Strange Confession is the rather blah title for a quirky little horror film released in 1945, which I found rather appealing. (What’s being strangely confessed here? Plenty, it turns out.) I do prefer the movie’s alternate title, though, tacked on for a 1950s re-release: The Missing Head. It’s punchier, more graphic, compressing the film’s plot into three words. It tells you all you need to know. Economy of means, you see.
Heads are integral to Strange Confession both within and without its plot. The movie was the next-to-last production in Universal Studio’s six-film “Inner Sanctum” series (itself based on a popular radio mystery show), and was the last series’ entry to feature the Bodiless Head. That was this pasty-skinned, bulbous-browed Object, looking like an Edison light bulb wearing a Jimmy Conlin face mask, which introduced each Sanctum film, explaining how our minds can confuse, deceive, and play tricks on us, even to the extent of making us commit murder (which pretty much sums up all the series’ plots). The idea for the Head may go back to the radio show, which had a regular narrator begin each episode, but the whole thing smacks of B-move inspiration: a quick and easy extra-diegetic visual motif to link all the Sanctum films and to entertain the kiddies with the sight of a cranium floating in a jar. At the most, the Head is a nuisance, sort of the Thing-That-Must-Be-Gotten-Through, like those ads at the start of a YouTube video, before we can get to the film proper (as indicated, it was dropped for the last film). Any shock value it had was as brief as its own shorn skull.
There’s no mistaking the “B”-ness of all the Sanctum entries anyway: each film lasts barely over 60 minutes, was shot on standard sets, and starred Lon Chaney, Jr. Within those limits, the films aren’t bad; they’re well made, with excellent cinematography and concise direction. Giving the running time, the stories cut to the quick, their odd little mystery plots (with titles like Dead Man’s Eyes and Pillow of Death) centered on a protagonist suspected of murder but unable to prove his innocence. The clues pile up, a detective comes snooping around, and sooner or later the camera cuts to a close-up of Chaney’s madly twitching eyes, with the implied question—did he or didn’t he? The series managed the unusual feat of getting better (as well as grimmer) with each film, reaching its peak with the one under discussion, a dark little tale of manipulation, jealousy, and revenge.
Confession stands out from the other Sanctum films in that its story is more straightforward and yet more complex: it deals with ruthless profiteering, dishonest advertising, adulterous intentions, and (no doubt the most interesting part) head removal. Told as an extended flashback, the plot clues us in from the beginning that Lon is already guilty of a murderous act—he’s introduced sneaking out of a house at night, hiding in doorways and dodging down side streets (nicely noir-lit), all while clutching an ominously prominent Gladstone bag. What’s in the bag, we wonder. Well, plenty.
This difference no doubt stems from the story’s source: it’s a remake of the 1934 film The Man Who Reclaimed His Head, in which Claude Rains enacted a grisly head-chopping vengeance on Lionel Atwill (and who better to receive it?) for ruining his life. Instead of the original film’s pacifist writer and sell-out politician, we have a naïve chemist (Chaney) working on drug cures to benefit mankind, and his boss, an unscrupulous pharmaceuticals owner (J. Carroll Naish) hoping to profit from the chemist’s findings. Add the chemist’s pretty blonde wife (Brenda Joyce), a flu epidemic, and an untested drug rushed to market, and you have the makings of a neat little shocker.
Livening up the film’s stripped-down-B-level narrative are some nasty little edges, like table corners that obtrude abruptly and bruise your knees. While Chaney’s character is a teary-eyed idealist, content to pinch pennies in a three-room flat and let Naish pocket the money, his seemingly-sunny wife lets out bitter little digs about their crappy existence, her rancor seeping out like rot from overripe cherries. “Daddy, what’s a raise?” asks the chemist’s small son; “That’s something your father is apparently not interested in,” replies his mother with a screwed-tight smile. To Joyce’s credit, she lets us hear the thin hiss of acid beneath the jokey tone; you grasp how this woman has too long been acting the loyal spouse for her boobish husband and has damn near reached her limit. It’s a conventional part but Joyce adds subtext to it, unsettling her character and the narrative just a little more than expected.
And then there’s That Head. The Missing one, that is. Or rather, That Bag, wherein that Head resides. The bag is the film’s crux, beginning with Chaney’s first appearance, lugging the thing like the dead weight of repressed memories. The plot spins away and back to that starting point, tempting us to want to see what’s in that mysterious valise. We get a hint that’s it’s something a bit beyond the average when Chaney, accompanied by bag, seeks out a former acquaintance, a successful lawyer, to hear his story. “Let me show you,” says Chaney, opening the case. The camera cuts to the lawyer looking down at the bag in muted horror and then raising his eyes; it then cuts to Chaney answering the man’s gaze. But we aren’t shown what the lawyer sees. The camera elides this shot, leaving us to guess at what unpleasantness lies beyond our own gazes, and what further horrors are in store.
The film presents an interesting example of the “missing shot”—meaning there’s no cut to a reverse shot that, given the conventions of shot-reverse-shot sequencing in cinema, spectators might expect as follow-through. It’s the shot that structures a narrative series (as in a dialogue exchange, cutting between the participants) or that shows what a character is looking at; or it’s the shot that reveals, completing the action begun by a previous shot. But when the camera skips an expected reverse shot, such as in the bag scene, crucial knowledge is withheld. A famous missing-shot instance is in Mildred Pierce, where we don’t see who is Monty Bergeron’s killer. We see Monty get plugged and then keel over, but we don’t get the reverse cut to his assassin. Only near the end, after a film-long flashback of red herrings, are we shown the shot that was missing at the beginning, revealing who squeezed the trigger and thus solving the mystery.
Like Mildred Pierce, Strange Confession (both films were released in 1945; a big year for missing shots?) uses a long flashback to unravel its missing-shot mystery, dropping hints as it unwinds. Our chemist is a self-described “brilliant mind,” one so good he can keep all his experimental notes “in my head” and not written down; which means Naish can’t at first take advantage of his employee’s discoveries to market a new drug. When Naish does manage to steal the formula and sell it, Chaney unhinges, raving that, “It’s just like he’d taken my head—my mind and brain, and used it” (cut to the twitching eyes). Then there are the foreshadowings: the boss, who collects ethnic exotica, keeps a display of knives over his mantelpiece. And Chaney, who has been sent to South America to be gotten out of the way (so the boss can put the moves on his wife), sends him a gift of a machete—which also goes over the mantle. Sooner or later, we know that everything will come together, and that Chaney will snatch the machete off the wall to take back what he views as rightfully his.
But even though we can guess by the end that the bag holds a hot Head, the film gets cold feet. Right when we might expect the Big Reveal of Naish’s severed bean, the camera again withholds the shot, not fulfilling its opening premise. Surely we could have at least been given a glimpse of scalp hair, but Chaney is merely hauled off by the coppers, his bag out of sight. The film doesn’t balance itself, it doesn’t round off its plot and complete the circle; and I’ll strangely confess, I was left feeling cheated. As with Naish’s torso, something is missing. I blame Production Code squeamishness here. A pre-Code film like The Most Dangerous Game had no problem scattering clipped noggins round the walls of Leslie Banks’s ghoulishly designed mancave, but that was a film from more liberated times. Strange Confession was firmly in Breenish thrall, and therefore the cat must be kept primly in the bag.
What makes such restraint puzzling to me is that Confession begins, of course, with a shot of that gruesomely detached Bodiless Head. Which, being that it seems never to have been coupled to any Body in the first place, I suppose was permissible. And which, for us missing-shot completists, I suppose will have to suffice.