From the bunker we used to call “our house,” where Herself and I now dwell in isolation – not sick but staying distant from our neighbors (besides, New York’s closed until further notice) – we read and walk and talk and watch movies.
And it’s a good time to really watch them, looking for those aspects of a film that sometimes flash by unnoticed, but which are part of what makes a film great. Where better to begin than with the films of Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980) and John Ford (1894-1973), both Catholic filmmakers?
As you know, Hitchcock always made quick (blink-and-you’ll-miss-‘em) cameo appearances in his films: from The Lodger (1927) – he’s a man sitting at a desk – right up to Family Plot (1976) – his famous silhouette behind a translucent glass door.
Hiding in plain sight.
His cameos were always wordless scenes, often of him crossing paths with the film’s female star: in Psycho, he’s standing outside the real estate office where Marion (Janet Leigh) works, as she returns from a noontime tryst; in The Birds, he’s leaving a pet store as Melanie (Tippi Hedren) enters. (By the way, the typist in that Psycho scene is Hitchcock’s daughter, Patricia.)
Hitchcock made his directorial debut in 1922 with the British silent film Number 13 (now lost), and he would direct some five-dozen more. His first American film was 1940’s Rebecca (starring Lawrence Olivier and Joan Fontaine), nominated for 11 Oscars and winning Best Picture. Nice way to break into Hollywood, Hitch!
His canon includes such classics as The 39 Steps, Secret Agent, Sabotage, Suspicion, Lifeboat, Spellbound, Notorious, Rope, Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, Vertigo, North by Northwest, and, of course, Psycho. Hitchcock was a five-time Best Director nominee at the Oscars, although he never won. Still, along with John Ford, William Wyler, Howard Hawks, and Victor Fleming, he ranks among the giants of 20th-century filmmaking.
But though many may know the names of those other directors – and definitely the films they made – no director has ever been more visible (by which I mean physically present) than Hitchcock, and not so much for those cameos as for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the TV anthology series he hosted from 1962 until 1965. To this day, I have friends who’ll greet you at the door with “Good evening,” in imitation of Hitch’s voice.
Hitchcock, like Ford, was a lifelong Roman Catholic, although it’s not always easy to find the faith in his films. But it’s certainly there in I Confess, a masterful tale of murder and guilt. (Watch it at Amazon or YouTube for $2.99. Indeed, all the linked-to films herein are available for between $1.99 and $3.99. Most are at Amazon where some are free for Prime members.)
A film critic of the New York Times disliked I Confess because he thought it should have been a “whodunit,” which it’s not. But you don’t need mystery to have suspense. Yes, Fr. Michael Logan (Montgomery Clift) learns at the start via the confessional who the murderer is. The suspense comes from the way suspicion of guilt falls on the priest and how the murderer’s psyche, Lady Macbeth-like, slowly unravels.
One of Hitchcock most frequent motifs is the innocent man, accused and pursued (the so-called “wrong man” scenario): from Jonathan Drew (Ivor Novello) in The Lodger and Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) in The 39 Steps to Logan/Clift in I Confess and Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) in North by Northwest. It may well be that Hitchcock was serially acting out one aspect of Christ’s drama.
Still, it’s facile to call Alfred Hitchcock a Catholic filmmaker and leave it at that. He was a Catholic who made great movies. And even when he tipped over into the macabre, he did so with class and restraint, as in the famous shower-murder scene in Psycho – 45 seconds, 52 edits, and 78 different camera angles – in which nothing’s really explicit: neither the nudity nor the stabbing.
John Ford was not, as some assume, Irish, although he was thoroughly Irish-American. He was one of eleven children born in Maine to immigrant Irish parents, John and Barbara Feeney. Young John took the name Ford after his older brother, Francis (an actor who would appear in a number of John’s films), adopted the name because he liked Ford cars.
As Hitchcock had, “Jack” Ford, as he was known, began his career in the Silent Era. Hitchcock directed ten films before the advent of sound, whereas Ford directed seventy before his first “talkie.” And he never lost his love of purely visual storytelling.
I think his Catholic upbringing instilled in him a sense of the smallness of man in the vastness of God’s creation, which is why he shot so many Westerns in places such a Monument Valley; places that in his films are almost characters in themselves.
If Hitchcock told tales of men unjustly accused, Ford told stories of heroes seeking justice, usually for others. Ford also received five Best Director nominations, but he won four Oscars: The Informer, The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley, and The Quiet Man.
I wish a link or a DVD copy existed for Ford’s 1928 transitional (part silent/part sound) film Mother Machree, which starred Belle Bennett in the title role and featured Ford stalwarts Victor McLaglen and, uncredited, the 20-year-old John Wayne, who was then going by his birth name, Marion Morrison (or sometimes Duke Morrison). And don’t miss Stagecoach (at YouTube at no cost) with Claire Trevor and the Duke, in the performance that made him a star, or Three Godfathers, which features one of Wayne’s best performances.
There are plenty more films by Ford to search for (including The Searchers); in his career, he made 140.
In 2009, I wrote a column here titled “Heroic Priests and Radiant Nuns,” in which I gave a list of what I consider the best American Catholic films. I’ve edited that column now to include links, which – along with those in this column – give you two-dozen marvelous films to watch at modest expense.
Enjoy your isolation.