Alfred Hitchcock and the Shadow of Faith

With today’s news of the re-discovery of Sir Alfred Hitchcock’s first credited film, we are provided with yet another opportunity to consider the impact of Catholicism on our culture.  Yesterday we looked at the personal role that a French saint played in the history of modern art.  Today we turn to the practical influence of the Faith on one of the most popular and intensely studied of all film directors, who himself just so happens to have been a Catholic.

The 1923 British silent film “The White Shadow” was the first in which the young Alfred Hitchcock, who was 24 years old at the time, was given screen credit.  He worked as the writer, assistant director, production designer, and editor of the piece, which told one of those favorite cinema tales of the good twin and the bad twin. The director, Graham Cutts, was no artiste; his job was to get as many films out as quickly as possible, on time and under budget.

The discovery only includes the first thirty minutes of the two-hour, feature-length picture, though even this is a great gift to film fans because the entire movie had been presumed to have been lost forever.  As is the case with many early films, it will require preservation due to the volatile chemicals on its surface, including the highly unstable compound, silver nitrate.  The restored portion of “The White Shadow”  will be screened on September 22nd at the Samuel Goldwyn Theatre in Los Angeles.

At the time he worked on “The White Shadow”, Hitchcock was a practicing Catholic from a Catholic family, and had been educated at a Jesuit school. No doubt like other devout Catholics of his day and ours, he intended to settle down with a nice Catholic girl and have a nice Catholic family.  Thus, three years after the original release of  the film, Hitchcock married his long-time sweetheart and film assistant, Alma Reville, at the Brompton Oratory in London.

Lady Hitchcock converted to Catholicism prior to their marriage, and the two remained married until Sir Alfred’s death well over 50 years later.  Their only daughter Patricia went on to marry the nephew of William Cardinal O’Connell, Archbishop of Boston, at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan in 1952; they are still married today, nearly 50 years later.  One can reasonably assume that she took the example of her parents’ long marriage to heart.

Those who know better than this scrivener about cinema theory have written scores of books and articles about Hitchcock’s views on morality and religion, among other topics, and I do not mean to try to condense all of that information into a short blog post.  Nor do I mean to suggest that Hitchcock remained what we would call a “devout Catholic”: his mass attendance reportedly declined over the years, and toward the end of his life he expressed a kind of fear of the clergy, many of whom he felt were too ready to attack him for some of the films he had made.  Fraternal correction is all very well, and indeed it is the unpleasant duty of Catholics who are in a proper position to exercise it, but Hitchcock did not like it; of course, one then must raise the question, “Who does?”, but that is a topic for another day.

Whatever he may have felt toward the Church as he grew older, it is important for us to recall Hitchcock’s faith, when we view his films.  It lingers like a shadow over his work, and informs the way that he looks at himself and the world. This recall should not be an academic exercise in God-searching, like those trying to discern points in Tolkien’s fantasy writing where the author is taking his cues from Catholicism.  Rather, I suggest there is a more practical line of inquiry for those of us who live outside of the ivory towers.

Keeping Hitchcock’s Catholicism in mind is a bit like when we look at a painting or photograph, and realize that the person who created it grew up in the same neighborhood as we did.  What experiences, ideas, sensations did we experience in common, even if separated by time?  What touchstones do we hold in common, and where do we differ?  Asking such questions allows the viewer to not only come to better understand the work of an artist, but also to better understand how that work does or does not reflect the viewer’s perception of the world around him.  In the case of asking such questions of a Catholic artist, it encourages the adult Catholic to engage their understanding of the Faith more deeply, and to explore some of the questions that are raised in that artist’s work.

Thus, if in Hitchcock’s films he examines such topics as man’s inhumanity to man, broken sexuality, standing up to do good in the face of overwhelming odds, and so on, we can look at those topics in the light of what the Church teaches, for Hitchcock was very much aware of those teachings himself.  Film was his way of poking at some of these issues and trying to gain some sense of them, through artistic means.  Most of us do not have the talent or the resources to be able to do the same, of course, but the grace of intelligence allows us to do so in our minds.

Whether you are attending the re-release of “The White Shadow” this September, or watching an airing of one of Hitchcock’s more popular films like “The Birds” on television, I would ask that you keep Hitchcock’s Catholicism in mind as you enjoy his work.  At their best, Hitchcock’s stories of suspense are riveting tales, beautifully acted and terrific to look at, and they can be enjoyed for the pure joy of escapism from the everyday that cinema provides.  Yet if you watch them keeping to hand a kind of Catholic lens with which to examine how the great director viewed the world, you will get even more out of the experience.

A scene from the newly rediscovered “The White Shadow” (1923)

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