The auteur theory was originally introduced in France as Les politique des auteurs by film critics of the Cahiers Du Cinema magazine, particularly François Truffaut. In his paper, Truffaut proposed that the director is given the creative role on production of a film and that they are the artist whose personality is written in the film (cited in Caughie, 1981). While the theory had been critically evaluated by critics in France, it had not been revolutionized and developed further until American film critic Andrew Sarris re-introduced it, via his Notes on the Auteur Theory essay that was published in 1962. He stated that there is no precise definition of the term in the English language (cited in Caughie, 1981) but he did argue that a film’s visual and technical execution is primarily through the director’s personal vision. For example, director Alfred Hitchcock was among the list of Sarris’ original auteurs and according to André Bazin, Hitchcock was a true auteur (cited in Caughie, 1981, p23). This essay will examine Sarris’ three central aspects of the Auteur theory that he believes establish a director as an auteur. The main focus in this paper will be on Hitchcock’s auteurist work and how it undercuts Richard Dyer’s star theory, Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis and Laura Mulvey’s concept on the male gaze. The outcome of the essay will determine whether the auteurist approach is still valid in comparison to those other theories.
Auteur theory centres on the analysis of mise-en-scéne which is under the director’s control. In the Notes on the Auteur Theory (1962) essay by Andrew Sarris, he indicated three specific characteristics that identify a director’s personal expression. The first is technical competence (cited in Caughie, 1981) which refers to the director’s control on production and how the film’s visual and practical features are applied for a specific reason. Although there are other individuals who have roles on-set, it is the director who is in control of how the mise-en-scéne is handled in a film.
The second premise is the director’s personality (cited in Braudy and Cohen, 2004). According to Sarris, “a director must exhibit certain recurrent characteristics of style which serve as his signature” (cited in Braudy and Cohen, 2004, p562). It is often from either obsessions or real events that occur in the director’s life which, therefore, becomes their motivation to portray their on-screen image. In Hitchcock’s case, for example, he endured a child incident in which he was sent to a prison cell by his father for approximately ten minutes. His emotions during this occurrence could have been Hitchcock’s motive to reflect how he felt on the screen but through different narrative conventions and character types. The third and arguably most important characteristic of the auteur theory is ‘interior meaning’ which Sarris refers to as “the ultimate glory of the cinema as an art (cited in Caughie, 1981, p64). Sarris vaguely explains his definition of interior meaning but he does refer to it as the strain between the auteur and the material itself.
Sarris wrote a list of auteurist directors in which Hitchcock appeared as one of them. Caughie (1981) suggests that there is a separation between Hitchcock the director and the Hitchcock structure. For example, he has been branded as the Master of Suspense. ‘Suspense’ alone establishes Hitchcock as an auteur that is the structure whereas ‘master’ seals that and it becomes his own individual talent. In an interview with François Truffaut, Hitchcock provided his definition of suspense. He states that suspense is centred on uncomfortable circumstances which the audience are aware of, yet the characters are not (cited in Truffaut, 1986). He also illustrates how suspense builds up for some time and that the audience participate in the situation, as opposed to a sequence of surprise that occurs unexpectedly. Those two keywords summarize Hitchcock as an auteur because it immediately illustrates that suspense became Hitchcock’s specialty. According to Cook (2007, p398), Hitchcock was an auteur who dominated his audience. Rear Window (Hitchcock, 1954) illustrates vintage Hitchcock suspense, such as the sequence in which Jeffries hears Thorwald slowly pacing towards and entering his apartment. Tension heightens progressively as there is dark mise-en-scéne, no music and diagetic sound of footsteps. Hitchcock intensifies suspense by centring it on what the audience can at least predict yet the characters do not know about during a scene. The viewers and Jeffries’ have been led to believe that Thorwald is a killer but are unaware of his capable instincts. Therefore, the audience are placed in Jeffries’ uncomfortable position and feel frightened of Thorwald. Suspense has become Hitchcock’s most identifiable theme but there are other implications of his auteurist style.
The majority of Hitchcock’s films were either adaptations or original screenplays written by somebody else. Hitchcock looked for certain elements from sources that he can relate to and present on the screen. For example, Vertigo is based on Boileau and Narcejac’s novel D’entre Les Morts. According to Wood (1989), the book was weak but Hitchcock’s acquirement of the film adaptation and personal expression through mise-en-scéne sparked its superior status. This suggests that an auteur becomes attracted to the material’s content that enables them to portray their own vision through personal style. Furthermore, it is also suggested that an auteur’s style is identifiable to a different material. Truffaut (1983) believed that the D’entre Les Morts novel was especially written for Hitchcock. This is perhaps where he capitalizes on his personal approach as an auteur with his selective technicality and thematic strategies to sign his signature; hence the “Hitchcockian style” (Pramaggiore and Wallis, 2011, p412).
The physical and emotional attachment between characters is similarly portrayed in certain recurring Hitchcock themes, including voyeurism and the perversity of relationships. Romantic and sexual desires in his films are usually between heterosexual couples. For example, in North By Northwest (Hitchcock, 1959), Hitchcock examines the romantic yet strange relationship between Roger and Eve. For example, when the couple are inside a train cabin, a limited space, Hitchcock examines their intimate contact through a two-shot and over-the-shoulder angle. These shots confine the audience into not only the cabin but even closer into their romantic and sexual behaviour.
The audience’s observation of a couple or individual is different in comparison to how voyeurism, another Hitchcock theme, is portrayed in his films. Viewers normally look at a character and their actions or behaviour in a particular setting but certain characters observe others in Hitchcock’s films, which often comes from the audience’s perspective. For instance, Rear Window is entirely voyeuristic. L.B. Jeffries is spying on his neighbours from his apartment window and the audience spy on him doing so. According to Perkins (1993), Jeffries’ role in Rear Window is similar to the audience’s role in the cinema and reactions in certain scenes are mutual. Therefore, Hitchcock places viewers in the same situation as Jeffries.
Throughout his career, Hitchcock would collaborate with specific figures who he believes possess certain abilities in order for him to reflect his style. His most regular male actors were Cary Grant who appeared notably in more enlightening and perhaps humorous roles, most famously in North By Northwest and also in To Catch A Thief (Hitchcock 1955), Notorious (Hitchcock 1946) and Suspicion (Hitchcock 1941), and James Stewart who portrayed more serious characters in films such as Vertigo (Hitchcock 1958), The Man Who Knew Too Much (Hitchcock 1956), Rear Window (1954) and Rope (Hitchcock 1948). Furthermore, Hitchcock was selective towards his casting of blonde actresses and occasionally collaborated with specifics more than once, such as Ingrid Bergman in Notorious, Spellbound (Hitchcock 1945) and Under Capricorn (Hitchcock 1943) as well as Grace Kelly in Rear Window, Dial M For Murder (Hitchcock 1954) and To Catch A Thief. How these actresses have been portrayed imply their roles perhaps suggest that Hitchcock may have been a misogynist seeing as females in his films have been treated as either desirable objects (Vertigo), victims of punishment or death (Psycho (Hitchcock 1960) and The Birds (Hitchcock 1963))and ones that are forced to be made respectable (North By Northwest). Alfred Hitchcock also worked with music composer Bernard Hermann who not only wrote the score for North By Northwest but also Psycho, Vertigo and The Man Who Knew Too Much. Nevertheless, Hitchcock’s selection of certain individuals either on or off screen initiate that he wants them to reflect a film in a way that he desires.
Another vital Hitchcockian trait was his cameo appearances throughout most of his films. For example, he briefly appeared within two minutes of North By Northwest just as the opening credits concluded, or as his name disappeared. He does not have a character name and does not play a vital role within the film so he is perhaps playing an extra. However, audiences are able to identify through his symbolic image that it is Hitchcock on the screen. A director’s contribution to a film is perhaps equally as important as the stars and plot are on the screen. Belcher (1980) believes that Hitchcock’s cameos became one of his ingenious trademarks as an auteur (cited in Truffaut, 1983, p350). So, although we know Alfred Hitchcock directed North By Northwest, his cameos have perhaps influenced directors to briefly appear in their films.
Furthermore, Hitchcock appeared on certain posters. For example, on The Birds (Hitchcock 1963) he stands in the margin next to the film’s features – displaying a woman’s terror of being attacked by birds. This implies that Hitchcock aimed to present himself as important as the characters and the plot. In addition, his name is highlighted in a thick font above the title, implying another strategy which emphasises Hitchcock’s auteurist signature. Therefore, his name and appearance on the poster, as well as his cameos suggest that he is the star.
Hitchcock’s symbolic self-representation defines him as an idol; however, it is the stars who illustrate his auteurist style on the screen. Dyer (1979) argues that their cinematic delivery centres on specific characteristics which brand them as stars. First, their status as a social phenomenon (Dyer, 1979) suggests that they can serve as marketing strategies for a studio to attract audiences and gain profit (Hayward, 1996). This can relate to Sarris’ theory because an auteur may select a star, who they believe will provide them with a commercial boost due to their personal and professional qualities. Consequently, it could also be an opportunity for the auteur to publicize themselves through their relationship with the star.
Hitchcock collaborated with the star Ingrid Bergman in three films (Wood, 1989). Bergman had already become a star before appearing in Hitchcock’s films and inbetween those performances; she won an Academy Award (Smit, 2012). Hitchcock (cited in Truffaut, 1986) referred to Bergman as the biggest Hollywood star at the time and casting her in his films became a triumph. In her work with Hitchcock, she arguably became the first female to represent her natural feminist image as a star into her roles, notably as Alicia Huberman in Notorious (Hitchcock 1946). According to Modleski (1988), Notorious is presented from Alicia’s perspective. Hitchcock’s direction provided the audience with time to examine Bergman’s role and her physical image such as medium shots, in which her costume would enhance her feminism, and close-ups presenting her natural beauty. This suggests that Hitchcock relied on his stars to represent the on-screen image he expected.
A star’s persona is visualised through their on-screen image representation (Dyer, 1979). Dyer (1979) proposes that there are four features when examining a star’s image – the films they have performed in, their involvement in a film’s promotion, such as artwork and interviews, the exposure of their personal life and finally, the public criticism related to the three previous features. To a certain extent, these attributes challenge each other as they together reveal the connection between the star and the character. A star’s publicized life can tell the audience about their personality, whereas their on-screen performances and image often reflect the impression of a star’s persona. For example, the majority of Ingrid Bergman’s starring roles have been related to the concept of a “nice woman” (Wood, 1989, p313). Audiences can perceive her as this character type and as a result, they assume that it represents her true personality. Therefore, it can be argued that her acting talents merge with her star persona.
According to Wood (1989, p311), Ingrid Bergman’s star status is categorized into four components – nature and health, the lady, niceness and the actress, which link together to a certain degree. Wood (1989) commented that her natural and healthy attributes were maintained through photographs of Bergman without make-up in a lifelike setting, such as an image of her with baby ducks (cited in Wood, 1989, p312). This healthy outlook on nature connected with Bergman’s natural beauty and uncovered a sense of innocence and feminism.
This relates to the third aspect of star theory – stars become signs through their character performances. A star’s aim is to become a representation of a certain type through a film’s screenplay and mise-en-scéne. In that sense, stars are meant to provide a sense of on-screen realism within their acting for the audience to believe. Their on-screen positioning is in the director’s control but it is the personal qualities that the star has which draw them into a role and, therefore, allows them to adapt into a character. Pramaggiore and Wallis (2011) state that an actor and a star are not identical as the former is expected to deliver on-screen character performances from a screenplay. On the other hand, stars possess both personal and professional abilities that draw them into a role, a strategy known as type-casting (Shingler, 2012, p110). Hitchcock became known for his favouritism of blonde actresses because they were “the real ladies who become whores once they are in the bedroom” (cited in Truffaut, 1986, p224). This suggests that Hitchcock visualises his female stars’ sexual appetite through their physical appearance. He would often display this in an erotic fashion in his films such as Rear Window, Vertigo and Psycho where these blonde women became attractive to the male characters.
According to Cook (2007), women are portrayed onto the screen from men’s perspective. Mulvey (1975) argues that Hitchcock represented his female stars as desirable objects to male spectators; thus, resulting in the male gaze. Often in Hitchcock’s films women glamorously stand out on the screen and as a result, the audience can overlook the narrative and focus on their physical appearance. Mulvey (1975) refers to this effect as freezing the look in which the female’s passive image becomes a pleasurable spectacle to the male’s active gaze. In Hitchcock’s films this approach can lead to plot development.
In Rear Window, the audience sees Jefferies’ neighbourhood from his perspective. Perkins (1993) comments that his role in the film is similar to the audience’s because he is snooping at a murder mystery plot whilst viewers are spying on him. Therefore, Jefferies is observing the world around him through his window which could be perceived as a cinema screen, similarly to the viewers who are watching him. Jefferies is often represented as the active male upon the passive female. Grace Kelly’s feminine attributes were displayed through her character Lisa Fremont that enhanced the male visual pleasure. The audience’s first impression of Lisa is of a stylish woman, which is illustrated by her make-up through close-up shots and her closer moves towards the camera, explaining Jefferies’ stunned reaction towards her. According to Mulvey (1975), Lisa’s sophisticated dress sense as a model evokes a visual pleasure; on the other hand, Jefferies’ profession as a photographer allows him to gaze upon Lisa’s physical image. His perspective is also maintained in a tracking shot in which the camera follows Lisa switching on the apartment’s lights; consequently, it exposes Kelly’s full feminist appearance.
Mulvey’s theory of the male gaze oscillates between voyeurism, a recurring Hitchcockian theme, and erotic fascination. According to Hayward (1996), this is known as scopophilia which means the love of watching. For example, Vertigo is arguably Hitchcock’s most substantial film that reflects scopophilia through Scottie’s obsessive relationship with Madeleine, who comes across as a femme fatale. This suggests that she has a sense of dominance over males with subtle sexual passions. Madeleine is introduced in the restaurant through striking mise-en-scéne, specifically the costume design. Hence, she becomes an attraction to the audience through her dress straps and bare back after which music commences and the camera zooms in. Scottie’s gaze towards her can be similar to the audience’s and cross-cutting between shots enhances this fascination. His obsessive behaviour towards Madeleine as a mesmerizing object develops the plot which continues throughout the first half of the film through point-of-view shots while Scottie is following her.
It can be argued that Hitchcock’s treatment of women on and off screen may suggest that he might have been misogynistic. He has represented women as not only attractive objects but also as victims of punishment or death (Modleski, 1988). For example, Marion Crane in Psycho is depicted as a respectable woman, who becomes trapped by temptation and greed when committing theft, and as a coward. This connects to a recurring Hitchcock theme – guilt. A close-up shot of her nervous facial expressions in the car exemplifies her guilt and progressively through voice-over from the same angle, she imagines a conversation between her colleagues regarding her theft. While the shower water becomes Marion’s way of washing away her guilt, it consequently becomes her punishment. The audience feels her fright and the power that Mother possesses, especially as the diegetic sound of the knife piercing her flesh synchronizes with Marion’s screams.
Another significance of Marion’s guilt is perhaps through the colours of her clothing, which relates to the male gaze. In the opening scene she wears a white bra and then a white dress, perhaps representing her as an angel. However, as Marion becomes tempted to steal and eventually she does so, the audience sees her in darker clothing wearing a black bra, which symbolizes her transformation into a thief. This message implies a gaze and visual pleasure to the male audience due to Janet Leigh’s feminine image, which includes the sharp quality of the costume that catches the viewers’ attention, suggestively forming a sexual phantasy.
Hitchcock often expressed both his desire and misogyny towards blonde women through which male protagonists became his substitute. For example, in Vertigo Scottie is immediately attracted to Madeleine in the restaurant and becomes obsessed with her. Hitchcock had already stated (cited in Truffaut, 1986) that blonde women were the real sexually active ladies and Scottie perhaps feels that way too. This becomes evident when Judy is introduced and Scottie tries to physically transform her into Madeleine. The fact that Scottie glares at Judy’s brown hair in a contempt manner implies that he, like Hitchcock, favours blonde women and despises brunettes. Oglethorpe (2012) states that Tippi Hedren called Hitchcock a sexual predator that harassed her physically and verbally whilst filming The Birds. According to Truffaut (1986), Hitchcock cast Hedren in two films that he desired to transform into another Grace Kelly. That is the realization of Scottie’s aim to convert Judy into Madeleine.
Mulvey’s (cited in Fuery, 2000) ideas regarding the male gaze were similar to Freud’s psychoanalytical theories but they were interpreted from a feminist perspective. Her work on how male spectators visualise female stars on the screen challenges certain theories, particularly fetishism. However, Lapsley and Westlake (2006) state that fetishism can also be seen as an act of erotic desire towards an object relating to a specific character. For example, in Rebecca (Hitchcock 1940) Mrs Danvers is obsessed with Mr De Winter’s deceased wife Rebecca. Mrs Danvers’ fetishness is exposed through her handling Rebecca’s nightwear and pillowcase whilst in front of the new Mrs De Winter. Modleski (1988) argued that Mrs Danvers had an erotic attachment to Rebecca who felt threatened by Mrs De Winter. Hence, this suggests that Mrs Danvers’ affection for Rebecca’s belongings is a fixation towards the dead and it reveals the psychoanalytical complexity in her thoughts and feelings.
Hitchcock also embedded fetishism in characters and in their relationships, particularly through Freud’s Oedipus Complex (Lapsley and Westlake, 2006, p68) which examines the bond between the mother and the son. According to Freud (cited in Lebeau, 2001), the son fantasises from his mother’s affections which enhances psychosexual development. Arguably the prime example is Norman Bates, who has a fixated desire for his mother Norma. Fuery (2000) states that Norman’s affection for Norma had been caused by her possessiveness of him; thus, the psychiatrist explained that she was a clinging and socially-isolated woman. This is perhaps another idea of Hitchcock being a misogynist as Norma’s natural instinct as a mother becomes a punishment; hence her murder.
Although Norman murdered his mother, he still desired her. His initial guilt of matricide encouraged him to psychiatrically keep her alive (Fuery, 2000) in which he would become part-mother and part-son (Cook, 2007). Norman becoming Mrs Bates, even if it means transforming into a killer and disposing of bodies, ensures his commitment towards her. The fact that he also utters “a boy’s best friend is his mother” (Smith, 2009, p64) additionally seals his faithfulness towards Norma though she is dead.
Freud also comments that the son has hostility towards his father and other ‘rival’ males who desire the mother’s love (cited in Lebeau, 2001). The audience learn that Norman killed his mother’s lover; however, they do not discover the cause of his father’s death. Hitchcock overlooked it and the fact that the psychiatrist explained that “Norman had been dangerously disturbed since his father died” (Smith, 2009, p65) which could suggest he had some involvement. Nevertheless, Hitchcock’s visual complexity of the Norman Bates character through Freud’s theory has sparked one of cinema’s most unique and compound characters.
To conclude, Alfred Hitchcock’s auteurist approach has become influential to theorists and to the entire film industry. Sarris’ characteristics of the Auteur Theory connect with Hitchcock’s work and have enhanced a wider critical analysis of cinema in which other theories can be discussed. Hitchcock’s stars became substantial to Dyer’s theory and have, consequently, enhanced how audiences perceive them today. Hitchcock’s reflection of psychoanalysis introduced a closer connection between the film and the audience’s mind. Mulvey’s work on the male gaze became inspired by Hitchcock’s films and has revolutionized visual pleasure on behalf of male spectators. Thus, the Hitchcockian style resulted in a timeless, influential legacy and remains one of Hollywood’s true auteurs.