K.V. Turley is the Register’s U.K. correspondent. He writes from London.
Alfred Hitchcock died 40 years ago on April 29, 1980. It is also 100 years since he started working in the film industry in 1920.
Hitchcock’s career and life had began in the reign of Queen Victoria and ended in the presidency of Jimmy Carter, moving from London to Hollywood, from a title designer on silent movies to becoming one of the world’s most famous directors. The first movie he directed was the silent Number 13 (1922); his last was the much noisier Family Plot (1976).
After his death, the portrait painted of the Englishman was a dark one. Hitchcock came to be seen as a brilliant if cold-blooded director: actors unlucky enough to displease him had to endure all sorts of humiliations. It was said that the director’s relationship with actors was distant with most, overly controlling with some. Although he had a number of long-term artists and technicians working alongside him, it was claimed that he never gave any of them the credit they deserved for helping to create the Hitchcock “brand.” Many — fellow filmmakers and critics alike – came to admire his work but few, perhaps none, really knew him — and even fewer, it seemed, came to love him.
Recent film portrayals of Hitchcock have only served to confirm this image in the popular imagination. Hitchcock was, they suggest, as sinister as his oeuvre’s subject matter; his manipulation of audiences through his trademark shocks, laced with gallows humor, was now deemed callous and distasteful.
Ultimately, the riddle of Hitchcock the man remains a host of possible clues set out in his films for future generations to investigate. Most intriguing of all is the enigma of Hitchcock’s Catholicism.
As is well-known, Hitchcock was born and raised a Catholic. His Catholicism was heavily influenced by his Irish forebears and deepened further by the London Jesuits who taught him. His fiancée Alma converted to the faith just before their marriage in 1926; their only child, Patricia, was brought up Catholic. Often the family was seen on Sundays at Good Shepherd Church in Beverly Hills. Beyond this, Hitchcock’s faith remains largely a mystery.
Over the years some have tried to suggest Hitchcock’s Catholicism as the source of the twisted themes he explored in his work. Film critics have traced his recurring cinematic motifs of guilt and fear to his Catholic sensibilities, even if, to the informed viewer, their treatment appear more Jansenist than Catholic. Hitchcock’s cinematic universe is not, in fact, recognizably Christian. There is little by way of redemption in this celluloid world ruled by two demons: fear and guilt. More often than not, his heroes are often falsely accused, living in dread of discovery, or harbor some dark secret that constrains their every move, their destinies controlled by entities, seen and unseen, who lack compassion and whose judgment is harsh. At best, Hitchcock’s work portrays half the Catholic vision of humanity: the fallen part.
Another aspect of the Hitchcock film universe is that that universe is full of tricks and deceptions: things, people, places are never quite what they seem. If this is so in his movies, it is even more the case in his life off-screen in regard to his faith.
Hitchcock was a practicing Catholic all his life. He never said anything against the Church; he did make the odd joke, but hardly the stuff of public scandal. He was married at London’s Brompton Oratory in 1926, but only after Alma had undergone a full course of instruction in the faith. His only child, Patricia, was brought up a Catholic, and went on to have a church wedding, before raising her children Catholic. There are also lesser-known, if telling facts: for example, in the early 1920s, on his first trip out of England to Paris, a city then synonymous with decadence, the first thing the young Englishman did on arriving there was to attend an early morning Mass.
In Hitchcock films the “MacGuffin” is a red herring, a false scent, a “wild goose” for audiences to chase; he may not have invented this concept, but it is fair to say that he certainly popularized it amongst the movie-going population. Alfred Hitchcock loved leading people up blind alleys and then leaving them there —preferably screaming, everyone looking one way while something comes at them from the opposite direction. Is it in this practiced art of illusion that the key to unlock the conundrum of Hitchcock’s faith is to be found?
Hitchcock was a private man and, throughout his life, shielded his faith from the world’s constantly prying eyes. What more there was to it, like one of his ingenious “MacGuffins,” was to remain hidden, “off-screen.” But, as in the best movies, that is until the final reel.
In 2012, there appeared an article written by Fr. Mark Henninger, a Jesuit priest who knew Hitchcock at the end of his life. In that piece the priest suggested that Hitchcock found some kind of final peace in his lifelong faith. The priest recounts how, in the director’s later years, Holy Mass was said regularly at the Hitchcock family home. More tellingly still, on one such occasion the priest noticed how Alfred Hitchcock, the very public master of artifice, wept intensely private tears on receiving Holy Communion.