Alfred Hitchcock’s Tales of Original Sinners

The work of Alfred Hitchcock has to this day an enduring fascination for a wide range of viewers. More so than any other filmmaker in the century-long history of the cinema, the British director is capable of evoking both an enthusiastic response from popular audiences—for whom Hitchcock is the unsurpassed “master of suspense”—and the passionate attention of film scholars. The latest bibliography on Hitchcock shows that this director of such classics as Rebecca, Psycho, and Rear Window is still the most discussed filmmaker in cinema studies.

Born in Leytonstone, northeast London, in 1899, Hitchcock had already achieved a reputation in his native country for well-crafted 1930s espionage thrillers like The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, Sabotage, and The Lady Vanishes before he arrived in Hollywood in 1939 under contract to producer David O. Selznick. Over the next thirty-five years, Hitchcock produced a steady output of films, many of them immensely popular with audiences worldwide: Shadow of a Doubt, Spellbound, Notorious, Strangers on a Train, Dial M for Murder, Vertigo, North by Northwest, and The Birds. From 1955 to 1965, the weekly television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents popularized his public persona even more. In a tongue-in-cheek tone, the director introduced and closed every episode to Gounod’s Funeral March of a Marionette played over Hitchcock’s original caricature sketch of his widely recognized profile.

Like other famed Hollywood masters with a strong directorial signature, Hitchcock saw himself in the role of a music conductor. As happens to artists working in a popular and new medium like cinema—we discussed recently the case of John Ford (Crisis, October 1996)—recognition for their creative accomplishments comes after a substantial body of work has been enjoyed by the public for a long time. The critical debate about Hitchcock as a “serious” artist began in the mid-fifties, led by French critics who discussed Hitchcock’s films as an organic work, combining a skillful mastery of the language of cinema with a moral outlook firmly rooted in a Catholic view of the human condition.

A Catholic Director?

The question still debated is whether Hitchcock, like Ford and more recently Kryzstof Zanussi and Kryzstof Kieslowski, can be labeled a Catholic director. Hitchcock was born into a middle-class Catholic family, of English and Irish descent. He attended Catholic schools, a formative experience that left a lasting influence. In a book-length interview with Francois Truffaut, first published in 1966, Hitchcock noted: “I was put into school very young. At St. Ignatius College, a Jesuit school in London. Ours was a Catholic family and in England this in itself is an eccentricity. It was probably during this period with the Jesuits that a strong sense of fear developed—moral fear—the fear of being involved in anything evil. I always tried to avoid it.”

His wife Alma Reville, a close collaborator during his entire career, converted to Catholicism before their marriage in 1926. They and their only daughter, Patricia, were parishioners of the Good Shepherd church in Beverly Hills, where Hitchcock’s funeral was held when he died in 1980.

Also like John Ford, Hitchcock was reluctant to discuss his films other than in cinematic terms. An intensely private person, he did not disclose publicly the importance of Catholicism in his adult life. How is one to assess, then, the Catholic outlook that French critics saw as shaping his work, but one that trendy academic approaches like psychoanalysis and feminism set aside or discard? The only sensible approach is to look at his films: There is the evidence.

Hitchcock directed fifty-three feature films between his 1926 debut with the silent melodrama The Pleasure Garden, and his last picture, the 1976 comedy thriller Family Plot. I have reviewed for this article thirty-seven titles, including all of his work in the United States, and twelve of the twenty television episodes he directed for Alfred Hitchcock Presents.


The archetypal Hitchcockian situation involves an ordinary man or woman suddenly involved in an out-of-the-ordinary situation. This disruption is caused by some manifestation of evil: a malevolent person, a secret organization, political agents (Nazis or communists), a sinful past of sexual origin, or an unbridled element of nature. The plot is played out as the confrontation between these good but not flawless heroes and the forces of destruction, chaos, and disorder unleashed against them. Except for a few instances of ambiguous endings—Vertigo and The Birds—good triumphs over evil and the moral balance is restored, but not without the providential intervention of chance.

The protagonists, and also the characters caught in the turmoil, do not come out of these ordeals unscathed; they pay a price, either in a loss of innocence (Rebecca, Foreign Correspondent, Shadow of a Doubt), the acquisition of guilt (Blackmail, Sabotage), or, more disturbingly, through their contamination by evil (Torn Curtain, Topaz, Frenzy).

This is what the French critics Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer define as the “transfer of guilt,” or the intertwining of good and evil so characteristic of the Hitchcock universe. In the later films, not untouched by hints of despair, evil is clearly presented as the absence, or the slaughter, of love: Rear Window, Vertigo, Psycho, and Marnie, all studies of isolated or obsessed individuals confined in emotional or pathological traps.

Providence at Work In the two films with specifically Catholic subject matter, I Confess and The Wrong Man the protagonists are men of faith: one a priest, played by Montgomery Clift, and the other a family man and New York musician of Italian descent, starring Henry Fonda. Both stand accused of crimes they have not committed—a recurrent Hitchcockian motif—but neither can prove his innocence: the priest has heard the confession of the murderer; the musician has been misidentified in a police lineup. The machinery of authority is about to crush them—its implacable working is another Hitchcock trait, and The Wrong Man perhaps its best example—when providence intervenes. Without violating his vows, the priest is able to reenact a public avowal of the murder by the criminal. In The Wrong Man, the real robber is caught in a scene immediately following the protagonist’s anguished prayer to the Sacred Heart. The climax of this documentary-style film, based on a true story, is the close-up of a praying Fonda dissolving over the emerging face of the real culprit on his way to a new holdup.

The spreading presence of evil is a constant in the Hitchcockian universe.

The films are not theological ruminations about the nature of evil, but a presentation of its horrific consequences, mainly its “desecrations of beauty and purity,” as Truffaut summarizes its impact. Like the biblical Job, the characters forced to confront evil do not understand its origin or magnitude: The shy new mistress of Manderley, symbolizing the possibility of redemption, is nearly destroyed by the obsessed housekeeper mourning the death of evil Rebecca, a character unseen and unheard in Rebecca, but whose malignant presence threatens the living. In Rope, two college graduates murder a friend in an aesthetic attempt at moral emancipation. Psycho offers a chilling picture of hell in the guise of a journey into the mind of the psychopathic murderer Norman Bates, with whom the audience has emotionally identified until the surprising twist at the end. A psychotic son acts as if a murder pact has really taken place in Strangers on a Train; the explosion of the merry-go-round at the end symbolizes the chaos he has generated. In this light, The Birds is a science-fiction parable about contemporary man paralyzed and helpless before a force of evil beyond his understanding. The lethal mass attack of crazed birds on a small California community can perhaps be seen as a forewarning of an ecological doomsday.

The most effective agents of evil are invariably seductive, well-mannered, and clean-shaven gentlemen—occasionally a mysterious, elegant woman as in The Paradine Case. Since Hitchcock often provides his viewer with information withheld from the characters in order to create suspense, the design of malevolent men is particularly interesting. Joseph Cotten in The Shadow of a Doubt—an examination of 1940s Americana written by Thornton Wilder—is a suave and sinister killer of rich widows, who explains his amoral behavior to the audience during a family meal. The camera dollies in on his profile and, when a voice-over remarks that widows are human beings, he turns his face to the camera as if daring the viewers to respond, and chillingly asks: “Are they?” The charming Nazi agents Robert Young and Claude Rains are in fact ruthless killers in the picturesque landscapes of Switzerland and Brazil, in Secret Agent and Notorious. Young and Innocent, Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, and Vertigo show husbands plotting the murders of their wives . . . and usually succeeding.

Moral Absolutes

In his war drama Lifeboat, about the Allied survivors of a German submarine attack who rescue a diabolic Nazi officer and eventually murder him, Hitchcock comes his closest to articulating the moral and religious issues faced by people in extreme situations. Twice, one character asks: What do we do with people like that? Their moral dilemma is valid then and today.

Shaping the design of a Hitchcock character is the belief in man’s fallen nature, or what British critic Robin Wood calls the “inextricability of good and evil,” one way of referring to the doctrine of original sin. This intertwining, however, does not mean that good and evil are interchangeable factors in a universe of moral relativism. On the contrary, what comes across so forcefully in Hitchcock’s work is the unshakable presence of moral absolutes, rooted not surprisingly in a Judeo-Christian world view.

In a Hitchcock film not only is the moral dimension of a key act shown with clarity, but so too is a character’s awareness of such a moment: Claude Rains deciding to poison his wife in Notorious; Oskar Homolka sending his young brother-in- law away carrying a ticking bomb in Sabotage; the mothers who must choose between the lives of their kidnapped children or disrupting an act of sabotage in both versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much; the spying of the reporter in Rear Window; the detective manipulating a woman to satisfy his romantic obsession in Vertigo; the woman stealing $40,000 in Psycho. The heroes are imperfect or fight against a dark past: the guilt-ridden protagonists of the period drama Under Capricorn and the psychological thriller Spellbound, an obsessively curious James Stewart in Rear Window, the moral weakling portrayed by Farley Granger in Strangers on a Train, the unfaithful wife in Dial M for Murder, an irresponsible Cary Grant in North by Northwest, the sour protagonist of Frenzy.

By the same token, the agents of evil sometimes show moral qualms, like the troubled spies played by Oscar Homolka and Herbert Marshall in Sabotage and Foreign Correspondent and the woman kidnapper in the 1955 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much. Interestingly, when a scene shows a killing committed by a decent character, with whom the audience has been led to identify, Hitchcock skillfully dissociates the act from the actor: The killing violates the commandment, even though the perpetrator acted in self-defense.

The most haunting example perhaps is in the Cold War spy drama Torn Curtain, where an American scientist working as a spy in East Germany kills a communist secret agent in a gas oven (the symbolism should not go unnoticed). Like the equally horrific scene of the shower murder in Psycho, the act of killing a human person—however despicable—and disposing of the corpse is an ugly, arduous, dirty task. This is the premise developed in the black comedy The Trouble with Harry, where the director indulged his British penchant for the macabre and the ironic understatement.

Sometimes Neglectful

Hitchcock is far from assigning to himself the role of moralist or Catholic apologist. Yet, in the television episodes, by means of modern-day fables, the director seems to relish playing the role of a stern father admonishing children who deviate from the good path. The no-nonsense morality of the stories is conveyed through deceptively simple plots: What you do to others will be done to you. The most recurring narrative involves characters who murder and cannot extricate themselves from the physical and moral consequences of these acts: “Back for Christmas,” “Wet Saturday,” “One More Mile to Go,” “Lamb to the Slaughter,” and “Banquo’s Chair.”

When Truffaut asked Hitchcock if he considered himself a Catholic artist, the filmmaker was not so much evasive as cryptic: “Maybe one’s early upbringing influences a man’s life and guides his instinct. I am definitely not antireligious; perhaps I’m sometimes neglectful.”

Enthusiasts of Hitchcock’s work think that he captured with emotion, suspense, and depth the moral perplexities of our times. Thus it seems fitting that his obituary in the Jesuit journal America pointed out that their former student “by an odd, almost paradoxical trust in humanity, never adopted the cynic’s posture by allowing his characters to become overwhelmed by their fears and anxieties. Rather, they faced the evil in their world with spirit and style.”


  • Maria Elena de las Carreras Kuntz

    At the time this article was published, Maria Elena de las Carrerras Kuntz, a film critic from Argentina, was living in Northridge, California. She holds a Ph.D. in film and television studies from the University of California, Los Angeles.

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