Friday, December 14, 2012

Famous Catholic Friday: Sir Alfred Hitchcock

Good evening.

Our famous Catholic of the week might come as something of a surprise; it’s a man who made some of the finest movies of all time, almost all of which dealt primarily with extremely deviant behavior. That man? None other than Alfred Hitchcock

Catholic Credentials: A cradle Catholic educated in parochial schools; devoted to his wife; quietly returned to his faith late in life after a long period away from it.

Nerd Credentials: One of the greatest filmmakers of all time; the undisputed master of suspense; great-grandfather of both the animal attack and slasher sub-genres.

                  After two weeks of upstanding, faithful Catholic men, I thought this week I would venture into murkier territory with someone whose name isn’t exactly a watchword for piety. Suspense, horror, wit, and brilliant storytelling, yes, but not piety. Hitchcock was what we like to call a “Bad Catholic;” that is, a rather more obvious sinner than some.
                  Alfred Hitchcock was born in 1899 in England and raised by his very strict Catholic family. As a matter of fact, his family was more Puritan than Catholic, at least in behavior. His mother would make him stand at the foot of her bed and give an account of himself every night. His father once had him locked up in a jail cell for five minutes to teach him to respect the law (this instead gave him a great fear of policemen for his entire life). He was educated by Jesuits at St. Ignatius College, studying engineering and navigation. At the age of fourteen, his father died. Rejected for military service during the First World War (he was already heavily overweight), Hitch took a job as an ad designer.
                  During this time, he started to dabble with writing short stories, sharpening his satirical and creative skills. At the same time, freed from his parent’s smothering influence, Hitch began to delve into more…risqué subjects (one of his short stories involved a young man whose search for a brothel ends in the house of his best friend’s girl). He also took up photography and, seeing a chance to combine his new passion with his advertising skills, got a job designing titles for a moving picture company.
                  Hitchcock fell in love with the new medium and studied all he could. Before long he was involved in writing, then in co-directing. Then, one day, while working on a movie called Always Tell Your Wife the director fell ill and Hitch was tapped to finish up for him. Impressed by his work, the studio gave him the helm of their next picture, Number 13. Unfortunately, his first solo directing effort was a failure; the film went over budget and wound up being cancelled mid-way through. Bad luck continued to plague his nascent directing career, and his next two films; The Pleasure Garden and The Mountain Eagle were both flops.
                  His personal life, however, was rather more successful. See, in the process of finishing up Always Tell Your Wife, he had to work closely with the movie’s editor; Alma Revile. The two shared a passion for cinema, a brilliant creative mind, and a macabre sense of humor. What’s more, she had an ear for dialogue and an almost uncanny eye for continuity. They joined forces and she became his co-director and editor on his next few films.
                  Then, at last, Hitch found his voice with his first thriller film; The Lodger (1927), about the hunt for a serial killer in London. It contained many of Hitch’s favorite themes; blonde women, murder, questionable fidelity, a cameo by himself (brought about when the actor hired for a minor part didn’t show up), and, of course, the innocent man wrongly accused. At long last, Hitchcock had a hit. With his professional life a success at last, he married his co-director (who first converted to Catholicism). Alma would collaborate with her husband for the rest of their lives, though unofficially; she didn’t care for the limelight and Hitchcock’s star was on the rise. At the end of his life, when accepting an AFI Lifetime Achievement Award in 1979, Hitch credited his entire career to “the beautiful Miss Revile” (specifically, he said that without her he might have been present that night as “one of the slower waiters” rather than the guest of honor).
                  Hitchcock adapted well to the advent of sound. His movie Blackmail (his tenth) is generally considered the first British talkie and made good use of the new technology; emphasizing specific words and sounds to add suspense to his scenes. Not long after that, he had the first of his ‘famous’ films: 1934’s The Man Who Knew Too Much. With a story resulting from a blend of several detective novels (and taking its title from a book by Hitch’s fellow British Catholic, G.K. Chesterton), it told the story of a vacationing English couple who are inadvertently caught up in an assassination plot.
                  With the success of The Man Who Knew Too Much, together with his later film The LadyVanishes (1938), Hitch caught the attention of Hollywood and was brought over by legendary producer David O. Selznick to helm an adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s romantic thriller Rebecca (1940). The resulting film won Best Picture (though, as things were arranged at the time, the award went to Selznick rather than Hitchcock). He followed this success up with Saboteur (1942), Lifeboat (1944), and his own personal favorite, Shadow of a Doubt (1943).
                  During this ‘early stage,’ Hitchcock settled on his own particular directorial style. He was notoriously controlling on set, planning out the entire film in advance and expecting actors to conform to his vision or else. He had no patience for improvisation or method acting. He would only talk to the actors if he had criticisms, and he was once quoted as saying that actors were cattle. “Not so,” he later claimed. “I said actors should be treated like cattle.”
                  As he continued to gain fame, Hitch began to experiment. Rope (1948), for instance, was done in 10-minute takes with carefully disguised cuts, giving the impression that the entire film was a single, long take. Lifeboat was staged entirely, well, on a lifeboat (this made Hitch’s signature cameo difficult; he ended up as picture in a fashion magazine advertising weight loss).
Hitchcock drew on his Catholic upbringing and nominal faith for I Confess (1953), about a priest who finds himself accused of murder after hearing the real murderer’s confession. Though at this stage of his life Hitch wasn’t much of a Catholic, he demonstrated that he still maintained a connection to his childhood faith. A meditation on the seal of Confession and the lengths to which priests are expected to go to maintain it, the picture explicitly likens its wrongfully accused hero (Montgomery Clift) to the suffering Christ as he struggles to remain clear in his conscience and faithful to his ministry in spite of the hatred and condemnation he receives from all corners.
Hitch continued to experiment and improve. In 1955 he became a household name with his macabre anthology series Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which gave the world his infamous silhouette and inimitable nightly greeting: “Good evening.” He directed the stunning Grace Kelly in a trilogy of films, including the brilliant Rear Window (1954) and the spectacularly romantic To Catch aThief (1955). He remade The Man Who KnewToo Much as a much more assured Technicolor epic with James Stewart and Doris Day, created the pan-and-zoom camera technique for the twisted psychological thriller Vertigo (1958), then defined the spy film as we know it with the hilarious thriller-comedy North by Northwest (1959).
It was after the success of the latter film that Hitch had his most original idea yet. He decided to risk his entire career on a film that, if it succeeded would change the film industry forever, and if it failed would almost certainly ruin him. It was one of the most explicitly violent, shocking, and disturbing pictures ever made. Unable to find any backers, he put up the money himself, used the crew and sets of his TV show, and made it in Black and White to save money. The result was arguably his greatest work; a movie that shocked the world and, for better or worse, changed movies as we know them: the horror-masterpiece Psycho (1960).
Whether he envisioned the film’s impact or not, Hitch could have had no idea what it would unleash…and he certainly didn’t intended it. Hitchcock enjoyed pushing the envelope and giving a bawdy wink to the audience, but the wave of violence and sex that he unleashed horrified and disappointed him. He eventually grew to despise the new industry he helped create. “I made movies about people,” he lamented privately in his old age. “Not robots.” In this way his greatest masterpiece became, at the same time, his deepest failure.  
Hitch continued to make movies, but Psycho was his peak. His next movie was the strange animal-attack horror film The Birds (1963), followed by Marnie(1964), both of which starred the young blonde actress Tippi Hedren. Somehow or other (Hedren later claimed it was because she refused to have an affair with him), Hitch and Hedren grew to despise one another. Hedren called him ‘evil’ and claimed that he did everything in his power to destroy her career; an accusation that, considering he seems to have kept her on contract intending to make more films with her (and since once her contract with him expired she immediately got herself fired from her next one), is a little hard to believe. Certainly, his treatment of her was deplorable, but the idea that he actively wanted to destroy her seems a little far-fetched (other actors who worked with him at the time deny it).
Hitchcock’s relationship with Tippi Hedren showed him at his worst, but he had sins aplenty apart from that. He was rumored to have more than one extramarital affair with his glamorous leading ladies (though, as noted, he and his wife loved each other dearly and remained together their whole lives) and he certainly often treated his actresses abominably. He was famous for his oft-cruel practical jokes, which included deliberately springing people’s phobias on them (i.e. by sending them a box of live spiders). In directing he could be ruthless; Tippi Hedren endured five days straight of having live birds thrown at her, suffering severe cuts and nightmares (she came very close to losing an eye). His films are loaded with illicit, often voyeuristic sex, from the casual fornication in North by Northwest to the jarringly blatant homosexual murderers in Rope.
Yet, for all his very real sins and failings, Hitchcock never seemed to be able to completely escape his faith. His films, loaded as they are with the wretchedness of the human condition, nevertheless often featured what might be called ‘threads of grace.’ His many, many wrongfully accused characters might seem to have the world against them, but we sense that there is something else working for them, something that allows them to make their narrow escapes time and time again. Hitchcock’s films often had a sense of a large force of justice at work; something that ensured that, for instance, Mr. Thorwald or Tony Wendice couldn’t get away with their seemingly perfect murders (or even Wendice’s brilliant plan-B). His films feature much grotesquery, horror, and evil, but also, unmistakably, hope, even in their darkest moments. Moreover, while Hitch might revel in deviant behavior he seems equally determined that such behavior never be without consequences. Even the sympathetic sinners in a Hitchcock film have to endure what might be called ‘penitential suffering’ before their happy ending (witness, for instance, Grace Kelly’s adulterous would-be-murder victim in Dial M for Murder), and as far as I can recall the only Hitchcockian villains who really “get away with it” are the Birds.
Hitchcock’s career wound down in the seventies with him producing only two films: Frenzy (1972) and Family Plot (1976). After this, and a few failed attempts to get one more movie off the ground, his declining health and growing disgust with modern Hollywood caused him to retire.
At some time during this retirement, away from the glamour and drama of the film world, Hitch once again turned to the faith he had abandoned for so long. After having become the most famous and admired director in history, the Master of Suspense quietly and secretly arranged things so that he could receive the Sacraments he now desperately craved in peace. Either by coincidence or design, the priests who attended him were Jesuits; the same order that taught him at school all those years ago.
In 1979, he was knighted and became Sir Alfred Hitchcock. Only a few months later, he died quietly in his sleep of renal failure.
No one will ever make Alfred Hitchcock a Saint. He lived a life of frequent deviance, even cruelty, and wandered far from his faith for many years. Nevertheless, he eventually saw himself for what he was – a poor sinner – and returned to the One who could bring him the healing and forgiveness that he knew he needed. He teaches us that, no matter how we have sinned or strayed, the Lord will still be waiting, waiting to welcome us when we return.
In the end, Hitch was hooked; hooked, as the man who provided the title to two of his classic films put it, with the “invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world,” but which brought him back “with a twitch upon the thread.” 

Vive Christus Rex!

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