The Auteur Theory: Alfred Hitchcock

The emergence of the auteur theory as a critical method of analysing directors and their work was born in 1950’s post-World War II France, where Paris became the epicentre of youthful rebellion and where the sudden craving for anarchy and desire for the oppositional was rife. Amongst these innovators was a group of young film critics who go by the names of; Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer, François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol and Jean-Luc Godard who were all inspired by Alexandre Astruc’s 1948 article Birth of a New Avant-Garde: La Caméra-Stylo, in which the latter phrase is translated as ‘the camera-pen’, drawing an analogy between the filmmaker and the prestigious novelist and comparing the shots and cinematic devices to the paintbrush strokes of a highbrow painter. This group became better known as the Cahiers Group when they began to write critical articles for film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma, founded in 1951 and run by André Bazin.

The featured director which I have chosen to analyse and assess their applicability to the auteur theory’s regulations compiled by the Cahiers Group is the infamous Alfred Hitchcock – ‘master of suspense’. I will be using the following films as case studies to demonstrate the argument that the auteur theory can be applied successfully to Hitchcock films , in chronological order: Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958), Psycho (1960) and finally, The Birds (1963). I will also use the same films to demonstrate how ‘Hitchcockian’ cinema may be more easily applied to auteur structuralism which flourished in the late 1960s, representing a rethinking of film theory through academic disciplines and underlying structures that made up a particular director’s style.

The context of the emergence of the auteur theory could be an interesting point of contradiction; firstly, it may be a direct reflection of the totalitarian nature of War being enforced upon the French during the German occupation and the appointment of a dictator who has total control, which is conveyed in their assertion that the director is the sole force of creativity behind a film. However, this is totally contradicted by their desire to defy and rebel against the typical conventions of the French ‘cinéma de papa’ of the time which was considered to be script-led and lacking in social realism with the use of safe psychology. The Cahiers were objective towards safe cinema and found themselves competing with “the more politically aligned Postif”, a rival film magazine that contradicted the Cahiers unwillingness to comply with this bureaucratic alignment. The Cahiers anarchy goes against the idea of the regimented repetition that defined an auteur but suggests they were stuck in a dictatorial mindset.

The German Occupation of France during World War II meant that American films were not permitted on French screens and after the War had come to a close, French cinema was flooded with American films which led the Cahiers to recognise the works of John Ford, Howard Hawks, Samuel Fuller and my chosen director of study Alfred Hitchcock. The Cahiers admired directors such as Hitchcock for their ability to surpass the shackles that formulaic placed on cinema during the 1950s. Almost two dozen of Hitchcock’s productions were commercially showcased in France during the decade preceding the Liberation from German Occupation and countless articles on this director could be seen on the pages of the Cahiers du Cinéma following this democracy. The journal during this period aimed to legitimise cinema as an art form, locate a films artistic quality through configuration of cinematic devices, conceptualise the director above all other creative forces and make distinctions between functionally competent directors, known as mettuers-en-scene, and those directors who demonstrate a strong artistic signature that unifies their films, gaining them auteur status and Hitchcock was the perfect contender for each of these categories.

The theme of anarchy and rebellious youth is a duplicate motif running through Hitchcock films which could suggest why he was of such great interest to the Cahiers and also presents a recurring stylistic pattern repeated over a number of Hitchcock productions. The characters of Marion Crane, played by Janet Leigh in Psycho and L.B. Jefferies, played by James Stewart in Rear Window, both become entangled with the law. Leigh’s character has stolen money from her employer and is hightailing the police and Stewart’s character is housebound following a leg injury and employs the taboo pastime of observing his neighbours’ activities to remedy his boredom which eventually gets him involved with a police investigation of a suspected murder. This apparent obsession with the law is deeply rooted in Hitchcock’s childhood when as “a child of five [his] father sent [him] with a note to the local chief police” and he “was placed in a cell for five minutes” as explained by Hitchcock himself in an interview shown on Monitor in 1964 with Huw Wheldon. Rohmer and Chabrol, both noticed this repetition of conflict between good and evil through a majority of Hitchcock films, as well as a strong sense of culpability and the need to confess.

Although the battle between good and evil is apparent in all Hitchcock films, making it a repeated motif, it also introduces the use of binary opposites that are a feature more befitting of auteur structuralism and promote a films structure over its director. However, in typical Hitchcock style, this convention is warped as he often portrays the law as the ‘baddie’ and the convict as the ‘goodie’. For example when the detective character of Milton Arbogast in Psycho goes to investigate the Bates motel, low-key, high contrast lighting is used on his face which is more synonymous with film noir villains.
In the same interview with Wheldon, when questioned on the origin of his warped state of mind, Hitchcock also describes how the “fright complex is rooted in everyone” and his complex stems from when his mother “scared him when [he] was three months old, she said ‘boo’, it gave [him] hiccups and she was apparently very satisfied”. Hitchcock also goes on to explain how “psychiatrists say that if you can trace the origin of your fear, it will disappear” which could account for his compulsive infatuation with the macabre and penchant for all things sinister. In each of the films mentioned, there is a theme of an isolated figure being trapped in the solitude of a secluded residence; the character of Norman Bates in Psycho locks his mother away in an eerie house similar to the one which the Brenner family inhabit in The Birds, while L.B. Jefferies is confined to his flat, vulnerable and disabled in Rear Window. Similarly Kim Novak’s character, Madeleine Elster detaches herself from society in Vertigo and chooses to spend her time in isolated environments such as graveyards, hotel rooms and art galleries.

Both of the references to Hitchcock’s childhood are examples of auteurial intertextuality which is an internal relationship by which all texts form a network of other texts. Hitchcock was always the subject of his films linking the films narrative to the director’s personal life. This is of course complemented by Hitchcock’s signature cameo appearance in all of his films which may well be an artistic stamp that defines him as an auteur but could also be a purposeful stratagem to publicise and assert his ownership over his productions. The parallel between the plot and the director’s own experiences brings about the “intervention of semiotics and psychoanalysis” that Caughie believes shatters “the unity of the auteur” thus making Hitchcock’s films more applicable to structuralism which asserts that the author does not control the meaning of the film but is an effect of the interaction between different discourses . The audience interpretation of a text can differentiate due to this use of intertextuality as some may have personal experiences which can relate and then read the film in a certain way as a result of this. As Roland Barthes asserts, “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author” .

The use of isolated locations adds to the horror of the scene as being placed in a domestic environment makes the character more vulnerable due to the “underlying sense of menace that emanates from unexpected places, evident in The Birds”and indeed the other three films mentioned. which is further complimented by Hitchcock’s common use of darkness and/or rain being a signifier of trouble. The scene in which Tippi Hedren’s character, Melanie Daniels is pecked almost to death in The Birds coincidentally takes place after nightfall, in the bedroom, in the wake of a power cut. Hitchcock acknowledges his typecast in a quotation from 1965 in which he declares “I am a typed director. If I made Cinderella, the audience would immediately be looking for a body in the coach” . Furthermore, the point-of-view shot of the lashing rain on the windscreen in Marion’s car, accompanied by the mickey-mousing of plucked strings, as she makes her way to the Norman Bates’ hostel foreshadows her subsequent fatality. However, this scene along with a majority of other Hitchcock scenes, would not be even half as compelling without the inclusion of Bernard Herrmann’s musical compositions highlighting how there are multiple creative forces behind a film which makes it effective, not just the director. Structuralist criticism leans more towards a consideration of other areas of the cinema in order to displace the auteur from the centre of the work.

The theme of darkness is also apparent in Rear Window when Hitchcock cast James Stewart for the lead role just as he was transforming his once wholesome star persona from perfect fit, exemplary American citizen to one that was more problematic and psychologically ominous and complex. The casting of Stewart at such a crucial turning point in his star image is parallel to the theme of disguise and identity that runs through these Hitchcock productions. In both Psycho and The Birds, the characters of Marion and Mitch are identified and traced by the registration plates on their cars which is demonstrated with Hitchcock’s use of close-up shots of the number on the plate. Marion later precedes to trade her car in for another model which is a direct link to her use of a pseudonym when she checks into the Bates motel and the close-up as she signs the fabricated name in the guestbook.

Identity is also a key feature in Vertigo and possibly the feature most relevant to the narrative as one of the main characters Madeleine Elster, who we later find out is actually a woman called Judy Barton, adopts an alter ego named Carlotta. The audience is led to believe that they are omniscient when it is subsequently revealed that she is in fact Judy Barton, which is a synchronized revelation between the character of John and the audience members. We have been lulled into a false sense of security by Hitchcock and manipulated by his withholding of information from the audience. What was primarily perceived as dramatic irony is actually a stratagem of the director used to mislead the audience and leave them uncertain of their identity as a spectator. Hitchcock was no stranger to manipulating the audience in order to create shock at unexpected intervals in his films, for instance killing off his leading lady half way through Psycho left the spectator surprised and wondering how the narrative would develop from then on.

The narrative actually develops into one that is more concerned with the leading male, Norman Bates and his psychology and situation. The male protagonist is a motif that features throughout a vast majority of Hitchcock films however, the male character is always closely associated with a female who fits into the conventions of the dangerous femme fatale. Hitchcock’s ideal heroine is described as a “cool blonde” and a woman who seems outwardly prim and proper but transform into more sensual beings when aroused by passion or peril. This depiction of the ideal heroine can be applied to successfully to Grace Kelly’s character Lisa Freemont in Rear Window, Norman Bates’ victim Marion Crane, Melanie Daniels in The Birds and also Madeleine Elster of Vertigo. Each of these female characters wear blood red lipstick which contrasts against the “cool blonde” hair that is synonymous with the Hitchcock heroine and don a variety of fashion-conscious outfits that are usually tightly tailored two piece suits. This choice of costume highlights the significance of the female appearance and also demonstrates the dominance and power that females hold over males.

Female power and thus male weakness is another signature that Hitchcock brands each of his films with. Voyeurism and female objectification are themes that are laced throughout Psycho, The Birds and Vertigo as the plots oscillate between voyeurism and fetishistic fascination. Rear Window is the production in which this Hitchcock stamp is most apparent and is actually considered by Jean Douchet to be a metaphor of the cinema with L.B. Jefferies representing the audience and the events that occur in the apartment block corresponding to the screen. Jefferies, along with the other four male protagonists, all embody Jacques Lacan’s theory of the mirror stage in which the male child moves from the imaginary; being connected to its mother, to observing their own reflection in the mirror and recognising their physical difference from the mother and thus moving into the symbolic phase where the male child disconnects from the mother. Psychoanalysis was something introduced by structuralism meaning Hitchcock films fit very neatly under this umbrella. During the scene in Vertigo when John follows Madeleine into a mysterious place where she purchases a bouquet, she is first seen in through a full shot of her whole body and then through a mirror reflection of her which is a direct symbolism of Johns trajectory from the imaginary to the symbolic.

This self recognition and realisation of the female’s lack of penis causes the male to constantly feel threatened by women through fear of castration and the need to fetishize and therefore control them. Hitchcock conveys this using shots of isolated female body parts to demonstrate the male fantasy of dismemberment and highlights the males anxiety at the lack of phallus on a woman. For instance, during the infamous shower scene in Psycho, the camera lingers on a shot of Marion’s feet in much the same way it lingers on the close up of the female lips during the opening sequence of Vertigo. Similarly, Jefferies adopts the nicknames ‘Miss Torso’ and ‘Miss Lonelyhearts’ for his female neighbours, both of while focus on the physical aspects of the women.

The idea of voyeuristic observation is key in all of the case study films and this is reasserted through Hitchcock’s persistent use of point-of-view shots and camera movement that mimics natural vision. For example in Rear Window, Hitchcock uses a panning shot over the apartment block which is turbulent and unstable a lot like the gaze of a human eye. Psycho opens with a panning shot of the city scape and then zooms into and under a slightly open window covered by a blind which suggests that the visual attention is neither invited to known about. The zoom is not a conventional one in which the camera remains steady and moves in on the subject of focus, it is an example of the dolly zoom which became known as the ‘Hitchcock zoom’ when the camera is pulled away from the subject while the lens zooms in on it, or vice versa. The fact that this type of shot has been dubbed the ‘Hitchcock zoom’ proves how it is a common artistic stamp throughout his films. Point-of-view shots are also favoured by Hitchcock on scenes such as the one where Melanie is observing Mitch through binoculars from her boat. The shots of Mitch walking are framed by a binocular shaped silhouette which is used to portray what Melanie can see.

This technique is also employed in the scene where Jefferies is watching Thorwald through a camera lens. Both the point-of-view shot and the camera movement used by Hitchcock mean that the spectator has no choice but identify with the voyeuristic protagonist and his guilty desires. Hitchcock uses these cinematic devices intentionally to force the spectator to draw parallels between the protagonist and themselves which demonstrates his technical competence and it is these structures that make the film effective. Interior meanings and structures mean that Hitchcockian films are more applicable to structuralism but then his persistent use of the same structure of making the viewer identify with the voyeur is repeated through many of his films makes them fit comfortably into auteur theory also.

In conclusion, it seems that Hitchcock films can be applied successfully to the auteur theory due to extensive amount of reoccurring motifs noticed. However there are also a number of factors that mean Hitchcockian productions are more easily analysed using auteur structuralism. For example, the fact that all four of the films are based on novels and the fact that Bernard Herrmann composes the score for all four films has to be taken into account. Herrmann himself explained how “when Hitchcock finishes a film, its only 60% complete” and the credits at the end of each film clearly show how many other creative forces are involved in the making of a film.

As Roland Barthes delineates in his 1977 essay The Death of the Author it is the “culmination of capitalist ideology, which has attached the greatest importance to the ‘person’ of the author”. Hitchcock’s name is often in the same font and size as the title of the film which demonstrates how either he is asserting his power over his artistic signatures or he recognises how much of a commodity his name is and is using it for economical gain. Hitchcockian productions do showcase reoccurring structures such as binary opposites which make them applicable to structuralism but it can be argued these are due to a ‘tried and tested’ attitude to assure box office success.

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