Editor’s Note: Full Confession has been released for the first time on home video by Warner Archive.
The precise qualities of film noir are notoriously difficult to pin down; for many, it’s a know-it-when-you-see-it sort of thing. One of the least tangible qualities of a noir film is its tendency to play with conventional characterizations in ways that shock the audience while revealing hidden truths about our own society. Full Confession, the 1939 proto-noir directed by John Farrow and starring Victor McLaglen, is a sort of knock-off of McLaglen’s earlier film The Informer (1935), but with heavier noir overtones and a more cynical look at the psychology behind the criminal mind. McLaglen’s character in Informer was more dim-witted than fully evil, but reviews from 1939 give the same characterization to his Pat McGinnis in Full Confession, as though critics didn’t yet know what to make of a lug up there on the big screen who wasn’t dumb, yet who acted in completely illogical, dangerous ways.
The thing is, McGinnis isn’t dim. He’s a psychopath, just not the kind of psychopath audiences were used to seeing at the time. If he’d been a mad scientist or Lon Chaney, Sr. under 17 layers of movie makeup, his lunacy would have been easy to identify. Instead, he was just a big working-class dope looking to knock over a warehouse, and who never really shouted or acted out in ways that made him noticeable. Sure, he murdered a cop and thinks it’s high-larious to almost push a dozen men off a cliff, but he was always so darn calm about it. It’s that calm — and his religion, of course — that leads Father Loma (Joseph Calleia) to immediately start working to get McGinnis visitation rights and an early parole.
John Farrow has long been considered a major director in film noir, and Full Confession is in turn an important step in the development of noir as a genre. Coming in a full year before what is usually considered the first true film noir, the Peter Lorre melodrama Stranger on the Third Floor (1940), Full Confession, if not strictly be an entry in the film noir cycle, is at least the clearest example of the link between 1930s crime dramas and 1940s noir. That a film like this was released in 1939 is shocking, not only because it presages what would become a dominant genre in Hollywood, but also because it plays exactly like the bottom half of a low-budget noir-esque double bill from a decade later, something you’d see paired with films like Smart Girls Don’t Talk (1948) or They Made Me a Killer (1946).
As the good father tries to rehabilitate McGinnis, the night watchman who was knocked unconscious in McGinnis’ aborted heist, Michael O’Keefe (Barry Fitzgerald), hosts his daughter’s wedding at his inner city apartment. With a personality as big as his moustache — “I won’t let anyone with an ‘o’ at the wrong end of his name dictate to me!” he hollers at a troublesome Italian neighbor — O’Keefe gets into a cheerful wedding brawl, but while drying out in a cell gets wrongly identified as the cop killer. O’Keefe is convicted, and the good father provides soothing advice for the O’Keefe family and occasionally contacts officials on their behalf, but never does anything even remotely as helpful for O’Keefe as he does for McGinnis.
The tension in Full Confession comes from this noir-ish switch, where the audience knows full well that a cop killer is being treated better than a regular guy who did nothing wrong. It’s not just that McGinnis is a cop killer, but he’s reckless and mean and lies to his best girl and a priest, both of whom think love is gonna save him, while those of us watching know better, and it’s excruciating.
Fr. Loma throughout this first half is so smug he’s almost intolerable, but when the truth is finally revealed, he becomes a full-fledged film noir priest, otherwise known as a stone cold badass. He’s ruthless as he acts as McGinnis’ conscience, certain that, if he just pushes hard enough, this criminal will do the right thing. The rest of us aren’t so sure.
This is admittedly routine movie territory for us cynical souls here in this blessed year of 2017, but it must have been baffling to 1939 audiences. That difficulty in categorizing the film (as well as its similarity to The Informer) kept Full Confession from being noticed by audiences and historians alike. Thankfully Warner Archive has just released Full Confession for the first time on home video, on a made-on-demand DVD which promises to give it a wider audience and reopen discussions about what is and isn’t film noir.