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Commonweal (2010) - The Catholic Hitchcock: a director's sense of good & evil




The Catholic Hitchcock: A Director's Sense of Good & Evil

"l don't think I can be labeled a Catholic artist," the director Alfred Hitchcock told François Truffaut, "but it may be that one's early upbringing influences a man's life and guides his instinct."

Alfred Joseph Hitchcock was born on August 13, 1899, in Leytonstone, a district of London's East End, to a grocer named William, and his wife, Emma. On his father's side, Catholicism went back perhaps only two generations, but Emma was of Irish stock and her traceable ancestors were all Catholic. Hitchcock told the journalist Charlotte Chandler that his birth date was "one of the only Sundays in my mother's life that she missed church." Though there was a higher percentage of Catholics in Leytonstone than in other London neighborhoods, they were still regarded as peculiar, even socially suspect. According to Hitchcock, "Just being Catholic meant you were eccentric."

In 1910, Hitchcock was enrolled in St. Ignatius College, a Jesuit "day school for young gentlemen," where he remained until he was fourteen. When asked later what a Catholic education meant for him, he replied, "A Catholic attitude was indoctrinated into me.... I now have a conscience with lots of trials over belief." From the Jesuits, he said, he learned "a consciousness of good and evil, that both are always with me."

The director's Catholic upbringing threaded its way through the rest of his life in both England and the United States. There was regular attendance at Mass in his youth and middle years, Alma Reville's conversion when she became Mrs. Hitchcock, the Catholic upbringing of their daughter Patricia (who married the grandnephew of Boston's Cardinal William H. O'Connell). There were friendships with priests and donations to various Catholic charities. But in his last years Hitchcock ceased attending Mass and, according to biographer Donald Spoto (The Dark Side of Genius), he rejected the suggestion that he allow a priest...to come for a visit, or to celebrate a quiet, informal ritual at the house for his comfort. It had been years since he had attended worship...but it was not so long since he had expressed his distrust and fear of the clergy....

"Don't let any priests on the [studio] lot," he had whispered to his office staff in the last year. "They're all after me; they all hate me." There was no way of convincing him to see a clergyman at home, either, although he imagined their presences there, too.

Did this intensely secretive man feel hounded by real or imagined priests who he felt were trying to claim him as a Catholic artist?

But those reports shed less light on Hitchcock the Catholic than a childhood episode he loved to relate. Here's the version he told Charlotte Chandler:

When I was no more than six years of age, perhaps younger, I did something that my father considered worthy of reprimand. I don't recall the particular...

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