Hitchcock: The Puppet-Master

The term ‘Auteur’ was originally used in regards to film in the 1950s by French film critics writing in the film journal ‘Cahiers du Cinema’.  Championed by the likes of soon-to-be leading New Wave filmmakers, Francois Truffaut and Eric Rohmer, ‘Auteurism’ effectively renewed the interest in artistic film for the critics who had become disillusioned with traditional film-making and filmmakers who they felt had become too heavily reliant on the genre picture.  Although it seems a relatively rudimentary concept, auteurism has become a complicated argument among film critics and industry professionals; the translation of “Auteur” to “Author” is where the universal agreement ends.  What Truffaut’s original 1954 essay, and other critics subsequent, were trying to create was an idea that the ultimately the director is responsible for the creativity (and thus, success) of a film by placing him/her above everyone else; as Truffaut explained “There are no good or bad films, only good and bad directors.”

What “The Young Turks” maintained was that in order for a director to be described as an auteur, his or her influence must be felt in each frame of his/her films and that the themes, styles and influences must be consistent and felt throughout all of their work, Film Critic Mark Shivas is cited as saying that an auteur film ‘transcends it’s story by the brilliance of its mise-en-scene.” The implications of these ideas were vast, not least on the institution of the French film industry itself (and France for that matter), for whom literature is and was held in such high regard.

The Auteur Theory was in part a rejection of the stringent importation rules that were imposed in France regarding Hollywood and British films, and of the post-War “cinéma de qualité” films on which the French film industry had become so efficient, yet reliant.  Part of the controversy lay in the fact that most of the directors on which they bestowed this accolade were foreign (Renoir was the main exception), and even worse many were American.  Also the theory plays down the roles of other industry professionals, the producers, screenwriters, editors, etc, who all play an important part in cinema as a whole.  At the time of inception it was agreed that the directors that embodied this theory the most were Howard Hawks, Jean Renoir, John Ford and Orson Welles.  However, the director that perhaps was the biggest influence and incarnation of the Auteur Theory was the ‘Master of Suspense’, Alfred Hitchcock.  Regardless of the differing theories of authorship and the constant evolution of the guidelines on which a filmmaker is judged, Hitchcock remains the measuring rod for critics and film scholars worldwide; he is undisputed Auteur for all those who believe in the concept in one form or another.  Every “Film Studies” book that contains a chapter on the auteur will undoubtedly go on to present Hitchcock as a case study.

During his lifetime Hitchcock made 57 films over five decades in both Britain and the United States.  Many critics and scholars will attest that most, if not all of these films have at least some degree of the ‘Hitchcockian’ element, even the early studio pictures on which, as a rookie, Hitchcock would have had little control.  Rebecca (1940), the first feature film he made as a contracted Hollywood director under David O. Selznick, was a studio production of the popular 1938 novel by Daphne du Maurier.  The script didn’t appeal to Hitchcock and he resisted the project, cited by Paula Marantz Cohen in Alfred Hitchcock: Centenary Essays, Hitchcock explained that: “The story [was] old-fashioned; there was a whole school of feminine literature at that period, and though I’m not against it, the fact is that the story is lacking in humour” and goes on to claim that Rebecca “was not a Hitchcock picture”.  This statement shows that Hitchcock echoed the anti-literature sentiment that Truffaut and others had previously espoused. However, Rebecca was a success and despite Hitchcock’s claims to the contrary, many of what would become Hitchcock’s trademark touches were evident; the isolated house, the tortured blonde, murder-mystery –flashes of the themes and subtexts that would flourish more significantly within later productions.

So, if indeed one of the most significant devices to become an auteur is continuity of theme, what are the subjects and subtexts that lend credence to the term ‘Hitchcockian’?  According to Abrams et al,  the themes of Hitchcockian film are “guilt and religion, knowledge, looking and voyeurism, and obsessive/troubled relationships between men and women, and particularly their mothers… a potent brew!”  While Abrams’ deconstruction is accurate, we can examine further and add more specific notions and icons, such as the tortured blonde, the ‘MacGuffin’, the man accused, the Hitchcock cameo, and the use of ‘suspense’.

Most critics would agree that many of the themes inherent in Hitchcock’s pictures are a direct result of the director’s own upbringing and inadequacies; a chubby Catholic boy from working class London background, with an over-bearing mother and perpetually unfulfilled desires towards women.  Add Hitchcock’s own tale of Catholic parenting when, as a young boy, he was incarcerated after his father sent him to the local police station with instructions to the officer that he be locked up, and we have some lifelong predispositions.

There are many good examples of recurring themes of Hitchcock’s work; Strangers on a Train (1951), Rear Window (1954) Vertigo (1958) and North by Northwest (1959). Not only does each film contain a level of continuity of theme, but each one personifies and projects a singular aspect of what is part of his greater body of work.  However, if we were to analyse Hitchcock’s films while bearing in mind the director’s own psychological influence, it is Psycho (1960) and Rear Window that embody the most potent mix of ‘Hitchcockian’ auteurship.

Psycho begins with the camera searching among the buildings until it zooms into a hotel room and ‘happens’ upon the story we are about to follow; the spectator is essentially moved towards the action from the outside.  This is a parallel to Rear Window, where the camera pans over the windows and then draws back into Jimmy Stewart’s own room and the action comes inward; though it still makes an ‘eye’ of the camera.

In Psycho, the story begins with the relationship between blonde office worker Marion (Janet Leigh) and her lover Sam (John Gavin).  Shortly after, in order to continue her relationship with Sam, Marion gives in to old fashioned temptation again by stealing $40,000 from her boss. She flees with the money and is forced into spending the night at the Bates Motel, where she encounters the mild-mannered Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), whose relationship with his Mother appears to border on the Oedipal –Norman’s statement that “a son is poor substitute for a lover” supports this.

As their encounter plays out we get a clear sense of Bates’ repressed sexual desires towards Marion.  And it is once these desires are unleashed, via Norman succumbing into his needs and spying on Marion in the shower, that Marion meets her death. This is the MacGuffin –we are intentionally led to believe (in part because of Janet Leigh’s stardom) that the film is about her.  Hitchcock has set up the audience perfectly so that Marion’s death is as surprising and unexpected as possible.  Once Norman commits the act of murder, repeatedly stabbing (read: penetrating) her with a knife, Norman is returned to his repressed state.  It is in these first 50 minutes that we understand most of what we need to about the subtexts of the film.  Marion’s death is not for reasons of her theft, but because she is guilty of being a sexual creature who arouses the basic human tendencies and offends traditional Catholic values.

While Psycho embodies Hitchcock at this thematic and metaphoric best, it is Rear window that proves the perfect example for his visual storytelling and his uncanny ability to provide character and plot information through the mise-en-scene alone, negating the need for unnecessary dialog.  In the opening minutes we see L.B. Jeffries (Jimmy Stewart) confined to a wheelchair with a broken leg.  The words ‘Here lie the broken bones of L.B. Jefferies’ written on his cast provide the character’s identity, and as the camera pans up we see a broken camera (signifying his profession as a photographer), then a photograph of an out of control racing car (the source of his accident) and across to a photograph of Grace Kelly as Lisa (his girlfriend).

All this information is given without a single word of dialog.  Despite Rear window being so obvious with its obsession with voyeurism, it also ticks the boxes for murder-mystery, suspense, Hitchcock’s affinity for blondes, knowledge (the use of restrictive narrative) the Hitchcock cameo, and of course the difficulties between men and women.

In Rear Window, Hitchcock incapacitates the male protagonist via a broken leg, forcing an ordinarily active man into a passive and inactive role.  He has also become dependant on women. Between them, the older female nurse and Lisa serve all of his needs, except his urge to wander.   This situation is mirrored in the apartment opposite; Lars Thorwald, also a wanderer (as a travelling salesman), is forced to care for his invalid wife, who’s murder is the backbone of the narrative.  It seems that women in Hitchcock’s world are dangerous because they all crave the same love and commitment, which is seen as an inhibitor to masculine sensibilities.  These are milder shades of the femme fatal existent in film noir.

What Rear Window and Psycho also represent clearly is Hitchcock’s belief that filmmaking doesn’t require as much literary input as some would have us believe. The dialog simply supports what the images have already told us, rather that pushing the narrative forward. One of the criticisms of the Auteur Theory is that cinema, by design, is a collaborative medium and that no one man can create and that even Hitchcock, although heavily involved, didn’t write his own screenplays. Paula Marantz Cohen uses the following Hitchcock quotes to surmise his view on literature.  “‘I’m wary of literature.  A good book does not necessarily make a good film’; ‘I can’t read fiction because if I did I would be instinctively asking myself “Would this make a movie or not?”’; ‘When we tell a story in cinema, we should resort to dialogue only when it’s impossible to do so otherwise.’”

While Hitchcock was non-supporting and probably harsh of the efforts of those that contributed to his films (famously referring to actors as “Cattle”), the fact remains that his films are, as far as they could be, his.  ‘Alfred Hitchcock’ is a still brand that supersedes the efforts of the actors, writers, cinematographers and producers with whom he collaborated, though, as explained in the beginning, things aren’t so simple.  For example, would the shower scene in Psycho be as affective without Bernard Hermann’s score?  Or would Rear Window be as charming if not for Grace Kelly’s performance?  This is where the misunderstanding about the Auteur Theory is most prevalent.  To dismiss what various individuals contribute to the films they are part of, is to obscure the meaning of what the Auteur Theory originally stood for; that is, to take the ordinary and make it extraordinary through the force of talent and will, and to imprint and impress, not absolutely but as much as is possible, a singular drive and personality upon cinema by rejecting the traditional and furthering the boundaries.  And it is for these reasons that, for most, Hitchcock will always be the ultimate Auteur.


About craig shaw

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