341 Week 5

December 14, 2010

In 1962, film critic Andrew Sarris espoused the auteur theory – that a film is the director’s personal creative vision or that the director is the author (auteur is French for author) of the film. As the original premise was stated in France, it was rather an indictment on American filmmaking and an apologia that dictated that American Film making was worth study and consideration. (Wollen) Early on in the annals of the auteur theory, it was concluded that “American Hitchcock” was not the equivalent of “English Hitchcock” since the studio driven, collaborative methodology of American cinema was not as conducive to the “personal creative vision” that characterized the European director. (Wollen)
Sarris contends that the director of a film – even if the film is a flop – must possess the technical competence as the first criterion of becoming the author of the film. The second premise is that the director must have a “distinguishable personality” as another criterion. (Sarris 451) In short, the director and his or her work must be recognizable as far as style, thematic content, visual treatment and an ability to make his presence known through a wide range of materials. The final aspect of defining an auteur is that the director and material must work towards resolving the interior meaning of the work or as Sarris proclaims “interior meaning is extrapolated from the tension between the director’s personality and his material.” (Sarris 453) Even when the director was under the studio system, his own creative authority would prevail according to Sarris’ retake on the French theory. The director’s personal stamp on the film that make it his own and is what attracts the audience.
Many times the director as auteur was limited by the studio system that prevailed in Hollywood throughout much of the twentieth century. Often it was difficult for the personal vision of the director to overcome the material he was presented to direct. For instance, Howard Hawks was noted for his heroic dramas and over-the-top comedies. (Jewell)
While these may seem as if there is no cohesion or vision in these seemingly dissimilar genres, the underlying vision promulgated by Hawks was a system of opposition between conflict, sexes and other opposites that created his vision for drama or comedy. (Wollen) Similarly, John Ford, despite restrictions of the studio system was considered an auteur in his films. Ford’s personal vision is between the “wilderness and the garden.” It also lies in the system of opposites – whether it is rich vs. poor, man vs. woman, European vs. Native American (The Searchers, Cheyenne Autumn) civilization vs. savagery – and to turn the expected outcomes over so that new truths are revealed. (Wollen) Film critics and others found that the auteur theory was an unnecessary and useless concept, however it has remained a viable theory when it comes to analyzing the personal influence that a director has on the outcome of a film.
Alfred Hitchcock was an archetypal auteur throughout his long and distinguished career. Just as Hawks and Ford were masters of transposing opposition, Hitchcock’s personal vision introduced chaos and disorder into the ordinary, or the mundane. As Peter Wollen suggests, the “spectator has to work at reading the text”. (Wollen) This means that the viewer must not only see what the director is showing on the surface but delve into the subtext to get a clear understanding of what is the director’s vision and personal point of view.
Hitchcock was always interested in the scholarly engagement of his work (Kolker 3). As such he was the perfect candidate for the critic’s auteur theory, that would study his work and take it seriously as a personal statement rather than mere popular entertainment.
A very telling exchange occurred between Francois Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock as part of a series of interviews conducted between them. Truffaut was one of the originators of the auteur theory and in Hitchcock, he essentially found his perfect exemplar as far as stylistic sensibilities, vision, recurring themes and film technique and capability.
In these interviews Truffaut was able to get Hitchcock to reveal much about the structure of his films, the love he held for the medium of film itself and of course his own love of order. Hitchcock remained cagy when revealing his own personal interpretations and feelings. However, in one exchange, Truffaut reveals an aspect of Hitchcock’s auteur-ship that is prevalent throughout his films. (Kolker)
Truffaut: …By depicting the isolated man who’s surrounded by all sorts of hostile elements and perhaps without even meaning to, you enter the realm of the dream world, which is also a world of solitude.

Hitchcock: That’s probably me, within myself. … I’m never satisfied with the ordinary, I’m ill at ease with it

Truffaut: … I believe you film emotions you feel very deeply – fear, for instance.

Hitchcock: I am full of fears and I do my best to avoid difficulties and any kind of complications.

(Kolker 5)

This in essence was the personal aesthetic vision of Alfred Hitchcock. His own love of orderliness however was confined behind the camera. Each shot was storyboarded and defined so that the cameraman knew exactly where to place the camera and the performers knew exactly what marks they had to hit. Hitchcock left nothing to chance in his planning process and that suited his own sense of order and perfectionism. (Kolker) While Hitchcock himself remained elusive in person, rarely revealing the depths of his vision, he nonetheless put all of his fears, doubts, and recurring themes on the screen. (Caugie)
Hitchcock’s vision plays itself out in several films – and did so twenty years before there was a name to auteur theory. Hitchcock does not provide clues or “red herrings” in his films, he goes straight for the jugular. The audience knows or suspects the identity of the killer or villain and can only watch in horror as the innocents in the films are confronted with evil and must courageously confront it. Hitchcock’s theme of an isolated man (or woman) confronting his or her own fears, and overcoming them, reflect his fears and his needs to confront and conquer them.
In his 1943 film Shadow of Doubt, Hitchcock plays with the audience’s suspicions and fears – reflecting his own abhorrence of disorder and chaos being introduced into life. The viewer knows at once this is a Hitchcock film since from the start, evil is introduced into the banal and changes the way the protagonist sees the world forever.
A bored young woman, Charlie wishes for excitement. It arrives in the shape of her Uncle Charlie, whom the audience has seen earlier in a seedy hotel being watched by two men. Uncle Charlie represents sophistication, intrigue and worldliness, which Charlie wants in her life. However as Hitchcock shows in some carefully small but pertinent actions, there is something amiss with Uncle Charlie. (Hitchcock, Shadow of Doubt)
Through his inimitable style, Hitchcock lets the spectator and Charlie discover that Uncle Charlie’s dark side is never far from the surface. Cutting remarks about widows, clenched hands, wrenching a wrist, cutting a clipping from a paper and angry outbursts make Charlie heed the warnings of the FBI agents that her uncle is the killer of several widows. All these actions are Hitchcock’s subtle and the suspense builds because the audience “knows who done it.” (Hitchcock, Shadow of Doubt)
Hitchcock’s dichotomy has Charlie caught between trying to protect the innocence of her family especially her mother and ridding the family of her uncle’s evil presence. His technique is to stylistically change the physical appearance of Charlie as she changes from a callow young girl wearing pastels and happily anticipating life to a strong determined woman (wearing black as she escorts her uncle to the train)who rids her family and her town of the evil that her uncle represents. (Hitchcock, Shadow of Doubt) Although no one else knows (except the detectives) of her uncle’s nefarious life and mourn his death, Charlie has restored order out of chaos by the film’s end. (Kolker)
One aspect of a Hitchcock film that is repeated throughout all his films is the link between sex and violence. While Hitchcock remains reticent about this link and even tells Truffaut that he never has erotic dreams. (Kolker 5) Yet somehow on the screen, these twin themes are inextricably linked until they culminate in Psycho. (Hitchcock, Psycho) There is an underlying sexual tension between Uncle Charlie and Charlie. It comes through when Uncle Charlie caresses his niece with a gift and the statement that they are the same person. If this is the case, then Uncle Charlie’s propensity for violence also belongs to Charlie. Hitchcock again plays with the dark side to a person and reveals his own fears of that dark side. (Hitchcock, Shadow of Doubt)
Hitchcock as auteur retains his personal vision and his unmistakable presence in films throughout the remainder of the 1940s and 1950s. Strangers on Train, Rear Window, Vertigo and many others bear his directorial stamp and style. Two films however, are excellent examples of Hitchcock’s development as far as the auteur theory is concerned North by Northwest (1959) and Psycho (1960).
In North by Northwest, Hitchcock’s protagonist, Roger Thornhill is an isolated innocent man, caught up in circumstances and events that are beyond his control. He is hapless, helpless, and confounded as he is kidnapped, mistaken for a mysterious government agent/spy and betrayed by a beautiful woman. No one believes him, and when he tries to prove his story, he is framed for murder and pursued across country.
In his efforts to survive, he also discovers his own personal outrage and sense of justice. Summoning his courage, he faces those who have created the chaos in his life. He is an innocent, much like Charlie, who has to confront the real perpetrators of the crimes in order to save not only his own life but that of his love interest Eve Kendall. Not only has she betrayed him earlier, but has saved him as well, only adding to Thornhill’s confusion and sense of isolation.
Thornhill’s adversary, Philip Van Damme is smooth-talking, and highly intelligent. His face of evil, like that of Uncle Charlie is sophisticated, worldly and world weary. While his henchman is crude and angry, Again, Hitchcock uses violence and sex, subtly to advance the story and create a suspenseful bond between the audience and the subject. (Hitchcock, North By Northwest)
Hitchcock’s films are rife with paranoia that reflect his own inner fears yet again. He has little respect for authority figures or even parental ones. Charlie’s family may be loving, but in the face of Uncle Charlie’s evil, they are helpless and clueless. Thornhill’s mother never believes him and nearly gets him killed when she asks the killers if they want to kill her son. Her insouciant laugh reveals that she neither believes or supports her son in his attempts to find the truth. Like Charlie before him, Thornhill has to solve his own mystery, and reach his own conclusions; all the while knowing that Hitchcock has the audience squirming in their knowledge of what is just around the corner that will only cause him more difficulties. (Hitchcock, North By Northwest)
Still eminently recognizable as a Hitchcock film and what has come down as one of the scariest films of all time is 1960’s Psycho. Here Hitchcock as auteur turns his previous conventions all around and created a new suspense genre that not only covertly incorporates sex and violence in the stories but demonstrates it on the screen. (Thomson)
Psycho took the concept of voyeurism, as Hitchcock depicted it in Rear Window and sent it into overdrive. From the very name, it was evident that this film was going to be an over the top experience. The audience, as the voyeurs were going to see something that bordered on the psychotic, after all it was in the name. (Thomson) The film is divided into two stories, Marian’s and Norman’s. Hitchcock deliberately encourages the audience to believe that Marian’s theft of $40,000 is somehow going to be integral to the ‘psycho’ aspect of the film.
From the start, the audience is watching – as the lovers are forced to be together only during the lunch hour, and discover that Marian Crane is tired of her illicit affair with Sam Loomis. The sense of voyeurism is again repeated when Marian is undressing at the Bates Motel and Norman Bates is watching through the peephole. (Hitchcock, Psycho)
Marian Crane is the isolated woman in this film, however, her isolation is due to her own actions – both by having an illicit affair and by stealing her boss’s $40,000. Her reasons for both are murky. Unlike Roger Thornhill or Charlie Newton, Marian is an unsympathetic character as she drives her way to Sam in California. She is guilt ridden, self-obsessed and oblivious as to how she is being seen by others. When she is confronted by the suspicious policeman, her actions are nearly panicked and her abrupt behavior when exchanging her car cause suspicion in both the car dealer and cop. Her face is like a mask that hides her identity and her understanding. (Barthes)(Hitchcock, Psycho)
Marian is completely unaware of how she is being perceived until she is eating her sandwich at the Bates Motel. When talking about Norman’s mother, Marian realizes that she has gone a little mad and comes back to her senses. Hitchcock allows the audience to see that she is actually a nice person who has decided to return to Phoenix and make amends. For the first time in the film, there is audience sympathy for her.
Then with his first overt mixing of sex and violence, Hitchcock ends Marian’s story with a brutal attack in the infamous shower scene. He turns his fears of vulnerability in the bathroom (Kolker) up to a whole new level. The audience’s sympathy for the girl, which had just been building since she was deciding to make things right is turned to horror at the brutality of her death. It was even more unusual for the director to kill a major star in the first third of the film as he does Janet Leigh in the shower scene. Hitchcock’s reasoning was that it would make the killing more “unexpected”. (Kolker)
There are surprise twists at each turn in Psycho. Norman, that nice young man at the motel, has been a mass murderer for years. His deceased mother still lives on in a fashion – the ultimate authority figure in his life, and has taken Norman. The police (including the private detective) are ineffectual, until the sister and Sam Loomis confront and solve the mystery of all those disappearances. As Hitchcock told Truffaut “I was directing the viewers. You might say I was playing them, like an organ” (Kolker 16)
With Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock turned cinema onto a new and more dangerous path. As an auteur, he revealed in this film, that his personal vision of the darker side of human nature was ready to be revealed. Throughout his film career, Hitchcock provided audiences a glimpse into the deeper recesses of his own fears and questions. The film critics who created this theory, like Sarris, Jewell, Barthes and Truffaut, would be thrilled to know that over fifty year after the auteur theory was begun, Hitchcock’s personal vision, his thematic approach and his unique directorial style have stood the test of time.

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