Hitchcock: Reluctant Auteur.

Hitchcock: The Reluctant Auteur


‘Jeff, do you think a murderer would let you see all that?

That he shouldn’t keep his shades down and hide behind them?’


‘That’s where he’s being clever.


(Hayes 1953)

This paper will consider two Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980) films; Rear Window (1954) and Vertigo (1958) to explain how ‘acting nonchalant’ the ‘Catholic guilt ridden’ (Richie 2012), Hitchcock who grew up in a strict Roman Catholic family, manipulated audiences into recognizing their own moral dilemmas and forcing them to acknowledge a dark side which, Hitchcock implies in most post ‘Rebecca’ (1940) films, exists within all human beings. ‘Though his films were controlled environments, the subject of a Hitchcock picture was typically loss of control, tossing of a more or less innocent person into the vortex of guilt and intrigue’ (Corliss 1999).

’Hitchcockian themes of voyeurism, rescue and disability are most evident in both films’ (Cohen 1995) and exploration of writings of leading auteur theorists we find that the ‘relutant auteur’ Hitchcock’s motives were not alone self-serving but unintentional master classes in auteur cinema. Hitchcock’s films, where he himself made a cameo, are autobiographical and confessional but also quintessential ‘self-created’ examples of auteur cinema. The two films; Rear Window and Vertigo are Hitchcock’s loudest ‘auteuristic’ confessions; ‘Modern art is often seen as the product of impulse and compulsion, of the divine creative whim that reveals the turbulent depths of its creator’s spirit’. (Corliss 1999)

Both films are consistent with his theme of the characters inability to escape the past and the haunting power that the dead have over the living these ‘psychological ingredients’ Hitchcock once admitted began in 1940 with Rebecca (Adair 2002). Rather than being about active male heroes using their gazes to control passive, ‘to-be-looked-at’ women, Vertigo and Rear Window, show ambivalent, less-than-powerful heroes struggling to resist patriarchy, struggling to wrest control of the gaze from the world around them.’ (Manlove 2007).

Gaze Theory is a psychoanalytical term brought into popular usage by Jacques Lacan (1901-1981) who contends that the scopic drive (the eyes and the gaze) relate to human desire; ‘If the drives are closely related to desire, they are the partial aspects in which desire is realized—desire is one (with the gaze) and undividable,’ (Doyle 2001). Since the early 1990s, something akin to ‘gaze theory’ has coalesced, in large part, because of the wide influence of Feminist theorist Laura Mulvey’s 1975 essay, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.’ in which she uses the gaze to examine male pleasure in narrative cinema; ‘Rather than being about active male heroes using their gazes to control passive, ‘to-be-looked-at’ women, Vertigo and Rear Window show ambivalent, less-than-powerful heroes struggling to resist patriarchy, struggling to wrest control of the gaze from the world around them’ (Mulvey 1975).

In Lifeboat (1944), Rope (1948) and Dial M For Murder (1954) Hitchcock worked on a single set and for Rear Window he revisits this challenge again. As the film unfolds we witness a variety of ‘mini dramas’, ‘behind’ glass walls, that entertain the protagonist and the audience he represents. Hitchcock used what he described as the ‘subjective technique’, (Adair 2002) a method of filming that creates the protagonists point of view by intercutting shots of what he sees and how he reacts. The audience are thus compelled to identify with the protagonist and to experience and share feelings of suspicion, curiosity and fear. Underneath the simplistic plot lie some serious concerns.

A romance between Jefferies (James Stewart) and Lisa (Grace Kelly) is clearly meaningless to Jefferies who is too focused on his ‘peeping tom’ activities where he prefers to look at other people’s lives than to put his own in order. The murder he ‘witnesses’ mirrors his love life. Jeffries readily identifies with the murderer as he assumes that the salesman wants rid of his irritating wife; ‘Can you see me rushing home to a hot apartment every night to listen to the automatic laundry, the electric dishwasher, the garbage disposal and a nagging wife?’ (Hayes 1953). It is established from the opening scenes that Jeffries is anti-marriage and cynical towards women and the love they proffer to ensnare him. Once again, this plot device of ‘doubles’ between Hero and Villain is not new to Hitchcock as he used it before in Shadow Of A Doubt (1943) and Strangers On A Train (1951).

According to Dan Auiler’s book about the making of Vertigo, Hitchcock produced a masterpiece through his professionalism and aura as an auteur (Auiler 1998). In ‘Vertigo’ the main protagonist is a man haunted by his own human frailty: his vertigo. Viewers identify with this vulnerability and instinctively sympathize because of their own restrictive flaws. (Berman 2000) It is such weakness that gives Hitchcock his power over his audience as they suffer while witnessing the consequential chaos of human frailty. The spiral descent of the protagonist as a consequence of his own desire to regain control of his life, robbed by his vertigo, this motive becomes distorted as he makes the fatal mistake of becoming emotionally entangled with the object of his rescue and ultimately his demise.

As the story unfolds the audience will learn that the ‘brave hero’ is flawed as he displays cowardice, emotional trauma and seems beyond rescue as he enters the abyss of insanity. In a mentally frail condition Scottie starts to hunt down the source of his insanity and lands upon a new target for the restoration of his delusional mind. It is here that Hitchcock pulls a cruel trick on his audience by allowing them into the secret of truth that eludes the protagonist. We learn that Scottie has been manipulated to witness the suicide of his old friend’s wife. And so, we abandon the protagonist and dismiss him as naïve, delusional and beyond redemption.

As he proceeds in a Pygmalion fashion, parallel with the ‘Frankenstein’ theme of creating a monster that ultimately destroys its creator, to transform the object of his obsession into the object of his desire we start to feel empathy with Judy (Madeline), played by Kim Novak, a former Grace Kelly stand-in (Hitchcock allegedly obsessed over Kelly in the same way as Scottie obsesses over and transforms Judy and used the actress to ‘punish’ Kelly for deserting him) who clearly loves Scottie for himself but he refuses to accept her beyond what he wants her to be.

She ultimately relents and makes the fatal mistake of going a step too far by wearing a necklace which betrays her and, in a moment of clarity, he arrives to a new reality in which he becomes the killer rather than the Saviour. Beauty and the Beast switch roles. However, having been forced to return to the scene of the crime she too falls to her doom to reveal to the audience in the final seconds that it was not the ‘fear of heights’ that was the cause of Scottie’s self annihilation but his own sexual fetishes and an erotic obsession disguised as Vertigo.

The camera in Vertigo, as with Rear Window, is voyeuristic. In fact, the protagonist is a passive character moving within a world in which he has no control. He rejects ordinary love for the love of a dead person; ‘Scottie rejects existential reality in order to live within mythic non-reality’ (Berman 2000). Scotties ‘contempt’ for women demonstrated by his need for omnipotent control of the love object in order to deal with the terror of the object loss is related to Hitchcock’s own ‘lifelong struggles with dependency, women and sadism’ (Gabbard 1998).

A key question concerns Hitchcock’s attitude toward women. Do films such as Vertigo, Rear Window, Psycho (1960) and Frenzy (1972) which depicts shocking acts of violence against women reveal a man with a hatred of the opposite sex?; ‘but on closer analysis in all cases we find that an alliance with a stronger risk-taking woman helps save the hero’s skin.’ (Adair 2002).

Auteur theory became prominent in the 1950s in France and most notably articulated by Francois Truffaut; “Hitchcock’s reputation from popular entertainer to distinguished auteur over the years is usually attributed to the efforts of some admiring European film figures” (Kapsis 1989). When Truffaut was writing critical essays on auteurs like Hitchcock he had already hatched the project for his single most sustained piece of critical writing, the conversations with Alfred Hitchcock. (Anzalone 1998) Auteur theory describes the mark of a film director in terms of theme, style, aesthetic, technique and control.

The films of the Director are ‘stamped’ with the personality of the creator as is the case with Alfred Hitchcock; ‘In 1954, Truffaut wrote an article called A Certain Trend of French Cinema (New Wave Film 2012) which resulted in a storm of controversy. Truffaut later devised the auteur theory, which stated that the director was the ‘author’ of his work; that great directors such as Jean Renoir (1874-1979) or Hitchcock has distinct styles and themes that permeate all of their films.’ (Rovi 2012). Truffaut says Hitchcock  is  one  of  those  rare film-makers who  is  able  to  please  everyone; “I  am  convinced that  his  procedure  is  applicable  to  all  films,  or to be precise, to those which are made coldly.  I believe that Vertigo is not made interesting to the general public through concession or compromise, but rather through supplementary discipline”. (Ronde and Truffaut 1963).

Alfred Hitchcock, himself a European with Germanic influences is therefore acknowledged as the perfect example of auteur cinema as his name evokes immediate expectations in terms of themes and techniques; ‘the European influence on Hitchcock came as a result of the German Expressionists, and he admired their ability to express ideas in purely visual terms’ (Spoto 1991).

Hitchcock’s films are intricate in cinematic technique, camera viewpoints, editing and suspense construction by music. His vision of his world is reflected in his films and each one offers an analysis of life’s cruel jokes from wrongful accusation, imprisonment and mistaken identity. He visually expressed his themes using staircases, sinister houses, chasms, mothers and the ‘McGuffin’; “Hitchcock’s narrative gimmick that motivates the characters’ behaviour (a search for a secret formula, an impending assassination) but is of secondary interest to the audience.” (Nixon 2012) Hitchcock further elaborates on his technique with his ‘Bomb Theory’ a phrase which he coined to explain his method of creating suspenseful rather than surprise cinema. Simply put he suggests that if the audience does not know there is a bomb under the table then this is a fifteen second ‘surprise’ when it goes off, if they do know we can provide them with fifteen minutes of ‘suspense’. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed” (Hitchcock. 1970).

Spoto writes that the Hitchcock’s touch was evident in all his films: “structure, screenplay, plot, theme, images, cast, setting; lighting, mood, audience manipulation, wit, pacing and rhythm; “Hitchcock was able to transcend artistic constraints and make highly personalised films that bear the stamp of his artistic personality.” (Spoto 1991).

And Hitchcock is certainly known for his highly personal style, as described by François Truffaut in the introduction to his famous conversation with Hitchcock: “Because he exercises such complete control over all the elements of his films he is one of the few filmmakers whose screen signature can be identified as soon as the picture begins”. It was Truffaut’s publication in 1967 of his interviews with Hitchcock that established Hitchcock as the `quintessential auteur’ (Spoto 1991).

However, Hitchcock was a ‘reluctant auteur’ judging from his contradictory comments in relation to collaborative scriptwriting in which he indicates that his artistic vision was not his alone and was often reshaped by writing. Discussing the Hitchcock-Hayes collaboration on ‘Rear Window’ the Director said; ‘People embrace the auteur theory, but it’s difficult to know what someone means by it. Very often the director is no better than his script.’ (Burnett 2001) However, Hitchcock did little to dispute his own cinematic mastery when interviewed by Truffaut; he downplayed the role of Hayes labelling him ‘a radio writer who wrote the dialogue.’ (Telegraph 2008)

Hitchcock’s career as a film maker can be best understood by his desire for a good story, good actors and creative contributions from his crew. The consummate perfectionist planned every shot and guided the film development from start to finish. This is the primary reason why all his films had his stamp. He was justifiably motivated by ‘control’ and arrogance based on his expertise and belief that he alone, beyond all others, understood his audience.

What really distinguished Hitchcock as an auteur are his cameo appearances to promote his own image as the sole creator of the piece. He is justified, as is any other artist, to ‘sign’ his own masterpieces. While the contributions of his crew are important they are as insignificant to the final product as the canvass, paints, brushes or materials used in the creation of any work of art.


Adair, Gene. Alfred Hitchcock: Filming Our Fears. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Anzalone, John. “Heroes and Villains, or Truffaut and the Literary Pre/Text.” The French Review (American Association Of Teachers Of French), 10 1998: pp. 48-57.

Auiler, Dan. The Making of a Hitchcock Classic. New York: St. Martins Press, 1998.

Berman, Emanuel. “Psychoanalysis And Film.” Edited by Glen O. Gabbard and Paul Williams. International Journal Of Psychoanalysis (Key Papers Series), 2000: 43.

Burnett, Allison. “Writing with Hitchcock: A Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and John Michael Hayes.” variety, 06 01, 2001.

Cohen, P. M. Alfred Hitchcock: The Legacy Of Victorianism. Lexington: University Press, Kentucky., 1995.

Corliss, Mary. “Alfred Hitchcock: Behind the Silhouette.” MoMA (The Museum Of Modern Art) 2, no. 5 (1999).

Doyle, Laura. “Matrixial Gaze and Screen: Other than Phallic and Beyond the Late Lacan.” Bodies of Resistance. (Northwestern University Press.), 2001.

Gabbard, G. O. “Vertigo: Female Objectification, Male Desire And Object Loss.” Psychoanalysis Inquirer, 1998: 161-7.

Hayes, John Michael. Rear Window (Final Draft). 12 1, 1953. http://www.imsdb.com/scripts/Rear-Window.html (accessed 04 03, 2012).

Hitchcock., Alfred, interview by AFI. Alfred Hitchcock On Mastering Cinematic Tension YOUTUBE. 1970.

Kapsis, Robert E. “Reputation Building and the Film Art World: The Case of Alfred Hitchcock.” The Sociological Quarterly (Blackwell Publishing & Midwest Sociological Society) Vol. 30, no. No. 1. (Spring 1989): pp. 15-35.

Manlove, Clifford T. “Visual “Drive” and Cinematic Narrative: Reading Gaze Theory in Lacan, Hitchcock, and Mulvey.” Cinema Journal Vol. 46, no. No. 3 (Spring 2007): 84.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen (Vol. 16 – Iss 3) , 1975: 6-18.

New Wave Film. New Wave Film. 2012. http://www.newwavefilm.com/french-new-wave-encyclopedia/francois-truffaut.shtml (accessed 04 04, 2012).

Nixon, Rob. Notorious – TCM. 2012. http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/85282/Notorious/articles.html#06 (accessed 04 04, 2012).

Richie, Matthew. The Coast. 03 01, 2012. http://www.thecoast.ca/halifax/hitchcock-revisited/Content?oid=2992841 (accessed 04 02, 2012).

Ronde, Paul , and François Truffaut. “François Truffaut: An Interview.” Film Quarterly (University of California Press), 1963: pp. 3-13.

Rovi. All Movie. 2012. http://www.allmovie.com/artist/franois-truffaut-p114620 (accessed 04 04, 2012).

Spoto, Donald. The Art Of Alfred Hitchcock. New York: Anchor Books (Random House), 1991.

Telegraph, The. “John Michael Hayes (Obituary).” The Telegraph (The Telgraph), 12 2008.


About Gerard Hannan

Media Student at MIC/UL in Limerick, Ireland. Worked as a Broadcaster/Journalist in Limerick for over 25 Years and has also published four local interest books.

Posted on April 8, 2012, in Media and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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