Full Confession (1939): Interesting Early Noir

Part of the fun of having an interest in old movies is discovering an obscure title. Full Confession is so obscure that I could find only one frame and a lobby card on the Web, and no posters. It is not on DVD and while TCM has the movie in its catalog, it is not currently scheduled. I caught it on late night television over here.

While Full Confession is no lost gem, it deserves attention. Ostensibly a b-melodrama from the RKO factory, it is interesting for a number of reasons.

A compelling if contrived plot has a Catholic priest from an Irish parish connected in the fate of two men: a family man unjustly facing the chair for murder and the actual killer, who has been paroled from a stretch for robbery. The killer who had after a prison ‘accident’ confessed to the murder to the priest in a death-bed confession, survives after receiving a blood transfusion of the priest’s blood. The killer is not an evil man but tragically impulsive and this, together with his loving relationship with a modest and decent woman who is not aware of his guilt, evoke sympathy for his desire to ignore his conscience and make a new life. The dramatic tension of the priest being bound by the secrecy of the confessional and the imperative to save an innocent man drives the narrative once the killer is released.

A strong film crew and cast give the movie a certain patina. The director is John Farrow with cinematography by Roy Hunt, and original music by Roy Webb. An ensemble of veteran character actors complete the picture: Victor McLaglen plays the killer, Sally Eilers is the girl he loves, Joseph Calleia plays the priest, and Barry Fitzgerald the condemned man.

Farrow and Hunt while hobbled by some clunky expository sequences, which are largely the fault of the script, for the most part fashion impressive dramatically expressionistic scenes from, by necessity, darkly-lit studio sets, evoking the protagonist’s state of mind as he battles with his conscience and lashes out with desperate physical responses to his predicament. There are also well-constructed collages and voice-overs to portray his inner turmoil evocatively underscored by Roy Webb’s eerie orchestral accompaniment. Farrow uses the camera with panache and many scenes see the mise-en-scene explored with fluid elegant takes. Some scenes are overtly self-conscience, but are within the limitations imposed by the constraints of b film-making, and to be expected.

This expressionism and evident noir motifs I think fully qualify Full Confession as an early noir. We have the themes of fate dealing losing cards, physical entrapment and mental anguish, and redemption as a double-edged sword.

Essential if you are interested in the origins of the classic film noir cycle.

8 thoughts on “Full Confession (1939): Interesting Early Noir”

  1. Hi! Tony,
    Well, well, well…What an interesting review of a film that I most definitely, was not familiar with…Well that is until after reading your review.

    However, I do plan to seek it (Full Confession) out to watch very soon…
    …Because I just checked my film noir seller, list and lo and behold it is on has list of hard-to-find films. Just one frame and a lobby card…Hmmm…very interesting.

    Thanks, for sharing!
    Oh! Yes, I have already sent this over to Twitter and I plan to post this review over there on Tumblr too!

    DeeDee 😉


  2. Tony: Although you say here that this isn’t a top-flight noir, and admit it’s a difficult film to find, the evidence you lay out here makes for a strong commendation. Heck, we have John Farrow (an excellent director, who heled the superb ALIAS NICK BEAL – a film you covered here just days ago)and distinguished craftsmen, Roy Hunt and Roy Webb, two RKOP alumni from the glory years weaving their own kind of magic within the framework of expressionism and character state-of-mind. The collages and the voice-overs sound like excellent components, and strictly from a historical viewpoint, it’s an essential for genre fans, if not for movie buffs in general.

    This is a superior analysis, one of your finest!


  3. Twitter follower. Thank you for writing about this film. I’d never heard of it before.
    So many books say “Stranger on the Third Floor” is the first Noir.
    Perhaps “Confession” is the one that takes the title.


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