Home     Pictures     Papers     Fanfic     LJ Icons     Other Sites     Literature

Auteur Criticism: Alfred Hitchcock as an auteur


A Hitchcock film is, to one familiar with Hitchcock films, almost immediately recognizable as a Hitchcock film. The question is, why? What makes a Hitchcock film a Hitchcock film? Obviously, they are suspenseful, mysterious, and thrilling (I believe he only made one pure comedy, Mr. and Mrs. Smith in 1941). But many directors make thrillers. There must be other things the set apart a Hitchcock film.

Hitchcock has many favorite themes which can be found running through nearly all of his films: the “wrong man” syndrome (one film is even called The Wrong Man [1957]), voyeurism, sexual tension, and psychology. It also bears mentioning that Hitchcock never considered himself to be a director of mysteries. He said that in mysteries, the audience doesn’t know who committed the crime. In his movies, he tells the audience up front who did it, and then lets them squirm. Shadow of a Doubt is the most obvious example of this, but many others work as well. If we don’t know immediately who the killer is, we generally have a good idea, and clues in Hitchcock films are rarely red herrings. Suspense is built not because we do not know the answer to the mystery, but because we do.

The wrong man theme can be found in films from The 39 Steps (1935) to North by Northwest (1959), and beyond, in one form or another. The conventional formula is that someone committed a crime, but the police wrongfully accuse someone innocent, who then has to run from the police while trying to find the real perpetrator. Hitchcock used this formula several times, but he was rarely conventional, and at times the theme shows up in different ways. In Vertigo (1958), the police believe Madeleine has committed suicide, when in reality that was elaborate ruse. The real killer is never actually caught.

The extreme example of the voyeuristic theme is Rear Window (1954), where Jimmy Stewart spends the whole movie peeking at his neighbors. Hitchcock is making a very intentional and obvious point here that is present in his other films, though in more subtle ways. Stewart, watching out his back window from a wheelchair, is unable to move much on his own, limiting himself to the one room, the one vantage point. Being handicapped for the time being, he is also unable to do anything directly to or for his neighbors. Even his attempt to stop Miss Lonelyhearts from committing suicide is unsuccessful, for someone else reaches her first. His position is much like that of our own, as cinema-goers. We cannot change our vantage point unless someone (the director) lets us. We cannot do anything for or to the people on screen. By reducing Stewart to our helplessness, Hitchcock makes us aware of it and we feel even more tense and worried than before. Anyway, getting a bit long-winded there (Rear Window is my favorite Hitchcock film…). Rear Window is not the only place voyeurism shows up. The next best example is probably Vertigo—Scotty Ferguson (Stewart again) spends about the first quarter of the movie following Madeleine (Kim Novak) around, unseen by her, yet slowly becoming more and more entranced by her. In the last quarter, he tries to remake Judy (also Novak) into the image that he gained of Madeleine through his voyeuristic tailings. We also are reminded that we are watching things that no-one should be seeing in scenes like the murder in Stranger on a Train, which we see reflected in the victim’s broken glasses. An even more macabre voyeurism appears in Frenzy, where the camera angles on the dead women’s bodies force us to identify with the psychopathic murderer.

I’ve taken much too much time with those themes, so I’ll speed up through the rest. Sex is present in nearly every Hitchcock film, and he loved to push the envelope with it, as well as with everything else. Just note his censor-defying three-minute-long kissing scene in Notorious, the verbal innuendos in North by Northwest, and the sick obsession in Frenzy. Despite what one might think, Hitchcock often places his women in positions of power or independence. Ingrid Bergman is the psychologist who may be able to cure Gregory Peck in Spellbound; in Rear Window it is Grace Kelly who does all the real work, usually against Stewart’s orders, and she also initiates all of the romance; Kelly (again) reverses the tables in Dial M For Murder, killing the man sent to assassinate her. There are as many examples, though, where the woman is in trouble and must be saved by the man, so perhaps this sporadic view of women should be credited more toward general post-war movements (women in noir films tend to be leaders, for better or worse—usually worse) rather than any definite Hitchcockian tendency.

Hitchcock’s body of work is one of the consistently finest of any director I’ve had the pleasure of becoming so well acquainted with (through his films…). There are almost no complete misfires (Under Capricorn comes to mind), a few mediocres, many very good films, and more masterpieces than most directors can claim. Throughout this body of work, comprised almost totally of suspense films, Hitchcock also shows a fear and mistrust of policeman (it’s said he had a frightening experience with the police as a child), and poor parental models where any exist at all. In short, he gives short shrift to traditional authority figures. Thus his characters have to figure things out for themselves and take care of themselves. Even the young Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt cannot depend on her (for once) loving parents to protect her from Uncle Charlie, the Black Widow Murderer. Roger Thornhill’s mother in North by Northwest might be good for getting him away from the police once, but that’s about it. Hitchcock’s films are about paranoia, but paranoia that turns out to be justified. By making his films so voyeuristic and so personal, he forces us to ask what we would do in the same situation. Would we, if we witnessed a possible murder out our rear window, try to prove that we had, or would we mind our own business? Which would be right? Though Hitch’s films are supremely and possibly primarily entertaining, he always includes some thought-provoking questions, if we are willing to ask them.

Besides having the several themes above recurring through his work (which could arguably be attributed to screenwriters, scenarists, etc., though I think Hitchcock was certainly involved in them to some extent), Hitchcock also has a distinctive visual style that can be credited to him alone.

Wide shots that track and zoom into a single face or item are popular (I believe it is Sabotage that uses this to good effect in the climactic scene). He likes moving shots in general…the camera is rarely completely stationary and often follows people from room to room, from place to place. What is the point of this? If done properly, this can be more natural than cutting when someone changes rooms—after all, if we’re with someone, we don’t automatically disappear and reappear in the other room without the transition of walking through the door. But Hitchcock doesn’t seem to be otherwise interested in realism. However, we do feel more a part of the action and less like disinterested spectators, and Hitchcock is interested in involving his audience.

He also loves to experiment with technology, testing its limits, just at he tests the limits of propriety. Many of his films use special effects, trick shots, and technological experiments. But these are rarely, if ever, used simply for the sake of using them (although I get the impression that Hitchcock had a childlike glee in doing things that hadn’t been attempted before). One of the more memorable single shots in Strangers on a Train is when Bruno shows up at Guy’s tennis match and is watching from the audience. Everyone’s head is turning back and forth, watching the ball. Bruno, on the other hand, is staring straight at Guy, his head never moving. This is an eye-catching shot, but it also reveals Bruno’s singleness of purpose, his never-wavering intent to get Guy to kill Bruno’s father. As I mentioned above, in Rear Window, confining the camera to a single room forces us to identify with the barely-mobile Stewart. Rope takes this idea one step further, and places the camera in at a single point, from which it can pivot, but not track. We cannot get away from the fact that the two college boys have killed a classmate and hidden him in the trunk, so close to the point from which we are forced to see the whole movie. The most classic of all is the famous Vertigo tracking zoom, used to show us what Stewart, suffering from vertigo, sees climbing up a steep and winding stairway. This was homaged as recently as Road to Perdition. Nearly all of Hitchcock’s eye-catching shots put us in a very specific psychological position, or reveal something about a character’s psychosis.

And I couldn’t leave out Hitchcock’s favorite trick, the MacGuffin. I wasn’t sure whether this would be considered a theme or a cinematic technique, because it is in a way a plot device that would have been supplied by a screenwriter, but it is more the way it is used and the importance Hitchcock gives it relative to the rest of the film that makes it a MacGuffin. A MacGuffin is simply Hitchcock’s term for the thing that sets the plot in motion, or the thing that is integral to the plot, yet has hardly any importance for the movie. Examples are the microfilm in North by Northwest, the radioactive powder in Notorious, the assassination attempt in The Man Who Knew Too Much, the original murder in Vertigo, etc. Basically whatever the story would seem to be about, but you can’t remember a week after you’ve seen the movie and thought it was great. I wouldn’t have remembered the powder in Notorious if I hadn’t seen again a couple of weeks ago. These things are simply not important to Hitchcock’s story—they simply get the people together and set up who wants to kill who. Why is rarely important. Simply one more example that his films are not mysteries, which are almost purely plot-driven.

So, again, though Hitchcock means to entertain and astonish with his camera techniques, there is always a reason underneath. He is never merely showing off his ability to do weird and wonderful things with his shots; he is always bringing his audience deeper into the story and the psychology of his characters. Many people are uncomfortable watching Hitchcock films, and he intended them to be. It’s part of the point.

Psycho (1960) is probably Hitchcock’s best known film, and brought pretty much all of these themes and styles together in a completely new way and basically invented the modern horror genre (for better or worse…) While I wouldn’t venture to say that it is his most typical, I do believe that is the culmination of many facets of his previous work. While most of the themes do appear in Psycho, they do not always appear in the same form as in other Hitchcock films. I’m assuming a knowledge of the plot.

Psycho contains the most well-developed MacGuffin of all—the entire first plot of Marion Crane stealing the money is, in one way, merely a device to get her out to the Bates Motel so that Norman can kill her. The money completely disappears after her death, in fact, for Norman throws it in the trunk of her car and sinks the whole lot in the lake. But important things do happen in this beginning plot. The theme of the powerful woman is strong here—it is Marion who is the risk-taker in her romantic relationship. She wants to get married despite her lover’s financial problems, and when she sees an opportunity to take $40,000 to alleviate them, she does it. And the very first scene is highly daring for a film of its time. Hitchcock leaves virtually no doubt in the mind as to what the couple had been doing five minutes earlier in their cheap hotel room. It’s a nice visual touch that in this scene, Marion’s underthings are white, and after she’s stolen the money, they are black.

As for powerful women, could one get more powerful that Norman Bates’ mother? Even from beyond the grave her control over him is fierce, and for a dead person, she really gets a lot of murders committed.

The wrong man is in this case, a woman, and a dead woman at that. We are led to believe throughout the film that Mrs. Bates has committed some very grisly murders—in fact, we have seen her do so. But finally the heroes (two of the more bland heroes in Hitchcock’s work, if I may say so) stumble across her decomposed body and the true murderer is revealed. This is unconventional because the wrong man is not on the run from the police, and in fact is strongly connected to the crimes. This plot would seem to be an elaborate red herring, which I’ve already said Hitchcock rarely uses, except for the fact that Mrs. Bates is indirectly responsible for the murders; while alive, because of her overprotectiveness of her son which caused him to go insane, and while alive, as a portion of her son’s mind. (I am not saying that Mrs. Bates is in some spiritual way controlling Norman, or reincarnated in his mind, or anything like that. Just that part of him became her in response to his psychological need for her.)

But Norman’s split personality is a lot more complex than simply a nice quiet side and a vicious murderous one. All through his life Norman has wanted love with a young woman, but his mother always put a stop to it. The same thing continues now, even though she is dead. He came to depend on that as a defense mechanism, I guess, to keep himself from becoming involved, and because of his unhealthy attachment to his mother’s opinion. Norman’s desire for sexual love brings in the voyeuristic theme as strongly as in any other Hitchcock film, and in the traditional sense: Norman spies on Marion taking a shower through a hole in the wall. Pretty soon, this brings “Mother” on the scene, to rid her boy of the temptation. Talk about a poor parental model!

With Psycho, Hitchcock pushed it to the absolute limit, both with content and form. The film was not critically popular at the time of its release, most likely because it was simply ahead of its time. It was more sexually explicit that most films; it tied sex to death, which was verboten at the time; it showed more blood and violence than had previous films; it delved deeper in human psychosis with more horrific results than ever before; in fact, Psycho is the first true horror film with a human monster. We are used to this today due to the plethora of serial killer and slasher movies, but all of these films can trace their heritage back to Psycho in one way or another. Killing off his heroine half way through was revolutionary and risky, especially since his casting choices to take over as protagonists were not the most inspired (I tend to forget that John Gavin and Vera Miles are even in the movie). And his use of the eye-catching or trick shot reached its climax in the last shot—I don’t care what anyone says, the image of Norman/Mother is ten times more frightening than the shower scene! The shower scene itself, though, is a mastery of editing. Many people are utterly convinced that they saw the knife stabbing Marion, but it never enters the body. It’s a trick of editing and chocolate, helped along by some very appropriate music. (It’s scenes like this one that make it clear why the Cahier critics were divided on Hitchcock—he didn’t have a chance at pleasing the realist crowd!) And again, the final scene, Mrs. Bates’ skull superimposed on Norman’s face. Just a simple double exposure that tells us so much about Norman. Even without the rather mundane explanation from the doctor concerning multiple personalities, the combination of Mother’s monologue and this visual would have made clear the whole conceit of the film.

Although Psycho may not be Hitchcock’s best film (I would argue for Vertigo or Rear Window any day), it is probably his most important, both in terms of its influence on the film industry and in terms of the fulfillment of Hitchcock’s thematic and stylistic arc.


This paper originated as a paper for Introduction to Film Theory and Criticism, Webster University, Fall, 2002.

©2002 by Jandy Stone