This paper will attempt to explain the Auteur Theory, in relations to esteemed Hollywood film director Alfred Hitchcock. I will discuss works such as The 39 Steps, Vertigo, Psycho, The Birds and Rear Window and outline the ideas held by the theory. I will also discuss recent developments (using modern film examples) and the controversy around the Auteur Theory.
François Truffaut claimed that film was a medium where directors could express their ideas. This would therefore lead to the assumption that the director, in film, could be regarded as the auteur (author) or the film (as cited in Nichols, 1976). The theory suggests that the director could use the film-making machines available to him as a writer would use his pen and paper.
The theory suggests that most good works in film will bear the directors’ ‘mark’. His or her own personality will be manifested in his work. In this way the director has overall artistic influence of a picture, therefore takes credit for the work and is responsible for attracting a n audience.
There has been a lot of controversy around the idea of an auteur so there is no concise answer to my question. The 1950s were the golden age of the auteur – a time when people went to see a film because of its director.
Hitchcock’s has been used as an example in favour of the Auteur Theory numerous times. That being said one needs to note the paradox posed by such action since he was not given the title of auteur since intellectuals in film during the 50s and 60s noted a number of negative reactions towards La politique des auteurs.
The definition of the Auteur Theory has changed a lot over the years, as has the overall way in which the audience perceives film. Its basic tenants, according to Truffaut include the following:
‘cinema hasâ€¦an equivalence to literature, or any other art form of profundity and meaning’
A film, even though collectively produced, has most value when the director dominates.
The consistency of themes, images and styles over the whole body of work is what grants a director’s auteurist status.
the truly artistic director, through the creative power of their individual personality, is able to surpass the limitations of the commercial context within which the film is produced;
It is through the cinema’s distinctive language that real auteurs display their understanding of cinematography.
In relation to Hitchcock, there is no doubt that his movies are distinctive. There seems to be uniformity in theme and subject matter as well as techniques used. One might argue the point that a film is the combined effort of a team and not just the influence of one person. In fact, “One of the reasons of Hitchcock’s decline was the dispersion of his movie production team.” (Schatz, 1988). It is a known fact that Hitchcock was meticulous when it came to his productions. He was involved in every facet of the production; writing, casting, costume choices; he guided the development of his production from beginning to end. According to Spoto, he planned every detail of his work in advance which led to the overall feel of every film he directed. Truffaut notes that Hitchcock “exercises such complete control over all the elements of his films and imprints his personal concepts at each step of the way”.
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The Master of Mystery and Suspense, Hitchcock downplays the importance of surprise. His films play with the audience wits and nerves. There is a persistent element of black comedy. They most often brought to light taboo issues of those times such as the Oedipus Complex in Psycho and homosexuality in Strangers on a Train. German expressionism was an obvious influence. According to Spotto, Hitchcock was amazed at how they could express so much meaning visually (with no sound).
His technical mastery is evident in his pictures. Camera work, editing as well as music and sound were all his tools to build suspense. The dolly zoom used in Vertigo has become common place in modern cinema. Used in films such as Scorsese’s Goodfellas during the diner scene with Ray Liotta and Robert DeNiro, as well as the Nazgûl appearance in Jackson’s first installment of Lord Of The Rings. In Psycho there’s the cut from the blood going down the drain to Marion Crane’s eye. The importance given to inanimate objects is also evident in Hitchcock’s films; the knife in Psycho and Blackmail.
His distorted vision of the world is brought to light through the themes presented in his films. According to Semiology (the study of signs) binary oppositions give meaning to the world. That is, the word ‘good’ gets its meaning due to its opposite ‘bad’. Hitchcock used binary oppositions such as appearance vs. reality in Vertigo to keep his audience at the edge of their seat. Furthermore there was guilt vs. innocence in The 39 Steps and The Man Who Knew too Much.
His themes were predominant. We see a fascination with wrongful accusation and imprisonment. It is a significant part of Hitchcock’s mark. One of the basic themes: the mistaken identity, the police accuse the wrong man who must find the real person responsible for the crime in order to prove his innocence. This is seen in The Lodger, The 39 Steps and North By Northwest.
Hitchcock’s touch was evident: `in the structure and content of the screenplay . . .in the development of plot and theme and images; in the selection of cast and setting; in the style of lighting and placement and movement of the camera; in the moods created, sustained, and shifted; in the subtle manipulation of an audience’s fears and desires; in the economy and wit of the narrative; in the pacing; and in the rhythms of the film’s final cutting” (Spoto, 1983). Therefore in Hitchcock’s case, his work could be linked directly to him and not to the particular studio where it was produced as was the norm during the times. They were more personal and had his approved seal on them.
Caughie states that for a director to be an auteur s/he would need eccentricity and obsessiveness. If he is right than Hitchcock has a good argument in his favour. He had what Leitch called a ‘genius for self-advertising,’. This trait, many times found a way into the films themselves. His cameo appearances in his films were an excellent example of this.
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