When Alfred Hitchcock Cried After Receiving Holy Communion

While Alfred Hitchcock drifted from the active practice of his Catholic faith in mid-life, Catholicism nonetheless found its way into his stories.

(photo: Register Files)

On April 29, 1980, the world lost a great storyteller when Alfred Hitchcock, the “Master of Suspense,” died in his Bel Aire home at the age of 81. His repertoire included more than 50 films in the suspense genre – films such as “The Birds,” “Psycho,” “North by Northwest” and others.

The 2012 film “Hitchcock”, which purported to tell the director's life story, gave little attention to his faith. Instead, it spotlighted Hitch's alleged behind-the-scenes discord with his wife of 54 years, screenwriter Alma Reville, and his domineering approach to actors on the set of his films. Two biographies – by Patrick McGilligan (in 2004) and Peter Ackroyd (in 2016) – did little to unpack the spiritual side of Hitchcock's life.

McGilligan wrote of his family of origin, in Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light:

The Hitchcocks were staunchly Catholic, but they showed irreverence for everything, including Catholicism. The Hitchcocks had a number of priests in the family; relatives or not, clergymen were in and out of the home, drinking, singing, laughing, and making mischief.

Ackroyd recounted a story about how Hitchcock kept his feet firmly planted in reality: He smashed a once-used tea cup every morning after breakfast, to remind himself of the frailty of life.

But throughout his youth, Hitchcock was immersed in Catholic faith. Raised as a Catholic, he was sent to Salesian College in Battersea, and to the Jesuit grammar school at St. Ignatius College in Stamford Hill, London. His wife Alma converted to the Catholic faith before their marriage in 1926, and the couple were married in a Catholic ceremony in London's Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, more commonly called Brompton Oratory.

In Hitchcock's later years, he was frequently visited at home by two Jesuit priests, Fr. Tom Sullivan and Fr. Mark Henninger. Father Henninger wrote in The Wall Street Journal about how he, as a young priest from Cleveland studying at UCLA, was invited to accompany his friend Fr. Sullivan to the famed director's house. “On that Saturday,” he wrote,

...when we found Hitchcock asleep in the living room, Tom gently shook him. Hitchcock awoke, looked up and kissed Tom's hand, thanking him.

…After we chatted for a while, we all crossed from the living room through a breezeway to his study, and there, with his wife, Alma, we celebrated a quiet Mass. Across from me were the bound volumes of his movie scripts, “The Birds,” “Psycho,” “North by Northwest” and others – a great distraction. 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.

Tom and I returned a number of times, always on Saturday afternoons, sometimes together, but I remember once going by myself. I'm somewhat tongue-tied around famous people and found it a bit awkward to chitchat with Alfred Hitchcock, but we did, enjoyably, in his living room. At one point he said, “Let's have Mass.”

He was 81 years old and had difficulty moving, so I helped him get up and assisted him across the breezeway. As we slowly walked, I felt I had to say something to break the silence, and the best I could come up with was, “Well, Mr. Hitchcock, have you seen any good movies lately?” He paused and said emphatically, “No, I haven't. When I made movies they were about people, not robots. Robots are boring. Come on, let's have Mass.” He died soon after these visits, and his funeral Mass was at Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Beverly Hills.

Hitchcock had a difficult time adjusting to the changes that followed Vatican II, and he once turned down an opportunity to meet personally with the Pope. But while he may have drifted from the active practice of his Catholic faith in mid-life, Catholicism nonetheless found its way into his stories. Many of his most popular films – such as “I Confess,” “Vertigo,” “Rear Window,” “Strangers on a Train” and others – employ religious imagery and themes. 

Reflecting on Hitch's embrace of faith in his later years, Father Henninger wrote:

Some people find these late-in-life returns to religion suspect, a sign of weakness or of one's 'losing it.' But nothing focuses the mind as much as death. There is a long tradition going back to ancient times of memento mori, remember death. Why? I suspect that in facing death one may at least see soberly, whether clearly or not, truths missed for years, what is finally worth one's attention.

Weighing one's life with its share of wounds suffered and inflicted in such a perspective, and seeking reconciliation with an experienced and forgiving God, strikes me as profoundly human. Hitchcock's extraordinary reaction to receiving communion was the face of real humanity and religion, far away from headlines … or today's filmmakers and biographers.