The Catholic Hitchcock

A Director's Sense of Good & Evil

“I don’t think I can be labeled a Catholic artist,” the director Alfred Hitchcock told François Truffaut, “but it may be that one’s early upbringing influences a man’s life and guides his instinct.”

Alfred Joseph Hitchcock was born on August 13, 1899, in Leytonstone, a district of London’s East End, to a grocer named William, and his wife, Emma. On his father’s side, Catholicism went back perhaps only two generations, but Emma was of Irish stock and her traceable ancestors were all Catholic. Hitchcock told the journalist Charlotte Chandler that his birth date was “one of the only Sundays in my mother’s life that she missed church.” Though there was a higher percentage of Catholics in Leytonstone than in other London neighborhoods, they were still regarded as peculiar, even socially suspect. According to Hitchcock, “Just being Catholic meant you were eccentric.”

In 1910, Hitchcock was enrolled in St. Ignatius College, a Jesuit “day school for young gentlemen,” where he remained until he was fourteen. When asked later what a Catholic education meant for him, he replied, “A Catholic attitude was indoctrinated into me.... I now have a conscience with lots of trials over belief.” From the Jesuits, he said, he learned “a consciousness of good and evil, that both are always with me.”

The director’s Catholic upbringing threaded its way through the rest of his life in both England and the United States. There was regular attendance at Mass in his youth and middle years, Alma Reville’s conversion when she became Mrs. Hitchcock, the Catholic upbringing of their daughter Patricia (who married the grandnephew of Boston’s Cardinal William H. O’Connell). There were friendships with priests and donations to various Catholic charities. But in his last years Hitchcock ceased attending Mass and, according to biographer Donald Spoto (The Dark Side of Genius), he

rejected the suggestion that he allow a priest...to come for a visit, or to celebrate a quiet, informal ritual at the house for his comfort. It had been years since he had attended worship...but it was not so long since he had expressed his distrust and fear of the clergy....

“Don’t let any priests on the [studio] lot,” he had whispered to his office staff in the last year. “They’re all after me; they all hate me.” There was no way of convincing him to see a clergyman at home, either, although he imagined their presences there, too.

Did this intensely secretive man feel hounded by real or imagined priests who he felt were trying to claim him as a Catholic artist?

But those reports shed less light on Hitchcock the Catholic than a childhood episode he loved to relate. Here’s the version he told Charlotte Chandler:

When I was no more than six years of age, perhaps younger, I did something that my father considered worthy of reprimand. I don’t recall the particular transgression, but at that tender age, it could hardly have been such a serious offense.

My father sent me to the local constabulary with a note. The police officer on duty read it and then led me down a long corridor to a jail cell where he locked me in for what seemed hours, which was probably five minutes. He said, “This is what we do to naughty boys.”

I have never forgotten those words.... I can still hear the clanging of the cell door behind me.

When I try to put myself in the shoes of six-year-old Hitch, this anecdote becomes a Catholic moment of terror. The boy was charged with bringing a note that, presumably, he’d not read to a police station. Suddenly he finds himself behind bars. No time to weep, whine, or plead, just a mysterious short walk and the clang of the cell door behind him. Sudden solitude, the growing awareness of abandonment, perhaps even a child’s version of despair. Then, after five seemingly endless minutes, the relief of being released, but also a warning that carried a whiff of accusation: “This is what we do to naughty boys.” But how have I been a naughty boy?

It’s like a childhood version of Kafka’s The Trial (which Hitchcock wanted to film until the project was scooped by Orson Welles), in which the innocent Josef K. finds himself accused of a mysterious crime about which nobody will provide specifics. Over the course of the story, Josef comes to feel guilty simply because he is human: to be human is to be guilty.

But Alfred H. wasn’t Josef K., and when Hitchcock told the story he justified his father’s action, speculating that his own childish self had done something wrong, however slight. In the Chandler version he says he had “followed the tram tracks” until he “lost my way.... My father had been forced to wait for his dinner.... In later years, I considered perhaps he was angry because he was worried about me.” So the father, unlike Kafka’s irrational, unknowable paternal God, was not only justified, he was lovingly worried—punitive precisely because he was loving. And Hitchcock the adult could think of the boy as both guilty and not guilty. Good and evil—they both were always with him.

When you couple the jail incident with what young Hitchcock must have been learning in his early religion classes, you arrive in Catholic territory. Isn’t the episode redolent of the story of the Garden of Eden? The boy knew that baptism, the only sacrament he had received, was for the remission of original sin, but he must have been told that we remain fallible creatures even after original sin is gone. The gates of the garden remain shut. (“I can still hear the clanging of the cell door behind me.”) Thus the necessity of the next sacrament, penance, which he wouldn’t receive for some years but of which he must have been told. Each confession would restore a state of grace that would only be shattered again by sin but could be restored and re-restored by further confessions: the stop-and-go rhythm of Catholicism. And since his recent “crime” had been so blithely, so absent-mindedly committed (“I’d followed the tram tracks. I hadn’t gone very far when it started to get dark, and I lost my way”), wasn’t it a sure bet that he would sin over and over again? And hadn’t he already been locked in the cell of a jailhouse built to house wicked men? (That the local constabulary probably held nobody worse than an obstreperous drunk is beside the point.) Couldn’t he have felt, in an inchoate, nonverbal way, that the criminals in the other cells were like an unseen part of him, waiting in ambush to welcome him into their fraternity (“good and evil...both are always with me”)?

Alfred’s father was fond of patting his youngest child on the head and muttering, “My little lamb without a spot.” Maybe, at age six, little Hitch already knew better.

Is any of this dramatized in Hitchcock’s many films? Yes, but only in a small handful over his nearly sixty years as a director. After all, Hitchcock made movies for the masses, not for those who shared his upbringing or religious obsessions. Furthermore, his projects were often determined as much by the books and plays on which they were based as by Hitchcock’s preoccupations. Rebecca (1940) has just as much Daphne du Maurier in its makeup as it has Hitchcock.

The small group of Hitchcock films that do bear witness to a Catholic sensibility (though certainly not to any doctrine) display an almost painful awareness of the Catholic democracy of souls that so engaged G. K. Chesterton, a boyhood favorite of the moviemaker: the certainty that anyone, finally, is capable of anything, any sin, any virtuous act. No one is doomed; no one is among the elect; nothing is foreordained; everyone is vulnerable.

For his sixth Hollywood feature, Hitchcock knew what he was doing when he hired Thornton Wilder and Sally Benson to work up a script from a story outline by Gordon McDonell and Alma Reville. As the authors, respectively, of Our Town and the stories that became the movie musical Meet Me in St. Louis, Wilder and Benson were the bards of happy families and cozy community. In Shadow of a Doubt (1943), family and community provide sanctuary for a killer.

The setting is Santa Rosa, California, a Sonoma County agricultural town that might be the Our Town of the West Coast. We first see it in a view of Main Street, presided over by a rotund, benevolently beaming traffic cop—presumably the only policeman this community needs or has ever needed. A series of lap-dissolves eases us into a tranquil neighborhood, then a particular house, then a second-story bedroom where a teenaged girl nicknamed Charlie, played by the radiantly youthful Teresa Wright, is lying on a bed daydreaming. She feels that Santa Rosa is all too idyllic and that her family has grown complacent. Then she has a brainstorm! Why not send a telegram to another Charlie, her mother’s kid brother (“the one we couldn’t help spoiling”), a man of the world and a globetrotting businessman, “a wonderful person who’ll come and shake us all up...just the one who will save us!” But when she gets to the telegraph office, the operator informs her that Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) has already wired an announcement of his coming visit. This electrifies the girl, for it proves what she has always suspected: that she and her uncle are telepathic partners and eternal soulmates. As she tells him on the evening of his arrival: “I’m glad that Mother named me after you and that she thinks we’re both alike. I think we are, too.... We’re not just an uncle and niece. It’s something else. I know you.”

A few nights later, the dinner-table conversation turns to the subject of how well-off widows amuse themselves in big cities. Uncle Charlie weighs in. Rich men, he says,

leave their money to their wives, their silly wives. And what do the wives do, these useless women? You see them in the hotels, the best hotels, every day by the thousands. Drinking the money. Eating the money. Losing the money at bridge, playing all day and all night. Smelling of money. Proud of their jewelry but of nothing else. Horrible. Faded, fat, greedy women.

YOUNG CHARLIE: But they’re alive! They’re human beings!

UNCLE CHARLIE: Are they? Are they, Charlie? Are they human? Or are they fat, wheezing animals? And what happens to animals when they get too fat and too old?

Throughout the dialogue the camera, representing the girl’s point of view, has been moving slowly forward, tightening on the uncle’s face. Joseph Cotten’s superbly frigid mask fills the screen and he looks directly into the camera. His words and those remorseless eyes confirm the recent suspicions, planted in Charlie’s head by two FBI agents, that her uncle is the “Merry Widow” killer who has been strangling women, ostensibly for their money but really because he is on a psychopathic crusade to rid the world of “fat, wheezing animals.”

Young Charlie undergoes many shocks in the course of the story, but the audience gets one, too, when she responds to the confirmation of her uncle’s guilt. Does she try to stop his murderous career by sharing the evidence she’s found (an incriminating ring) with the FBI? No, she just wants her uncle to go as far away as possible from her family and town. She doesn’t bother herself about the killings that will certainly continue once he’s again at large. Is this because of some vestigial affection for her uncle? Not at all.

The turning point comes in a sleazy bar where her uncle tries to persuade her not to inform on him. (This dive, where servicemen congregate, seems to be scarcely two blocks away from Charlie’s middle-class home; it’s as if one of Martin Scorsese’s mean streets has been plunked down next to Beaver Cleaver’s neighborhood.) A pretty but dispirited waitress, a former classmate of Charlie’s—the sort of girl who drops out in junior year after getting pregnant—takes their order while eying the incriminating ring on the table. “Ain’t it beautiful?” she sighs. “I’d just die for a ring like that.... I’d just about die.” The uncle brusquely places an order, then starts in on his niece:

You’re just an ordinary little girl living in an ordinary little town. You wake up every morning of your life and you know perfectly well that there’s nothing in the world to trouble you.... You sleep your untroubled ordinary little sleep filled with peaceful, stupid dreams. And I brought you nightmares. Or did I?... You’re a sleepwalker, blind! How do you know what the world is like? Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know if you ripped the fronts off houses, you’d find swine? The world’s a hell! What does it matter what happens in it?

Coming out of the mouth of a man she once idealized, this nihilistic apologia brings home (literally) to Charlie the awareness that evil can be anywhere. But is it everywhere, as her uncle preaches? That can’t be. For that would mean Santa Rosa, the family’s Eden, was a foul sty. She must protect her town and family. And if the mother, whose mental fragility is beautifully conveyed by Patricia Collinge, learns that the baby brother she still dotes on is a killer, the Eden of her mind will be destroyed. Uncle Charlie mustn’t be turned over to the law. His secret must be kept, but he must go away. And if he won’t? Then young Charlie is willing to kill him.

There is something in Hitchcock’s sensibility that takes perverse pleasure in young Charlie’s psychological deflowering. Shadow, it seems to me, is, among many things, a Catholic criticism of the kind of mind that is without a true awareness of sin, a criticism of an innocence that is as typically American as Teresa Wright’s vibrant freshness. If a Catholic is brought up, as Hitchcock was, to know that evil is always at hand, then he or she is armed for this encounter with malevolence. But young Charlie, up to the moment in the bar, is scarcely armed at all, and no one in her family ever will be if she has anything to say about it. They live in an American Eden and she will keep it safe for them, even though she herself can never get back inside.

The world is good. So says Catholicism, an assertion that sharply distinguishes it from several other religions. Yet it’s difficult to be good, to embrace the world but not the corruption in it. Think of the Catholic politician trying to steer clear of graft, only to be forced to beg favors from pols on the take. Think of the Catholic journalist whose exposé may destroy innocent individuals while it takes down a fraud. It’s enough to make the angels weep. Or laugh.

Hitchcock laughs. In Strangers on a Train (1951), he gives us the dark comedy of virtue’s necessary partnership with vice. When tennis star Guy Haines (Farley Granger) encounters a fan on a train, he finds the feline Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) entertaining but doesn’t take his wild talk seriously, especially Bruno’s theory of exchanging murders. “You do my murder, I do yours.” If Bruno were to eliminate Guy’s tramp of a wife so that the athlete could marry the girl of his dreams, then Guy could kill Bruno’s hated father. The police can’t catch a murderer without a motive. “You think my theory’s okay, Guy? You like it?” “Sure, Bruno, sure,” Guy replies as a brush-off. But Bruno takes it as a green light, and Guy’s wife soon lies dead at a fairground.

In the Patricia Highsmith novel on which the movie is based, Guy subsequently yields to Bruno’s pressure and kills the father. For Highsmith evil is basic and civilization a mere façade. That’s not what Hitchcock believed. What interested him was the covert, temporary partnership of good and evil. So he directed his scriptwriter, Czenzi Ormande, to keep Guy guiltless of murder but to have him temporarily protect Bruno from the law. In Shadow of a Doubt, Charlie shielded a murderer out of love for her family. Here, Guy Haines does it out of sheer self-preservation. Bruno, after all, is the only person who knows absolutely that Guy is innocent (even Guy’s sweetheart comes to suspect him). And, as the police grow increasingly suspicious of Guy, Bruno is the only one who can clear him.

But there is also a more sinister reason for Guy’s legal inaction: Bruno was the agent of Guy’s desire to see his wife dead, though the athlete never intended his wish to come true. As Bruno remarks, “I have a murder on my conscience. But it’s not my murder, Mr. Haines. It’s yours. And since you’re the one to profit by it, I think you should be the one to pay for it.” Actually, Guy is already paying for it. While the charming sociopath Bruno (Walker’s performance brilliantly blends comedy and menace) mouths the word “conscience” but feels no remorse, Guy sweats, prevaricates, remonstrates, and withholds evidence. When good and evil are yoked by circumstance, it is good that will chafe against the yoke. Highsmith’s book, which denies the existence of goodness, is truly bleak. Hitchcock’s film is merely sardonic and often funny.

Guy’s unwilling partnership with Bruno is underscored visually rather than with dialogue, especially in the scene in which Bruno first reveals what he’s done. Late at night, Guy has taken a taxi to his Georgetown apartment. As he mounts the outside steps, he hears a ghostly voice calling him from across the street. He sees Bruno standing next to a tall gate that fronts a courtyard. When Guy joins him, Bruno moves behind the gate, which casts vertical shadows down his face and body, as if he were behind prison bars. He reveals that he has fulfilled his end of the “bargain.”

GUY: Are you trying to tell me…why, you maniac!

BRUNO: But, Guy, you wanted it. We planned it together, remember?

Guy starts off to call the police, but Bruno stops him with the comment that they’d both be arrested, since the police would naturally conclude that Guy put Bruno up to the murder (which is what Bruno actually believes).

GUY: I had nothing to do with this. The police will believe me.

BRUNO: Guy, if you go to the police now, you’ll just be turning yourself in as an accessory. You see, you have the motive.

As this begins to sink in, a police car drives up. Here is Guy’s opportunity to turn in the murderer. Instead, he steps back behind the gate beside Bruno. Now we see both men literally behind bars. Good and evil, cellmates.

Of course, Guy remains essentially innocent while Bruno is a monster. Hitchcock doesn’t equate them but gives us the comedy of unwanted association. All this landed on the tennis player because he took a train seat across from the wrong stranger. And even then nothing would have happened if his shoe hadn’t brushed against Bruno’s. The situation is as farcical as it is dangerous. Strangers on a Train, like Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux and John Huston’s Prizzi’s Honor, is a great comedy of murder. It’s also a burst of laughter at the Catholic precept that we must embrace the world but not the evil in it. Good advice, Hitchcock chuckles, but just try to take it the next time you get on a train.

A Catholic ambiance starkly pervades Hitchcock’s next film, I Confess (1953). Fr. Michael Logan of Quebec (Montgomery Clift) hears the confession of a murderer, the rectory handyman, Keller (O. E. Hasse). Logan later discovers that the German refugee, disregarding the priest’s admonition, doesn’t intend to turn himself in. While robbing the slimy lawyer Vilette, Keller had murdered the man in a panic. Keller’s motive for the theft was to relieve his beloved wife Alma of the overwork caused by their poverty. His excuse for avoiding arrest is that Alma couldn’t live without him.

But then a backstory emerges that shows how entangled the priest is in the murder. Before taking his vows, Michael Logan had been in love with Ruth (Anne Baxter), who married an up-and-coming politician when Michael was serving overseas in World War II. After the armistice, Ruth, not telling Michael of her marriage, had enjoyed a romantic tryst with him. It had been observed by Vilette. Shocked by Ruth’s unfaithfulness, Michael entered the priesthood. Seven years later, Vilette, charged with tax fraud, tried to blackmail Ruth into interceding with her politician-husband. Ruth turned to Michael, who then scheduled an appointment with Vilette for the morning following the murder. All this, plus the fact that a priest (Keller disguised in Logan’s cassock) was spotted leaving the crime scene, make Michael the chief suspect. Brought to trial, Michael is determined to preserve the inviolability of the confessional, and so he presents no solid defense. When the jury acquits him by virtue of reasonable doubt, the judge makes matters worse by expressing public disagreement with their verdict. Only after a mob, infuriated at the seemingly corrupt priest, almost lynches Mi-chael does Keller’s pitying wife tell the police the truth—which precipitates the final catastrophe.

A heroic priest, the seal of the confessional as a plot device, the Franco-Catholic ambience of Quebec: if Hitchcock ever made a movie that could be labeled Catholic, surely this is it. Yet if I Confess is a Catholic film, it’s not because of any of these superficial features. It’s because it explores the image of the priest in society, what can tarnish that image, and how a fallible individual priest may suffer under the burden of that image.

Consider what first arouses the suspicion of the officer in charge, Inspector Larrue (Karl Malden). The handyman, before pretending to have discovered the body, has sneaked the money back into the victim’s cashbox, thus eliminating the theft motive. Then Michael shows up and Larrue casually takes his statement that he had an appointment with the lawyer, though the priest doesn’t mention that Ruth was also coming to the meeting. So far, no suspicion falls on Fr. Logan. But then, while questioning Keller, Larrue’s eye catches sight of Logan agitatedly pacing on the sidewalk outside the crime scene. When Ruth joins him and the two converse intensely, a melodramatic chord breaks into the soundtrack and the expression on Larrue’s face changes. The inspector is beginning to suspect the priest.

Why? What Larrue sees could merely be a priest telling a parishioner that a terrible thing has happened. Yet the intense, troubled rapport between a young, handsome priest and a beautiful woman in the vicinity of a murder doesn’t look right to Larrue. The adage about Caesar’s wife applies to priests in this intensely Catholic community: he must not only be innocent, he must be above suspicion. The trial is conducted in an atmosphere of scandal, and after the priest’s acquittal, the mob’s derisive laughter (“Preach us a sermon, Logan”) is just as much about his putative concupiscence as it is about murder. Throughout the movie, the image of the chaste priest works against Fr. Logan.

The most profound element in I Confess—an element fully realized in the otherwise uneven, bumpy script by George Tabori and William Archibald, and burnished by the superb acting of Clift and Hasse—is the relationship between priest and killer. And this too involves the image of what a priest should be—though refracted through a murderer’s desperate mentality.

Unlike Uncle Charlie or Bruno, Keller is neither a serial killer nor a madman but a practicing Catholic whose horror at his deed sends him immediately to the confessional; and once his fear of the hangman’s noose is aroused, he counts on Fr. Logan to remain mute. The image of priests as silent brokers between man and God, transcending all civil law, becomes Keller’s best hope to escape earthly justice.

This leads to the two men becoming a torment to each other. Keller is racked by the priest’s enigmatic silence—is Logan about to turn him in?—while Logan’s misery stems from anticipating his own arrest and the fact that Ruth has been dragged into the case, with her reputation and marriage likely to be destroyed.

But there is something else. The initial absolution of the killer went hand in glove with the priest’s admonition that a confession to the police must follow immediately. (One of the bumps in the script is that the confessional exchange between priest and killer is not shown completely; Keller only summarizes it later for his wife.) When Keller refuses to turn himself in, the sight of him in the rectory reminds Logan that, like young Charlie in Shadow and Guy in Strangers, he is shielding a murderer. The priest’s silence fulfills his priestly duty: to follow Jesus, he mustn’t denounce Cain. Hence, his torment, and his silent treatment of Keller, whose daily presence in the church and the rectory seems an obscene joke. And whereas Charlie had an FBI agent to partially confide in, and Guy finally persuaded his sweetheart to believe in him, Michael Logan has no mortal ear to listen to him. No wonder that, in the final scene, when the priest confronts the gun-waving killer (who has just murdered his beloved wife), the despairing émigré says,

I am as alone as you are.

LOGAN: I’m not alone.

KELLER: You are. To kill you now would be a favor to you. You have no friends. What has happened to your friends, eh? They mock at you.... They call at you....

Given his overly earnest, idealistic nature, what he has been through, and the likelihood that the shadow of scandal will always hover over him despite his acquittal, Logan may always be a lonely man. Yet he is right to say that he is not alone. God may be a frustratingly silent confidant but a confidant he is. When Logan gives a second absolution to the dying Keller, he is making sure that the murderer is not alone either. Whatever the film’s faults (the uneven script, Dimitri Tiomkin’s overly emphatic music, Anne Baxter’s flat performance), the conclusion of I Confess is immensely moving. Its final benediction unknots Michael Logan’s spirit, ends his torment, and fulfills his duty to both God and man.

Are these three films the only Hitchcocks that reflect the concerns and the values of Catholicism? I’m sure there are moments and entire scenes in others that testify to a Catholic sensibility. For instance, at the climax of The Wrong Man (1957), the mistakenly accused Henry Fonda, on the verge of ruin, prays before a picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. His prayer is answered when the real criminal is apprehended in the very next scene. But that moment of prayer exists apart from the rest of the movie, whose real theme is the way any good citizen can be caught in the toils of the law. The story, by its very nature, demands that its protagonist be passive in his suffering, and this passivity precludes any dramatic movement of the spirit. Catholic values may be present but they don’t inform the entire drama.

No artist can keep his or her religiosity discreet from national habits, sexual yearnings, filial and parental feelings, political ideas, etc. Religion mingles with the mess of life. But I’ll stand by this: Catholics viewing Shadow of a Doubt, Strangers on a Train, and I Confess will recognize a spiritual brother behind the camera.

 

Funding for this essay was provided by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.


Read more: Letters, September 24, 2010

Published in the 2010-07-16 issue: 

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.

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