When the System Fails

One of Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite pastimes in his movies was to get his protagonist into as much trouble as possible, then watch with sadistic glee as he tries to explain himself to the authorities.

In Strangers on a Train, for instance, you had Farley Granger becoming complicit in the killing of his wife, thanks to a murder-swapping plot that he never quite agreed to in the first place.

In I Confess, Montgomery Clift played a priest who comes upon evidence of extreme wrongdoing but can’t cooperate with police because he obtained his information in the sanctity of the confessional.

Most spectacularly, of course, was North by Northwest, with Cary Grant as an ad executive who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time and is compelled to flee 2,000 miles across the United States, proclaiming his innocence for a murder that he appeared to commit in broad daylight, in plain view of dozens of eyewitnesses.

For those who watched North by Northwest and thought, “This is great, but I wish there were even more obstacles preventing Cary Grant from clearing his name,” boy do I have a TV show for you.

It’s a limited-run miniseries called The Night Of, airing Sundays at 9pm on HBO.  Critics who have seen the whole thing have characterized it as a minutely detailed, David Simon-esque examination of America’s criminal justice system, with all its flaws and prejudices on full display.

As a mere mortal with access only to last Sunday’s series premiere, I would characterize The Night Of as the sort of project Alfred Hitchcock might’ve burst out of his grave to direct—a suspense thriller that, in certain ways, manages to out-Hitchcock Hitchcock.  While Hitch never involved himself in anything quite this weighty or ambitious while he was alive—he considered himself an entertainer more than a social commentator—the sly, brooding style of this new series would make The Master very envious, indeed.

(Warning:  Massive spoilers ahead.)

To describe the plot of the first episode of The Night Of is to observe how deliciously the show’s creators have stacked the deck against their hero.  When we first meet Naz (Riz Ahmed)—a mild-mannered Pakistani-American college student from Queens—he is “borrowing” his Dad’s taxi to a party across the river that he never quite crashes.  Instead, he picks up a female passenger, Andrea, who is at once impossibly alluring and dangerously unhinged.  They go uptown to her place, indulge in every Schedule 1 narcotic at their disposal, make torrential love to each other and eventually pass out.

Cut to the next morning, when Naz wakes up mysteriously in the kitchen, ascends the stairs to retrieve his possessions, and finds his mysterious femme fatale lying in a river of her own blood, stab wounds stretching from one end of her body to the other.

And that, as they say, is where things start to get out of control.

Strictly speaking, we don’t yet know what the hell happened that night and the degree to which Naz is complicit in Andrea’s death.  However, we, the audience, are clearly meant to view Naz with sympathy—as a good-natured kid whose curiosity allowed him to unwittingly blunder his way into a cataclysm—and, indeed, the tenderness of Riz Ahmed’s performance makes it almost impossible not to take him at face value.

As such, we are presented with the quintessentially Hitchcockian motif of an innocent man falsely accused of a capital crime—a dynamic made even more unbearable by the guilt this man feels for having committed other, lesser offenses—leading to an inevitable clash with a legal system that might not be able to differentiate one transgression from another and will have no compunction about locking him up and throwing away the key.

Herein lies the series’ central tragedy:  That a mountain of circumstantial evidence—damning in every respect—could lead an utterly reasonable jury to find an innocent man guilty of murder.

The genius of The Night Of in these early sequences is to show—purely through action—the ways in which Naz is neither fully innocent nor fully guilty.  By following his every step, we are able to intuit—even empathize with—exactly what he’s thinking at all times, while also realizing—nay, dreading—how damaging each new decision will look in the impartial universe of a courtroom.

For a solid hour or two after discovering Andrea’s body, Naz manages to do absolutely everything wrong—making a run for it, not calling the cops, lying to them when they finally show up—and although behaving suspiciously is not proof of one’s guilt, behaving suspiciously with your DNA all over a dead girl and the murder weapon sitting in your pocket—well, that’s pretty darned close to a confession.

With seven episodes still to come, no doubt the deeper implications of Naz’s incriminating conduct will reveal themselves in due course—as will all the institutional biases that have enabled the American ideal of racial and economic justice to remain elusive for those who are not rich and/or not white.  (Naz is neither.)

However, even setting all of those inequalities aside, The Night Of has already unsettled us with an equally disturbing prospect:  What happens when a miscarriage of justice occurs that can’t simply be blamed on institutional racism?  What happens when the system works exactly as it’s supposed to work and still produces the wrong result?  What happens when a jury infers guilt beyond a reasonable doubt when, in fact, the defendant is not guilty at all?  What happens—as may happen here—when the evidence is more persuasive than the truth?

That’s the essence of great drama:  When nothing can be easily resolved or explained.  When decent people behave rationally but are swept up by forces beyond their control, which then lead them to behave foolishly, ironically, tragically.  When innocence turns into guilt and our heroes find themselves digging graves that were never meant for them in the first place.

Hitchcock understood the tremendous dramatic potential in placing his leading men and ladies into impossible situations—particularly when it involved the cops, of whom Hitchcock nursed a lifelong fear.  In our own time—when trust in our authority figures and the system they work within is at record lows and justice itself is seen as a highly selective phenomenon—The Night Of presents itself as the perfect show at the perfect moment:  Compelling as social commentary, magnificent as drama.

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Hitchcock Goes to Church

I thought I knew everything about Alfred Hitchcock, probably my favorite director of all time.  As it turns out, I didn’t even know what I didn’t know.

Playing in select theaters right now is a crackerjack documentary called Hitchcock/Truffaut, which recounts the time in 1962 when up-and-coming French director François Truffaut conducted an interview with the Master of Suspense that was so long and so deep that the resulting material, published as a book in 1966, runs some 368 pages and covers virtually every frame of every Hitchcock film.

Truffaut’s interview is considered a landmark in the history of cinema, because it marks the moment when Hitchcock began to be taken seriously by his peers.  Before Hitchcock/Truffaut, he was regarded strictly as an entertainer.  After the book was published, he became an artist and a renegade.  Today, he is considered arguably the most influential director who ever lived.

More noteworthy still is how much Hitchcock revealed about himself and his work.  Despite his reputation for being tight-lipped and (it must be said) a bit of a tyrant on the set, in his chat with Truffaut he pretty much gave the game away.

As such, perhaps the most tantalizing moment in the new documentary, which includes audio clips from the original interview, is the moment when Truffaut asks Hitch about the influence of his Catholicism in many of his most compelling works.  Hitchcock’s response:  “Go off-record.”  We hear a click, and everything goes black.

It was David McCullough who mused that you can learn an awful lot about a person from what he chooses not to say in public—particularly when he is perfectly willing to say so much else.  So perhaps if there is a “rosebud” to Hitchcock’s career, it can be found in his Catholic youth.

I must admit, I had no idea Hitchcock was Catholic.  Indeed, I had never given a thought to what religion he identified with, nor did it occur to me that such a thing might be relevant.

For some great directors, religion is inescapable—be it Catholicism for Martin Scorsese or Judaism for Woody Allen or Joel and Ethan Coen.  It’s not that their movies are necessarily about their faith so much as they are informed by the values and sensibilities that their faith espouses.  Taxi Driver could not possibly have been made by a non-Catholic and Annie Hall could not possibly have been made by a non-Jew.

You don’t get that sense with Hitchcock, whose movies are intended as mass entertainment above all else and possess no particular sensibility beyond wanting to give their audience a good old-fashioned thrill.

Or don’t they?

What changed my mind about this—what made me view Hitchcock’s work through a more theological lens—was seeing (for the first time) his 1953 film I Confess.  Based on an old French play, the story involves a priest who learns that a man has committed a murder, but because he hears this in the sanctity of the confessional, he cannot divulge any information to the police in their investigation of said murder.

This being a Hitchcock movie, the priest himself will eventually become implicated in the crime, thereby raising the stakes in his professional and spiritual obligation to “clergy-penitent privilege”—the notion that what happens in the confessional stays in the confessional.  By honoring his theological duty, he risks sacrificing his own freedom.  But by breaking his oath of confidentiality, he may well lose his job and, with it, his whole reason for being.

It’s a devilishly clever conceit—yet another variation on Hitchcock’s long-running theme of a man ensnarled in a legal bind from which there is no escape.

More than that, however, I Confess stands as one of the most singularly Catholic movies ever made by a major (and otherwise nondenominational) filmmaker.  The priest is played by Montgomery Clift—that most mysterious and charismatic of Hollywood stars—as a man undergoing a deep internal struggle over whether doing the “right” thing might involve turning his back on God.

It’s a performance of towering complexity—subtle, delicate and wrenching—in a movie that is brave and dignified enough to treat Catholic tradition with the gravity it deserves—in this case, the tradition of the confessional as a sacred space, even when that sanctity might allow a man to get away with murder.  Theological dilemmas don’t get much thornier than that.

It’s a measure of the movie’s nerve that audiences were not crazy about it when it was first released.  As recounted by Truffaut in his book, “[T]he public was irritated with the plot because they kept on hoping that Montgomery Clift would speak up.”  Hitchcock agreed, saying, “We Catholics know that a priest cannot disclose the secret of the confessional, but the Protestants, the atheists, and the agnostics all say, ‘Ridiculous!  No man would remain silent and sacrifice his life for such a thing.’”  When Truffaut asked if this disconnect served to weaken the film as a film, Hitchcock nodded, saying, with remarkable candor, “[W]e shouldn’t have made the picture.”

Here, in other words, was a movie more concerned with spiritual truth than with satisfying popular tastes.  That Hitch himself apparently disapproved of the final product only goes to show how personal the whole thing was, as if it was the one time he indulged whatever remained of his strict Jesuit upbringing, if only to get it out of his system once and for all.

However, even if I Confess is an outlier in the Hitchcock canon, it helps us to recognize the latent Catholic themes that run through virtually all of his great works—most prominently, the sin of guilt.  Janet Leigh’s guilt over stealing $40,000 in Psycho.  Kim Novak’s guilt over masquerading as James Stewart’s dream girl in Vertigo (and Stewart’s guilt in thinking he contributed to her death).  Eva Marie Saint’s guilt over deceiving Carey Grant in North by Northwest.  Farley Granger’s guilt over murdering a classmate for sport in Rope.  And on and on and on.

These are not Catholic movies, per se.  However, they are all haunted by the aura of divine justice and the fear of God’s eternal wrath that only a Catholic could fully appreciate.  While most of Hitchcock’s heroes probably fear the police and/or each other more than the man upstairs (this was certainly the case with the director himself), they are nonetheless aware that their actions have consequences.  That sooner or later, one way or another, they’re going to get what’s coming to them.

And unlike in, say, the films of Woody Allen—a writer-director who has very little faith in God or justice—these sinners generally do pay a price for their crimes, thereby allowing moral order to be restored to the universe just in time for the end credits to roll.

While Catholicism certainly doesn’t have a monopoly on guilt, sin, justice or anything else, Catholic filmmakers have long been uncommonly adept at portraying how the teachings of their ancient holy books manifest themselves in the contemporary world.  They’re the ones who take God seriously, for better and for worse.

I note this, in part, because there is a large cadre of nonbelievers who sincerely think that religion has nothing positive to offer civilization.  Or, at the least, that whatever good might come from religion could just as easily come from secularism and, in any case, is dramatically outweighed by the evil that could not come from anywhere else.

I used to agree with this assessment.  Most of the time, I still do.  But in the process of extricating myself from the world of the faithful, I have come to better appreciate the monumental role of religion in the lives of others.  I don’t think either God or religion is necessary to lead a fulfilling life, but roughly three in four Americans do, and their faith has sometimes inspired them to craft works of art that could not have emerged in any other way.

I can live without God.  I’m not sure I could live without Raging Bull.  I don’t generally resort to prayer to help solve my biggest problems, but I’m pleased that it worked for George Bailey.  Religion does little for me, but in the end that doesn’t matter so long as it does something for everyone else.  And if no religion meant no Alfred Hitchcock—well, I’m not sure that’s a trade-off I’d be prepared to make.