For many years, commentary on Alfred Hitchcock’s work that touched on religion brought up his Catholic upbringing, citing, for instance, his strict Jesuit education as an important factor to consider when trying to understand his films. Then the tide turned. Most writers today soft-pedal the influence that the religion of Hitchcock's youth may have had on his work. (In his adult years, the director rarely went to church and seemed to adopt a casual attitude toward Christianity in general — as far as his private life was concerned, anyway.) I'd like to approach the director's Catholicism from a more nuanced perspective. At least two of his films are explicitly preoccupied with Catholic themes: I Confess (1953) and The Wrong Man (1956). It’s not hard to draw a connection between Hitch’s equivocal relationship with the church and the ironic way it is treated in those movies.
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. 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. Hitch deeply appreciated the painter, once telling his friend and future biographer Charlotte Chandler that he considered it a privilege to be able to afford a Rouault; one of the artist’s La Suaires (in this case, a death mask of Jesus Christ) even hung in the entryway to his home. Rouault-inspired paintings occasionally pop up in his films as well, carrying significant meaning within those narratives.
Every era has its classic portrait of Christ. This one by Rouault, simply called La Sainte Suaire (The Holy Face), may be, at least for Catholics, the definitive Christ-painting of the 20th century. Here, Jesus faces his horror with open eyes and what Buddhists might call radical acceptance.
Hitch must have seen the painter as a kindred spirit. Both artists dealt repeatedly with the same narrow list of subjects. Said the director to Truffaut: “Not that I'm comparing myself to him, but old Rouault was content with judges, clowns, a few women, and Christ on the Cross.” More or less, those same types keep popping up in Hitchcock's films as well. Curious, isn’t it?
The Wrong Man could almost be subtitled “Variations on a Theme by Rouault.” 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. As such, he is a Christ figure, and the movie goes out of its way to draw connections between Manny (whose name evokes Christ, the Son of Man) and “the one who bore our sins.”
Such Christ-symbolism was fairly common in midcentury movies — think of Fonda’s earlier role as Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath (1940). (And it persists: see Clint Eastwood's performance in Gran Torino.) What makes The Wrong Man interesting for me is that it shares a specially Rouault-esque view of Catholicism, Christ and suffering. During the early years when Rouault was developing his own voice, he became friends with Catholic writer Léon Bloy, whose novels Le Désespéré (The Desperate,1887) and La Pauvre (The Poor, 1897) deeply affected the painter.
Bloy was concerned with suffering, redemption and the rejection of the sordidness of this world, writing, “I have meditated long and often on suffering, I am now convinced that nothing else is supernatural in this world. All the rest is human.” Those could have been Rouault’s own thoughts — and approximate Hitchcock’s sentiments in this film as well.
In my next post, I will offer some examples of how Rouault’s work seems to have found its way into the visual design of The Wrong Man. But for now I’d like to leave you with a thought that underscores how the artist’s world view seemed to have found its way into Hitch’s psyche — or, rather, how the two modern artists, Catholics, were also sharers in the same view. Art scholar Joshua Kind’s summary description of Rouault aptly describes Hitch’s depiction of Manny:
“He is perhaps existential; his world is that of suffering and melancholy. ... Rarely if ever does [he escape] into a really savage renunciation of self and world — and yet it speaks with a quiet despair of the human condition.”That is an apt description of The Wrong Man. Check back to learn more.