‘I Confess’: The Religious Hitchcock

HitchcockIn the recent HBO documentary HITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT, director DAVID FINCHER describes directors in general, and ALFRED HITCHCOCK in particular.

“If you think that you can hide what your interests are – what your prurient interests are, what your noble interests are, what your fascinations are, if you think you can hide that in your work as a film director, you’re nuts, you know. And I think that he was one of the first guys who said I’m gonna go with that. I gotta be me.”

The Three Sides of Alfred Hitchcock

There is a triptych of films that define Alfred Hitchcock: VERTIGO, SHADOW OF A DOUBT, AND I CONFESS. Each film explores a completely different aspect of Hitchcock’s personality. Vertigo is the artist representing his (perhaps unconscious) desire to recreate his infatuation with his lost icy blonde, GRACE KELLY. SHADOW OF A DOUBT is Hitchcock’s greatest exploration of his core subject matter – a serial killer drops into Our Town. But Hitchcock’s I Confess is representative of the religious, the Catholic Hitchcock.

Hitchcock: Growing Up Catholic in Kensington

Hitchcock was born in the closing days of the Victorian era to a pair of Roman Catholics who clung to their religion, being surrounded as they were by Protestants in their Kensington neighborhood. Hitchcock was brought up as a Roman Catholic and educated by Jesuits at St Ignatius’ College in Stamford Hill, London.

According to THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK ENCYCLOPEDIA by STEPHEN WHITTY, the Jesuits were a traditionally rigorous order, though their methods seem a bit diabolical.

“The experience schooled him in logic and discipline but also left him with a sense of fear – in a sneaky form of torture, corporal punishment for any offense was scheduled, so that the student was forced into dreadful anticipation – and of human duality, ‘a consciousness of good and evil, that both are always with me’.”

Fear is not the first word that comes to mind, though it certainly applies. By scheduling punishment for a future time, the Jesuits didn’t just create fear.

They created suspense.

The Hitchcock/Truffaut Interview

The film Hitchcock/Truffaut documents the marathon interview in which François TRUFFAUT, a passionate film critic and journalist who had himself become an established director, interviewed Hitchcock over the course of several days. The interview produced over 20 hours of audio tape. Truffaut’s questions were respectful – he prepared for the interview with intense research.

During their interview, Truffaut asked Hitchcock “Do you accept the idea of being considered a Catholic artist?”

Hitchcock responded: “Go off the record.”

The tape machine was shut off. We have no way of knowing what Hitchcock said to Truffaut until the tape recorder was turned on again.

Hitchcock later explained “I don’t think I can be labeled a Catholic artist, but it may be that one’s early upbringing influences a man’s life and guides his instinct.”

Later in the interview Truffaut stated “It would have been impossible for a non-Catholic filmmaker to shoot the prayer scene in THE WRONG MAN.”

Hitchcock responded “Yes, that’s right.”

Truffaut reiterated his thesis.

“Impossible.”

Hitchcock later added, “I am definitely not anti-religious; perhaps I’m sometimes neglectful.”

Hitchcock’s ‘Wrong Man’ Paradigm

Hitchcock claimed that his father sent him to the neighborhood police station with a note instructing them to lock him up to show what happened to bad little boys. This is the great repeating trope throughout a large part of his oeuvre. A man is falsely accused and must prove his innocence. It is at once a dream image, a la Kafka, and a spiritual one.

In the entryway to Hitchcock’s home hung a painting of the death mask of Christ. Can there by a more sublime illustration of ‘the wrong man’ than Jesus Christ?

The Catholic Hitchcock

When talking about his schooldays, Hitchcock told Truffaut about his odd situation and about the moral sense he developed.

“Ours was a Catholic family,” he said, “and in England, you see, this in itself is an eccentricity.”  Hitch added that at school “a strong sense of fear developed—moral fear—the fear of being involved in anything evil.”

According to Father Mark Henninger, writing in the WALL STREET JOURNAL, Hitchcock worked to downplay his Catholicism. Father Henninger came to Hitchcock’s home to conduct Mass for Hitchcock and his wife, Alma. According to Father Henninger, Hitchcock created the impression that he was not a religious man.

“Hitchcock had been away from the church for some time, and he answered the responses in Latin the old way. But the most remarkable sight was that after receiving communion, he silently cried, tears rolling down his huge cheeks.”

In his interview with Truffaut, Hitchcock had said, ‘I am definitely not anti-religious; perhaps I’m sometimes neglectful.”

“There’s a little bit of Catholicism in most of Hitch’s films — even if at times it isn’t much more than an Ash Wednesday smudge,” JOEL GUNZ writes, via his website THE HITCHCOCK GEEK. “As such, it’s easy to say that he belonged to the 20th century’s small handful of Catholic modern artists — a very short list that also included GRAHAM GREENE, (with whom he had tried to work), Expressionist painter GEORGES ROUAULT and not many others.”

Imagine Greene (Who wrote THE THIRD MAN, TRAVELS WITH MY AUNT, and OUR MAN IN HAVANA) collaborating with Hitchcock. The mind reels.

Hitchcock’s Ultimate Wrong Man: Father Michael Landon

I Confess out-wrongs The Wrong Man for one very simple, very Catholic reason. But even The Wrong Man is a very Catholic movie.

The Wrong Man is based on actual events. According to Gunz, “The story is about an everyman, a Queens, New York-bred Italian Catholic named Christopher Manuel (Manny) Balastrero (HENRY FONDA), who is wrongly accused of committing a series of robberies. In this case of mistaken identity, he is arrested, put on trial and nearly convicted in place of the real culprit.”

Balastrero must prove his innocence in order to be released from jail and to restore his good name.

In I Confess, there is, what is in simple terms referred to as a ‘plot complication’. Father Michael Logan, played by MONTGOMERY CLIFT, is the wrong man. But the real killer committed the crime wearing one of the priest’s cassocks, and hid the blood-stained garment in the priest’s footlocker.

And then, he confessed his crime to that very priest, knowing that his confession would be safe and that the priest could never reveal the truth, even if he went to prison.

He effectively prevented the only witness from naming him as the murderer. And he makes damning statements that focus the attention of the investigators on Father Logan. As a result, Father Logan is unable to clear his name.

He, in effect, becomes a stand-in for the real criminal, as Jesus was for the insurrectionist, Barabbas.

Perhaps Father Henninger is correct, that Hitchcock deliberately downplayed his beliefs and practices to separate them from his very public persona. But, like Truffaut, it’s hard to watch films like The Wrong Man and especially I Confess without a sense of a deep and profound belief.