Hitchcock’s Catholicism: The Final MacGuffin?

Recently, Alfred Hitchcock came back from the dead, and, in so doing, frightened a man “back into life.”

Let me explain.

The headline ran as follows: “Hitchcock suspense clip helps detect awareness in patient in vegetative state!”

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A man had been in a coma for 16 years. The prognosis was not good, hope for his recovery less so. The medical staff played him an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Like audiences down the years, it jolted this audience of one into a reaction, confirming life still existed. Some 24 years after his death, Hitchcock is still making headlines about his power to shock, if in the most unlikely of places.

During his career, Hitchcock managed to achieve the enviable double of both box office success and critical acclaim. The latter something that since his death appears to be increasing yearly, as, without fail, some film—Gone Girl being the latest—is released with the accolade: “Hitchcockian,” even if, on first glance, such films appear to have but a passing resemblance to the work of the man who came to be known as the Master of Suspense. And yet, for all his posthumous reputation, to many the man still remains an enigma, and one that, in recent times, has grown decidedly darker.

The now seemingly accepted version of events is that although he was a skilled filmmaker, he was not such a skilled or even likeable human being. The first biography I read of Hitchcock was back in the 1980s—its title and author shall remain nameless. Suffice to say that its approach to his life had a clear agenda: Hitchcock as voyeur, or worse. And, in so doing, it became the standard template on the deconstruction of the man and his movies: one that proceeded to create a myth, with a monster at its center.

According to this myth, this was a director as brilliant as he was cold-blooded, with those actors unlucky enough to displease him having to endure all sorts of humiliation. Recent portrayals of Hitchcock, on both the big and small screen—some of which emanate from the same 1980s biographer—have only served to cement this image in the popular imagination; with its subject now considered as sinister as was his then subject matter. His manipulation of audiences, with its increasingly nasty shocks laced with gallows’ humor, was now to be viewed to be as callous as it was distasteful. Caring even less for the paying public than the acting fraternity, this was the man who, when asked in a letter from a distressed parent about what to do with a daughter who refused to shower on account of Psycho, replied: send her to the dry cleaners.

In light of all this, and apart from its perceived “guilt,” his Catholicism was to be dismissed as of no real significance, an eccentric footnote, if anything, acting as some sort of ‘accomplice’ to his baser instincts. And, there appeared precious little by way of evidence to contradict this view, or so we were told. Yes, with wife and daughter, he attended the Good Shepherd Church in Bel-Air, but the prosecution’s presentation of this fact was something akin to noting pallbearers at a funeral, doing their mournful duty and little else; or, more perverse still, this was all a ploy concealing a much shadier side, and, therefore, just another exhibit in the case then building against the accused: Mr. A. Hitchcock.

Then, out of the blue, in 2012, an article appeared which “muddied” these increasingly stagnant waters. Written by a Jesuit priest, Fr. Mark Henninger, it contradicted the received wisdom, telling as it did of a different Hitchcock, and a man who was undoubtedly Catholic. The priest recounts how, in the director’s later years, Mass was regularly said at the Hitchcock family home, and on one occasion he noticed how this very public master of artifice wept intensely private tears on receiving Holy Communion.

But how could this be? It didn’t seem to fit with the depraved image of the late director being hawked around.

There are two things one needs to bear in mind when watching Hitchcock films, and when observing the man himself: his sense of humor, and the MacGuffin. Once you place these pieces of the jigsaw then the whole picture starts to come into focus.

Let’s start with the humor.

To understand Hitchcock, one has to understand that he was first and foremost a Londoner. The city of his birth had the murders and the jokes, the mad and the bad, the innocent and the accused—all existing alongside each other, with often a mixture of these elements in different people at different times, just like many of the protagonists in his movies. To live in a city like London—cheek by jowl, so to speak, with one’s fellow humanity, both royalty and “unwashed”—one has a choice: to go mad, or to smile at the madness all around. It’s the fury of the man who can’t take any more, or the humor of the one who doesn’t take too much of it seriously, often, as a by-product, producing a humor of a particularly “black” sort—perhaps, in part at least, as an inevitable defense when surrounded by so much of the “blackness” of men’s souls.

Clearly Hitchcock saw both, and, as an artist imbibed both. When all is said and done, however, his was the business of entertainment—first and foremost. When one of his principals was agonizing about her character’s motivation, he reminded her it was only a movie. And as any packed underground train attests, London allows few of its citizens to take themselves too seriously, and for a man who could describe Psycho as a “joke,” to say nothing of his resultant advice on parenting and its relation to dry cleaners, Hitchcock definitely saw life’s many sided humor, albeit through a very droll lens. That said, this was a man who liked to play practical jokes and, maybe, the greatest “joke” of all was staring us in the face, but before we “laugh” with him, we need to explore that other piece of the jigsaw: the MacGuffin.

What is it? In short, a red herring, a false scent, a “wild goose” for audiences to chase; he may not have invented it, 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 whilst something comes at them from the opposite direction, perhaps, paradoxically, it is precisely here in this practiced art of illusion, and humorous illusion at that, that the key to unlock the conundrum of Hitchcock’s faith is to be found.

He worked for over 50 years in the film business. On closer inspection his movies are many things not just thrillers—social document, melodrama, romance, horror—and what they show, if you look closely enough, is, as you would expect, something of the artist himself; but what they also reveal is a practiced trickster at work, and one with a real talent for obfuscation.

Now, in regard to his faith, some later biographies did try to understand it by placing it in a social context. Much was made of the director’s Irish mother as if, somehow, this was an explanation for any residual social Catholicism. What they skirted round and failed to explore in any depth was a personal faith; but then, he had kept this very private area of his life well off-limits. And, if the curious did stray too far that way, he knew just how to put them on the wrong trail, for, remember, the Hitchcock universe is one of tricks and deceptions: things, people, places—never quite what they seem. On and off screen, with the well-practiced throwaway comment, there was at all times an elaborate defense, and nowhere more so than in regard to his faith.

For a number of years, it has been a parlor game to look for the Catholicism in Hitchcock films, especially amongst his French critics. Not a game worth playing in my opinion. His cinematic universe is not recognizably Christian, there is little by way of redemption in this celluloid world ruled by two demons: fear and guilt. Its heroes often falsely accused, living in dread of discovery, or harboring some dark secrets that manipulate their every move, with destinies controlled and pushed by entities without compassion and whose judgment is harsh. This is, at best, half of the Catholic vision of humanity: the fallen bit. This is, also, the endless nightmare of someone who knows solely guilt and fear, not forgiveness and mercy, and with that, perhaps, we are coming closer to the truth, and of one who knew that only through the prescribed sacrament could such negative forces ever really be expunged.

At this point, there are some solid facts to be presented on behalf of the defense. To all intents and purposes, Hitchcock was a practicing Catholic all his life. He never said anything against the Church of his birth. He did make the odd joke, but hardly the stuff of public scandal. He was married at Brompton Oratory in 1926, but only after his fiancée, Alma, had undergone a full course of instruction in the faith. His only child, Patricia, was brought up in the faith, and went on to marry in it, 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, then a city synonymous with decadence, the first thing the young Englishman did on arriving there was to attend an early morning Mass. All this is well documented, if at times, too lightly dismissed, especially by those who don’t understand that most Catholics are in it for the “long haul,” taking the “rough” with the “smooth,” confessing the former and grateful for the latter, and hoping for the only thing that really matters: dying in a State of Grace.

Speaking of which, the most disturbing aspect of the aforementioned, if unnamed biography from the 1980s, was the picture painted of Hitchcock’s last days. In regard to the man who specialized in last minute dramas, we were left only with the dull thud of death—without priest or sacrament; and with this dismal conclusion, the prevailing view of his life, and how he had really lived, appeared vindicated. Or, was it? Or, was this a final MacGuffin—only this time, one perpetrated by his biographers? Or, was it part of a double bluff—and one masterfully played by its subject?

On good authority from those who were there, we now know that he died very much in the faith he had lived. Perhaps, it was only natural that at the end it was to the Jesuits that Hitchcock should turn, no stranger to the sons of St. Ignatius having been educated by that Order, another fact often glided over by some biographers, and yet one that, one way or another, had left its mark. And that mark pointed to an even deeper one: that of baptism, an indelible mark that relentlessly calls and, if allowed to, claims those so marked.

This alternate “ending” should not come as too much of a surprise; after all, his films generally ended on a “happy note” if after much playful suspense. And, given his sense of humor, one suspects that, as a Catholic at peace, he would have died laughing knowing all the world had been taken in by the image of an unbelieving tyrant who cared only for his art. He enjoyed that sort of thing. Back in the 1970s, before a London audience, he was asked, by an earnest fellow director, about the then fashionable “message movies,” he famously repeated the quip allegedly from Sam Goldwyn, that messages should be left to Western Union, as the audience laughed, his liberal inquisitor appeared offended, but what he hadn’t noticed, and the audience had, however, was the twinkle in the eyes of the Londoner.

One suspects Hitchcock would also have laughed at recent events, helping someone come back to “life” when all around suspected he was “gone for good”; especially so, given he had spent so much screen-time dispatching people to the grave. But, then again, he had also spent a lifetime discreetly contemplating the One who had returned from there, and for good; and, who, in so doing, had managed not only to escape from but, indeed, triumph over, what neither Hitchcock’s heroes or villains, no matter how adept, had been able to: death itself.


  • K. V. Turley

    K.V. Turley is the National Catholic Register’s U.K. correspondent. He writes from London.

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