By DAVID A. KING, Ph.D., Commentary | Published October 28, 2010
Last week many of my film students were discussing movies they intended to see for Halloween. Several of the students planned to watch Hitchcock films; nobody made as many great scary movies as Hitchcock. I said that I supposed Hitchcock was fine for a Halloween movie night, but that if the students really wanted to celebrate his legacy, they should save his best work for the feasts of All Saints and All Souls that follow. After all, I said, Hitchcock was a Catholic filmmaker.
Of course, many film buffs don’t realize how important Hitchcock’s Catholic faith was to both his life and work, and few film critics have emphasized the recurring Catholic themes and imagery that inform and enrich his most enduring movies. To overlook Hitchcock’s Catholicism means that we understand him merely as a macabre entertainer, the “master of suspense,” and miss the much larger and more interesting spiritual concerns that fascinated him.
Alfred Hitchcock was a devout Roman Catholic whose films were subtly shaped by his religious identity, his concept of good and evil, and even a sense of the liturgical and sacramental. Though his work consistently avoids piety and didacticism, Hitchcock understood—as did so many great Catholic artists of the 20th century—that God is always present, even in the most unlikely of places.
Hitchcock was born in London, the son of a grocer, who instilled in the boy a profound sense of justice and ethics by having him locked up, as a child, in the local police precinct jail for five minutes so that he could learn what happened to “naughty boys.” He was educated in parochial schools, in the Jesuit tradition, and learned a methodical and analytical approach of reasoning that shaped his careful and attentive ways of both living and filmmaking. Until the time of his death, when he developed a bizarre and delusional fear of the clergy, he was a devout and frequent communicant and a parishioner at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills, where he and his wife were generous contributors to Catholic social causes and where he befriended many priests.
By all accounts, Hitchcock not only practiced his faith, he nurtured it through his own art and an appreciation of the work of other Catholic artists. Indeed, upon entering his Bel Air mansion, the first sight that greeted visitors in the foyer was one of Georges Rouault’s paintings of the Crucifixion.
And yet, when he was asked by Francois Truffaut if he saw himself as a “Catholic artist,” he hesitated to embrace the label, perhaps because he feared it might contradict the popular public image of himself he had so carefully created. Still, while speaking to students at St. Ignatius College, he said, “A Catholic attitude was indoctrinated into me. After all, I was born a Catholic, I went to a Catholic school, and now I have a conscience with lots of trials over belief.”
Hitchcock began his career in British silent film as a title card designer, but he quickly realized he was more interested in filming his own images. From the beginning, he incorporated iconography into his films; his first great British feature, “The Lodger,” portrays its protagonist—the prototypical innocent man wrongly accused—in shots that echo both the Crucifixion and the Pieta.
When he came to America in 1940, he coupled his interest in pure cinema, a manner of filmmaking that emphasizes montage and the strictly visual, with a fascination with audience reaction and manipulation. He was conscious, always, of his audience; he envisioned this audience as a community, certainly, and subconsciously may have imagined it as a religious congregation.
In fact, Hitchcock understood that the act of movie going in many ways replicates religious or spiritual experience. The actual practice of seeing a film depends upon a group of people, gathered together in the darkness, who are suddenly illuminated by the light of the images projected on screen. Now what Hitchcock chose to show his audience—a woman brutally murdered in a shower, a psychopath who preys upon widows, a peeping Tom who accuses his neighbors without actually understanding his own guilt—are images that are often deeply disturbing.
Yet much like his contemporary Flannery O’Connor, Hitchcock understood that the grotesque was one way of reaching a smug, post-Christian audience. In showing his viewers the sins of others, he forced the audience to reckon also with its own sins, its own guilt, its own ideas about good and evil. At the same time, he revealed the persistence of conscience, the belief in a final justice, and the possibility for redemption in a fallen world.
He presented these themes in imagery that demands attention, contemplation and full participation of all the audience’s senses. Sometimes, this imagery is obvious: Henry Fonda praying his rosary in “The Wrong Man” or the nun at the end of “Vertigo” who while making the sign of the cross prays quietly, “God have mercy.”
Most of the time, however, the films depend upon rhythm, pace and structure so that they become almost liturgical in both their familiar construction, their consideration of mystery and their movement toward an inevitable conclusion that usually affirms the triumph of good in a dark universe.
Students of Hitchcock are often fascinated to learn that the director almost never looked through the camera when he was shooting a film. Because he literally sketched, or storyboarded, all his movies, Hitchcock had essentially completed the creative process before filming ever began. On set, he often sat quietly to the side, instructing the actors as they fulfilled the movements he had already designed. The films came together in the editing room, through the cutting and juxtaposition of images that Hitchcock had conceived long before. In short, Hitchcock made filmmaking, perhaps the most collaborative of all the arts, a highly individual contemplative activity.
As a Catholic, Hitchcock was intuitively aware of the phenomenon of presence in absence. His films allow viewers to use their own imagination to supply meaning, so that the simplest situations become complex. After watching a Hitchcock film with a new awareness of the director’s Catholic background, the viewer should recognize that like St. Paul, Hitchcock was more interested in the things that are unseen, and like St. John, he knew that the light of the Word could not be overcome by the darkness.
David A. King, Ph.D., is an associate professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University and an adjunct faculty member at Spring Hill College, Atlanta, where he teaches graduate courses on Christianity, film and Flannery O’Connor. He has also published and presented widely on Thomas Merton. He is a parishioner at St. Joseph Church, Marietta, where he is active in the adult education program.