To be an auteur is to be much more than a director who simply directs films. According to the theory developed by New Wave directors in the 1950s, it’s much more personal that that. They need to have their own perspective, a unique point of view that imposes itself onto every film they work on. They have to have full command over the way the story is told, both artistically (themes, genre, symbols, and overall mise-en-scène) and technically (shots, framing, and overall mise-en-shot). And most importantly, this ‘signature’ they have developed must be evident in all of their work, linking every piece in a way that makes it clear to audiences that this film is entirely theirs. This is certainly the case with Alfred Hitchcock films.
Hitchcock’s Point of View
Alfred Hitchcock (born Alfred Joseph Hitchcock in 1899) grew up in Leytonstone, England from a strict Catholic background. His relationship with his mother and father in the early part of his childhood was strained. As he later described, he was often wrongfully blamed and punished by them (with punishments that far outweighed his supposed crimes). The themes of punishment and being wrongfully accused, as well as the role of the parent, are frequently discussed in his films.
His career in film started from the 1920s. He also spent an early part of his career writing pieces that followed along the same wave as his films to come. His background writing no doubt helped to cultivate his ability to tell suspense stories masterfully.
Hitchcock’s Signature Style
Hitchcock films are most often thrillers, pegged as such because of their suspense, psychologically complex characters, and twist endings. He is so well known for creating films of this genre that he has been awarded the nickname ‘Master of Suspense’.
Every Hitchcock film looks at the complexities of everyday life. All of his films feature typical American characters and families living very ordinary, mundane lives in suburbia… until things are turned upside down (as expected for a film by the Master of Suspense). This is especially clear in films like Shadow of a Doubt and Rear Window. In Shadow of a Doubt, we are introduced to an ordinary family who is stuck in their own boring routine, that is until Uncle Charlie comes to visit them and brings trouble along with him. In the same wave, Rear Window is all about neighbours and neighbourhoods. The entire film is spent in the protagonist’s apartment observing the day-to-day behaviours and trivial problems of his neighbours until it is discovered that one of the neighbours has actually committed a murder. The critical observation of the culture ever-present in his films no doubt stems from moving to America in the early part of his career and getting accustomed to this much different lifestyle.
In his films, the protagonists are always under investigation. Take his silent film Easy Virtue for example. The main character Larita is on trial for committing adultery. Or better yet, look at Vertigo. Ex-detective Johnny is blamed for the demise of his former partner and a wife he was assigned to follow because his fear of heights prevented him from saving them. In most cases, the characters are being wrongfully blamed. In North by Northwest, Roger Thornhill is being pursued by criminals and the police, both of whom think he is someone he is not. As previously mentioned, this idea of being wrongfully accused is not one unfamiliar to him. In his childhood, he was often punished severely by his parents, even if it was not warranted.
This is not the only link to his childhood present in his films. The tumultuous mother and son relationship is frequently exploited in his work. You need not go further than to look at one of his most successful and widely recognised films, Psycho. Although this is a disturbing representation of the relationship, it is hardly the only time we get to see or hear about Mother. In Easy Virtue, John’s mother does not approve of her son’s wife and will stop at nothing to uncover the truth she is so sure that she is hiding from their family. This is also the case in The Birds. When Mitch introduced his mother to Melanie Daniels, she does not approve of her and refuses to loosen her hold over her son. At the start of North by Northwest, Mother is the first person Roger calls when he is arrested, but do not assume that is because they are on the best of terms. As we later discover, Mother is anything but affectionate to her son.
Mother is not the only one to be stereotyped in Hitchcock’s films. His female characters frequently have a femme fatale-esque quality about them that hints slightly at the film noir genre. Beautiful women who can be both charming and dangerous when they want to/need to be. The woman as a whole is usually characterised villainously, even if they end up surviving until the end of the film and marrying the male protagonist. Main character Miriam from Psycho, pegged as a liar and a thief, is killed off brutally in the first half of the film. In Vertigo, Madeleine is portrayed as the cunning and calculated one for setting Scottie up, although she is not the only one in the plot. Scottie makes a point to expose her as the fraud he thinks she is. Spoiler Alert: she also dies in the film. Larita from Easy Virtue is described as being a charming, manipulative temptress who preys on men. North by Northwest sees Eve, mistaken by Roger as being a charming and cunning woman who uses sex to lure men when in fact, she was only an agent attempting to protect her identity.
Confession and Guilt (Shared Guilt) are also prominent themes in Hitchcock films. Characters feeling guilty for their behaviour only when it is too late to fix it. This is the case in Psycho, Easy Virtue and a number of other films. In Psycho, Miriam feels guilty for stealing the money, only after she has already headed out of town with it. Larita, the lady on trial for adultery in Easy Virtue, later feels guilty when she meets a new man and does not tell him about her complicated past. In Vertigo, we witness the shared guilt of Scottie and the wife he is assigned to follow, Madeleine. He feels guilty that his fear of heights prevented him for saving her life when he needed him most. In turn, Madeleine (who Scottie unwittingly tracks down in another town pretending to be someone else, and who he later discovers was part of a ruse to make him a witness in a suicide trial) feels terribly guilty to have used him in the first place.
Without question, Alfred Hitchcock is an auteur. He is known for his command over the thriller/suspense genre, and all of his films feature key themes, symbols, artistic and technical choices that make every one of them true to him. By breaking down and analysing a number of films he has directed over the course of his career, we will prove that Hitchcock is, in fact, an auteur with a clear vision he brings to every film.
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