of the killer’s soul. In a twist, instead of indicating what is to come, the “Dies Irae” acts as a sort of commentary on what has happened. Often echoing this narrative usage, vampires in film have an affinity for the tune, inspired by their status as living dead as well as their darkly ritualistic propensities. The “Dies Irae” surfaces in “The Return of Dracula” (1958), Francis Ford Coppola’s “Dracula” (1992), where it accompanies the count as he thwarts Lucy’s Christian baptism with one of blood, and even in episodes of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (1997-2003). Losing the Meaning of Death While many of the movies and TV shows in which it appears trend to the darkly dramatic and horror genres—making the tune an October fixture despite its November ties—it is also used in action or other, friendlier films such as “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946). Unlike in “The Shining,” it is not always woven into one of the major themes of the work and frequently is too briefly noted to serve as commentary: the most common current use may be a single four-note (less often, eight-note) statement-of-impending-death in episodes of crime series like “Law and Order” or “Bones.” Once the ‘Dies Irae’ was removed from everyday life, it was demoted from a shared language to a semi-exclusive dialect. Up through the 1960s, composers employed the tune in film scores because many, if not most, viewers recognized the various secular and religious layers of meaning through at least vague familiarity with the Requiem Mass. Decades after the sequence was relegated to the annals of history, the theme’s significance lives on, nurtured by composers steeped in the classical canon, eager to mix the old with the new, the familiar with the foreign. But once the “Dies Irae” was removed from everyday life, it was demoted from a shared language to a semi-exclusive dialect, and modern listeners now hear it as a familiar unknown—understanding the general indication of doom yet senseless to its nuances. Its thematic use having grown out of the classical canon, one might suppose that the “Dies Irae” only resurfaces in movies scored by modern classical giants like John Williams. The celebrated composer has indeed pressed it to service on multiple occasions, including “obsessive, Herrmannesque repetitions” of the theme warning of the climax at Devil’s Tower in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977). Philip Hayward has described this score as “masterfully manipulat[ing] the audience” through its use of musical codes: the “Dies Irae” coupled with the jarring tritone interval, long considered a symbol of the devil. Eternally Reviving the Dead Yet the modern composer/director duo who have a Rachmaninoff-like obsession with it are a far cry from even Berlioz: longtime rocker Danny Elfman and Tim Burton. The “Dies Irae” traipses, crawls, crashes, and splatters through their films, from “Edward Scissorhands” (1990) to “The Nightmare Before Christmas” (1993) and “The Corpse Bride” (2005), along with the Burton-directed but Stephen Sondheim-scored “Sweeny Todd” (2007). (Given Burton’s directorial affinities, even if one watched these films sans score the trend is not necessarily surprising.) Our culture may be afraid of dying, but it is also fascinated by death. The theme, divorced from its original context, has been separated from the realm of its classical proponents. Of further irony, this leitmotif has gained in popularity as society has ramped up its efforts to postpone death as long as possible. In a culture that celebrates youth (“60 is the new 30”), is afraid of dying, refuses to accept death’s inevitability, and prefers to keep any thought of it at a distance, how is it that a funereal theme will not die? Perhaps it is not so strange. Our culture may be afraid of dying, but it is also fascinated by death: sanitized, and safely enclosed by a TV screen. Movies and TV shows are thus the lifeblood of the “Dies Irae” phenomenon. Perhaps also, as Peter Larsen and John Irons claim in their book, “Film Music,” the irony persists because using the “Dies Irae” leitmotif as a “warning… of death and calamity” is “a kind of coded comment that can only be ‘read’ by the initiated.” The death-fearing public doesn’t even know it is responsible for keeping death’s theme alive. ]]>
    ...
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